YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Cohen Leads List of Defense Post Choices


WASHINGTON — Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, a moderate Republican and internationalist, has emerged as President Clinton's leading candidate for secretary of defense, officials said Thursday night.

Cohen, 56, who is retiring from the Senate after this year, leads a group of candidates that is also believed to include Deputy Atty. Gen. Jamie S. Gorelick, retiring Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White.

But a senior administration official said the choice of Cohen was still being weighed in combination with the choices for other top national security posts. A final decision will probably not be made until next month, after Clinton returns from a 12-day trip to Asia that begins today.

Cohen, who has been a key figure on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has earned a reputation as a knowledgeable and non-ideological pragmatist with a firm grasp of both the technical details of defense programs and the broad geopolitical issues.

Well-known overseas, he has been a vocal supporter of a strong U.S. role abroad. In particular, he is an ardent proponent of continued American leadership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At the same time, he has railed against what he considers to be waste in the defense budget. He vigorously opposed procurement of more B-2 Stealth bombers this year.

Widely respected on Capitol Hill, Cohen has worked well with Nunn, who is also being mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state. Cohen chose not to run for reelection this year after having served three terms in the Senate and, before that, three terms in the House.

The choice of Cohen would allow Clinton to put a prominent Republican in his Cabinet. Presumably it would also help him win GOP support in Congress for a centrist agenda.

Cohen has sometimes criticized the Clinton administration. He has faulted Clinton's Bosnia policy as overly timid and asserted that the administration's policy on Iraq was too soft on President Saddam Hussein.

But an administration official noted that "almost everyone has criticized the Bosnia policy at one point or another."

In his general outlook, this official said, Cohen lines up with Clinton's views.

Only last weekend, Cohen indicated that he would be interested in the job. "I think anyone who was asked to be secretary of state would be hard pressed to refuse it," he said. "I think the same thing is true with respect to secretary of defense."

Administration officials said Clinton is trying to pick his entire national security team at one time because of the importance he places on cooperation between its top officials.

Separately, officials said Clinton may shift National Security Advisor Anthony Lake to head the CIA and fill his job with Strobe Talbott, now deputy secretary of state.

Elsewhere in the administration, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala will stay. But the top White House AIDS advisor, Patsy Fleming, and Shirley S. Chater, commissioner of the Social Security Administration, plan to leave.

Clinton has shelved an earlier plan to try to name several Cabinet choices this week. Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, said he expects most selections to be considered in December and announced in January.

Los Angeles Times Articles