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Cohen Gets One Right

The Defense chief taps a squeaky-clean Special Ops warrior to lead the military. Washington salutes.

By Mark Thompson/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, July 28) -- That crackling sound you heard last week was the U.S. military shedding more of its cold war carapace. When Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary William Cohen announced that Army General H. Hugh Shelton would become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they were in effect introducing the country to the prototype of the new American soldier.

That's because the 6-ft. 5-in. Shelton already commands a force that the rest of the military must learn to emulate: the small (47,000 strong), highly mobile Special Operations Command, which includes Green Berets, Navy seals and other elite commandos from all branches of the military. With just 1.4% of U.S. troops, Special Ops responds to the kind of hit-and-run warfare--skirmishes, insurgencies and terrorism--that lie ahead for the nation. As Shelton recently warned Congress, the U.S. military must "transcend traditional force-on-force applications" if it is to remain "relevant."

Cohen agrees, but that's just one of the reasons he chose Shelton to succeed the current Chairman, Army General John Shalikashvili, who retires in October. Another is Shelton's squeaky-clean demeanor, which became a prerequisite after the Defense Secretary was forced to abandon his first choice for the job, Air Force General Joseph Ralston, because of the disclosure that the general had had an affair more than a decade ago. This time Cohen knew he needed a winner. After just six months as the lone Republican in Clinton's Cabinet, Cohen was already being typed as too timid and pointy-headed for the job. A second failed candidacy would have been disastrous. After an initial round of interviews with the five finalists two weeks ago, Cohen and his top aides huddled to judge the candidates, with help from Shalikashvili. A couple were rejected because they were deemed too parochial. Others were seen to lack sufficient experience commanding troops in the field. None had "the Ralston problem," a top Cohen aide said--"everyone knew he had to be clean on that score"--and any of them would have easily won Senate approval. But only Shelton had the real-world combat experience in a variety of hot spots that Cohen wanted. So only Shelton was called back for a second meeting with Cohen last Wednesday--this time with no aides present.

The two men didn't know each other well; they first met when Shelton sought then Senator Cohen's vote for the Special Ops post last year. But they hit it off immediately. "They're both low key and soft spoken," says a top Cohen aide. "Shelton is a man of few words, and the Secretary knows they count."

Cohen is famously high-minded, a writer of poetry and fiction, and the general has his courtly side as well. Shelton, 55, grew up on a farm near the North Carolina hamlet of Speed (pop. 100), where he met his wife Carolyn in the fifth grade; their home life is said to be "rock solid."

Shelton's career began in the jungles of Vietnam, leading Green Beret incursions into enemy territory. While there, he earned a Bronze Star and, after stepping on a manure-covered bamboo spike, a Purple Heart--the kind of wound that won Colin Powell the same medal in the same war. But unlike Powell, who spent much of his career in Washington's power corridors, Shelton has scant capital experience.

And Shelton has not shied away from tactics that implicitly criticize Pentagon routine. While many Chairmen have been tankers, pilots and ship drivers--and were eager to embrace whatever new weapon came along--Shelton, as commander of the famed 82nd Airborne in 1993, raised eyebrows by scrapping the division's fleet of high-powered AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships in favor of more reliable but modest OH-58 Kiowas. Shelton's career went into high gear in Haiti in 1994, when he cut short the U.S. invasion, turned back the bombers and transformed himself from warrior to a diplomat, ousting Raoul Cedras and keeping U.S. casualties low. Shelton also enjoys jangling bureaucrats. In 1996, when his Bosnia-bound troops needed new cold-weather gear, he bypassed the Pentagon's procurement officers, contracted for the garb and had it delivered within 25 days--"at one-third the cost that the average American could purchase it," as he boasts.

By that time, Shelton had moved into his job as Special Ops commander, the fruit of Senator Cohen's 1986 push to take all the military's commandos and put them under a single boss to reduce interservice wrangling. The move succeeded. Now, by putting this unconventional warrior in charge of all four branches, Cohen may be signaling that the retooling of the military can finally begin in earnest.

Unconventional Soldier

His Career
Includes elite 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions; big roles in Desert Storm and Haiti.

Why Cohen Chose Him
The Secretary needed a candidate who would please Clinton and wow Congress. Shelton's multiservice background, high standing with his troops and low-key, supremely confident style won the day.

What He's Up Against
His special-forces background--which has taught him to do more with less--could provoke antagonism from military brass if he pushes them to do the same.

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