Les Aspin

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Les Aspin

Leslie Aspin Jr. (born July 21, 1938 in Milwaukee , Wisconsin , †  May 21, 1995 in Washington, DC ) was an American politician and Secretary of Defense during the presidency of Bill Clinton from January 21, 1993 to May 3. February 1994.


Aspin graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in history. In 1962 he graduated from Oxford University with a Masters in Economics . In 1965 he received his PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1963 he worked as an assistant for Kennedy's economic advisor Walter W. Heller , with whom he had already done an internship in 1960. In 1964, Aspin gained experience in political campaigns as campaign manager for William Proxmire , Senator from Wisconsin.

As a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in the US Army , he served from 1966 to 1968 as a systems analyst in the Department of Defense under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara .

Before he ran for election to the US Congress of the Democrats as an opponent of the Vietnam War in 1970 , he taught economics as an assistant professor at Marquette University . After a recount, he won the seat of Henry C. Schadeberg in the House of Representatives.

US Congress

Aspin began his career in the House of Representatives as an outsider, but soon developed particular interest and expertise in defense matters. Before serving in the House of Representatives, he was against US involvement in the Vietnam War . During his early years in Congress, he published frequent press releases expressing criticism of bottlenecks he discovered in the armed forces. When he became chairman of the Armed Forces Committee in 1985 , he was recognized as a leading defense expert. His chairmanship caused some controversy among Democrats in Congress, particularly because he supported Ronald Reagan's policy on the MX missiles and aid to the Nicaraguan Contras . Although he was temporarily relieved of his chairmanship by his democratic party friends in 1987, he survived the crisis and returned to office. His relationship with many Democrats fell into crisis again in January 1991 when he issued a paper supporting the administration of US President George Bush in its intention to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait by military force . The accuracy of his prediction that the US could achieve a quick military victory with few losses added to his reputation as a military expert.

Defense Minister


Aspin served as Bill Clinton's defense advisor during the 1992 presidential campaign. Given Clinton's lack of military experience and his avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War, the appointment of a prominent and respected defense expert to head the Department of Defense seemed desirable. Because of Aspin's leadership position in Congress, his view on defense issues was well known. He was skeptical about the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and favored a smaller US Navy , US troop reductions in Europe and further reductions in military personnel. These positions, along with the assumption that Aspin would push for further substantial cuts in the defense budget, worried the military. The bosses in the arms industry welcomed Aspin's election because he would receive a viable arms industry base. Although closely questioned, Aspin was successfully approved by the US Senate .

Political goals

The official portrait of Defense Minister Les Aspin

Shortly after taking office, Aspin discussed dangers that emerged with the end of the Cold War : the uncertainty of whether reforms in the former Soviet Union would succeed; the increased possibility for terrorists or terrorist states to acquire nuclear weapons ; the probable proliferation of regional conflicts and the failure of adequate responses by domestic industry to government interference because of national security interests. Given these circumstances and the end of the Cold War, it seemed clear that the Pentagon was entering a period of potentially profound change. Aspin appeared to be the number one choice for managing such a move.

As it turned out, Aspin had health problems from the start. Serious heart problems forced him to hospital for a few days in February 1993, after having been in office for a month. A month later, he had to go to the hospital again to have a pacemaker inserted. Although he immediately had to deal with the highly controversial question of how to deal with homosexuals in the military, his term of office is judged controversially.

Eliminate gender discrimination in the military

In the 1992 election campaign, Clinton announced that he would end the discrimination against homosexuals. During the Senate confirmation hearings, Aspin announced quick steps, and upon taking office he presented the President with a plan to discuss the matter with the US Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presented a timetable leading to an order dealing with this issue. This plan provoked widespread protest from all sides. The result of this controversy politically damaged both Clinton and Aspin and continued until December 1993 when, after many months of ambiguity, confusion and further controversy, Aspin published a new regulation called " don't ask, don't tell " ( Don ' t ask, don't tell ) policy on dealing with homosexuality in the armed forces became known: applicants would not be asked about their sexual orientation and homosexuality will not disqualify anyone for service in the armed forces, unless indicated by homosexual behavior. Military personnel are judged based on suitability for service, not sexual orientation. Expulsion from service would take place in the event of homosexual behavior, same-sex marriage, or declarations by an individual that he or she was bisexual or homosexual, giving the person the opportunity to refute the assumption of homosexual behavior. No Department of Defense or Justice Department criminal investigations would be conducted to determine a soldier's sexual orientation only, and sexual orientation questions would not be included on personal security questionnaires. Ultimately, soldiers would be briefed by the Department of Defense on policies regarding sexual behavior during exercises. This “ don't ask, don't tell ” compromise policy was published after a tormenting and divisive public debate, but none of the parties concerned were completely satisfied.

On the social side, Aspin had to deal with the question of women soldiers in combat troops. In April 1993, he announced a revision of the policy regarding the obligation of women in the armed forces: the armed forces had to give women access to the obligation for fighter planes; the Navy had to open more ships for women and present a proposal for the US Congress, which abolishes the existing legal barriers for women on warships, and the Army and the Marine Corps had opportunities for women in units such as field artillery and air defense to create. In the meantime, Sheila Widnall, as Minister of the Air Force, became the first ever female Minister of the Armed Forces.

Defense budget and reverse proceedings

The most difficult challenge for Aspin was developing the defense budget for the 1994 fiscal year, starting October 1, 1993. The budget process was scrutinized more complex than usual because of Clinton's election campaign, in which he advocated reducing the defense budget and reversing the budget military structure that was ordered by Aspin shortly after he took office. The end of the Cold War and the resulting opportunity to reduce military spending called for a revaluation process to which the bottom-up (reverse) approach could contribute. A steering group at the Pentagon, chaired by Secretary of State for Acquisitions and Technology, John M. Deutch , and including representatives from various OSD services, the United Staffs and the armed forces, conducted the reassessment process. With the growing threat of regional conflict, Aspin wanted a strong ability to carry out limited military operations, including peacekeeping, and a strong peacetime presence of US forces anywhere in the world.

The bottom-up reassessment process that Aspin presented in September 1993 put strategic formulation, force structure, weapon system modernization and defense infrastructure to the test. The report envisaged a reduced force structure with preserved capabilities for command and victory in two major regional conflicts occurring simultaneously. The armed forces would include ten active army divisions, eleven aircraft carrier groups , 45 to 55 attack submarines and approximately 345 ships, five active naval brigades, and 13 active and seven reserve air force fighter squadrons . The report also advocated additional proposed equipment and air and sea transport capabilities, improved precision-guided and anti-armor ammunition, and improved National Guard combat readiness .

The résumé of the bottom-up revision process influenced the development of the defense budget in 1994, although detailed work on the budget had already started when he took office. In March 1993, Aspin submitted a draft budget of US $ 263.4 billion for the financial year 1994, about US $ 12 billion below the level at that time which took into account the budget cuts in the armed forces according to the later bottom-up revision process. To the annoyance of some critics of high military spending, Aspin's draft budget differed little from that of the Bush administration.

In the fall of 1993, Aspin began announcing to the White House that the five-year defense budget, which included the results of the revision process, exceeded the Clinton administration's budget by more than US $ 1 trillion. In December 1993, he estimated the deficit to be at least $ 50 billion as a consequence of inaccurate inflation estimates , increases in military pay and errors at the expense of other Pentagon costs, including peacekeeping. The size of the armed forces required to master the two regional war scenarios under consideration contributed to the planned budget deficit. Aspin has also been portrayed as a supporter of the use of US troops in regional conflicts, as distinct from other decision-makers, including General Colin Powells , the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff . Aspin's departure from office in early 1994 made further budgetary decisions for his successor. Ultimately, the 1994 defense budget was just under US $ 252 billion in its total commitment appropriations .

Like his predecessors Frank Carlucci and Dick Cheney , Aspin dealt with the constant issue of the closure of military bases, which also had an impact on the defense budget. In March 1993, it issued a plan to shut down 31 other major military facilities and downsize or consolidate 134 additional locations, with planned savings of US $ 3 billion annually from 2000 onwards. A new Defense Site Closure and Reorganization Commission confirmed the proposal, which became effective when the package was passed by Congress.

The SDI program also had other budget influences. In May 1993, Aspin proclaimed "the end of the Star Wars era," stating that the collapse of the Soviet Union would have determined the fate of SDI. He renamed the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), prioritizing theater of war and national missile defense and useful successor technologies. Aspin's transfer of responsibility for BMDO to the Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Technology signaled the diminution of the importance of the program.

Global crises and initiatives

In his quest for solutions to the complex budget and force structure issue, Aspin found himself surrounded by difficult regional problems and conflicts that required decisions and action.

In NATO , he launched the US-sponsored Partnership for Peace program to bring NATO members and non-members together in military activities including military maneuvers, equipment sharing, search and rescue, anti-terrorism efforts, environmental clean-up and peacekeeping operations. At a meeting in Brussels in December 1993, NATO defense ministers agreed to consider participation in the program for further alliance memberships of non-NATO nations. Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned that further attempts to bring Eastern European nations into NATO will threaten his country's strategic interests and jeopardize the hopes of the former Soviet bloc for reunification with the West. Yeltsin argued that an enlarged NATO would rekindle old Russian fears of encirclement and potentially weaken the process of democratic reform.

The unsafe situation in Haiti , where President-elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by the military in September 1991, highlighted another regional problem. The US put pressure on the military government to bring Aristide back to power. In July 1993, the Haitian military regime agreed to reinstate Aristide from October 30, 1993, but then refused to resign. In October, the US sent the USS Harlan County with 200 men to Port-au-Prince , the capital of Haiti, in a mission ordered by Clinton against Aspin's will. When it encountered an armed hostile Haitian mob, the ship turned without attempting to carry out its mission, which the Pentagon had described as an effort to professionalize the Haitian military and support civilian relief projects. Some observers attacked Aspin for failing to take a firm stand against the government operation he had rejected and then abandoning the operation in the face of local opposition.

During Aspin's tenure, US concerns arose that communist North Korea might have an active nuclear weapons program when that country refused to allow full inspection of its nuclear facilities. In November 1993, North Korea demanded that the US and South Korea cancel a joint military maneuver as a precondition for negotiations on the nuclear issue. Aspin denied this request and announced that the US would suspend plans to partially withdraw its troops from the peninsula.

Iraq remained a problem in the Persian Arabian Gulf . In June 1993, two US Navy ships fired Tomahawk missiles at Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in response to intelligence about a planned attack on former US President Bush during a visit to Kuwait. Aspin described the attack as a "wake up call" for Saddam Hussein . Two months later, Aspin received a report on US military performance during the 1991 Iraq War , the result of a study commissioned by the Congressional Armed Forces Committee, which he chaired. The report concluded that US Central Command had grossly exaggerated the damage caused by the air strikes to Iraqi military equipment, such as tanks and naval vessels . Aspin also had to consider the issue of health problems for US soldiers who had participated in operations against Iraq. He announced that a preliminary investigation had revealed no links between toxins in chemical weapons and the reported health problems. Nevertheless, he set up a commission of experts from outside the military to investigate the matter further.

The escalating crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina required attention and a US response. Aspin did not favor ground forces to intervene in the war , but the use of high-tech weapons, such as cruise missiles , was an option worth considering. Later the government opted for an airdrop on humanitarian aid, although Aspin did not support the plan held up well.

Somalia turned out to be Aspin's biggest "headache". A civil war, in which countless clans were involved, ravaged the country since 1991. Direct US involvement, based on the proposal of US President Bush Sr. started in August 1992, providing Somali people with food and other things by air transport. In December 1992, shortly before Aspin became Secretary of Defense, the US joined a new United Task Force ( UNITAF ) set up at the US request with the consent of the UN to provide both security and food aid. The USA sent an advance guard of 26,000 soldiers to Somalia, who later worked together with 13,000 other soldiers from 20 nations, including for the first time Bundeswehr soldiers . UNITAF worked until May 1993, restoring security in Somalia and distributing food.

After massive criticism in the media that UNITAF was more concerned with its own security than with public safety and that it had done nothing to disarm the warlords and their armed militias, Operation Somalia-2 ( UNOSOM- 2) made an effort in May 1993 to create conditions in which the Somalis could rebuild their state. In August 1993 the US reduced its troops in Somalia to around 4,000 soldiers and an additional 400 Army Rangers . At that time there was growing criticism at home in the US that she was being dragged deeper and deeper into the violence of the civil war without a clear, rational concept. Aspin replied that US troops would remain until law and order were restored in the Somali capital, Mogadishu , and progress made in disarming rival clans, and that an effective police force would be operating in the country's main cities. At the same time the US stepped up its military efforts against the most important Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid , who openly challenged the US.

Criticism and last days in office

In September 1993, General Powell asked Aspin to approve the US commander's request in Somalia for tanks and armored vehicles for his armed forces, but Aspin declined the request. Shortly afterwards, Aidid's militia in Mogadishu killed 19 US elite soldiers and injured more than 75 in the unsuccessful attempt by the Americans and UN troops to capture Aidid with a commando. This battle of Mogadishu also saw the downing of three US helicopters and the capture of a pilot. The bodies of killed US elite soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in front of the cameras and desecrated. Faced with serious criticism from the US Congress, Aspin admitted that, in retrospect, he had made a mistake, but underlined that the armored equipment required was required to deliver humanitarian aid, not to protect troops. In appearing before the Congressional Committee to answer questions regarding the Somalia disaster, Aspin made an unfavorable impression and appeared soft in response to specific questions and criticism of his performance. The president defended Aspin but also made it clear that the White House was not involved in the decision not to send armored reinforcements to Somalia. Some members of Congress called for Clinton to replace Aspins.

On December 15, 1993, President Clinton announced Les Aspins' resignation for personal reasons. Based on the problems Aspin faced during his brief tenure, mainly the losses in Mogadishu, observers concluded that the president had asked him to resign. Media speculation revolved around the embarrassment of Somalia and its differences with the Bureau of Administration and Budget on how to reduce the defense budget. The Defense Minister's health problems could of course also have been a factor. A news magazine emphasized that Aspin's main handicap was " neither his known unmilitary demeanor, nor his lack of discipline himself or the enormous Pentagon bureaucracy, but rather his instinct as a politician for a middle ground on defense issues ." his inability to discipline himself or the enormous Pentagon bureaucracy; it is his politician's instinct for the middle ground on defense issues . ")

Next life

Aspin continued to serve as Secretary of Defense until February 3, 1994, when William Perry took office. He then went to the International Affairs program of the faculty at Marquette University in Washington. In March he became a member of the Roles and Missions Commission, and in May Clinton elected him chairman of the President's Advisory Committee on Foreign Intelligence . In March 1995, he began serving as chair of another advisory group on the role and capabilities of the intelligence services.

On May 21, 1995, Aspin died of a stroke in Washington . The Marquette University named its Washington Government Center in honor of Aspin.

Web links

Commons : Les Aspin  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Les Aspin in the Encyclopedia of World Biography