Commentary Magazine


Fighting for Peace, by Caspar Weinberger

The New York Times’s reviewer called this book a work of fantasy. The New Republic’s criticized it for neglecting its proper subject, namely, defense policy. National Review published an exchange (based on an excerpt from the book) between the author and former National Security Adviser Robert C. MacFarlane, both parts consisting largely of personal nastiness. Why, then, should anyone bother with Fighting for Peace? The answer is that to read this intensely personal book is to learn to what sort of human being Ronald Reagan entrusted the defense of the United States, and, at least indirectly, what happened to that trust in the years (1981-87) of his tenure.

As others have pointed out, in this book Caspar Weinberger shows himself to be a man who to his superiors gives empty praise, of his subordinates demands it. Thus, Weinberger speaks of Ronald Reagan the way underlings used to speak of Stalin or Kim Il Sung: all-wise, all-caring, never wrong. As for subordinates, Weinberger depicts everyone who tried to argue with him as a bad guy, someone with “an agenda.” The good guys? The “permanent professionals,” who never showed him an “agenda,” and went out of their way to be helpful. How those professionals dealt with Weinberger may be seen in one particularly outrageous scheme the Air Force favored for basing the MX missile: it was labeled with an acronym corresponding to Weinberger’s nickname: CAP.

Weinberger in office picked people to be around him who would bow deeply, but had few if any other qualifications. Paul Thayer, his deputy, left office pursued by charges of conflict of interest; Richard de Lauer, chief of research and engineering, was widely regarded as an embarrassment; Verne Orr, a California car dealer who knew nothing of things military, was Weinberger’s replacement for the brilliant Hans Mark as Secretary of the Air Force; Robert Cooper, a member of the New Age cult, Life Springs, as director of advanced research projects fought the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program at every turn. The only strong-minded people at high levels in Weinberger’s Pentagon—Fred Iklé, John Lehman, and Richard Perle—were forced on him, and he resented them mightily.

Weinberger’s relation to bureaucratic responsibility gives a strong flavor of the man. Who was responsible for the death of 241 Marines in Beirut in 1983? The commission Weinberger appointed at the time, acting in accordance with military tradition, laid the blame on the commanders on the scene and to a lesser extent on the chain of command which constrained them, stretching up to the Secretary of Defense. President Reagan also took personal responsibility, because the Marines were in Lebanon on his orders. But Weinberger writes now that the Great Leader could not possibly have been responsible, even though the President’s orders in effect made the Marines sitting ducks. And of course Weinberger himself was not responsible, even though he could have made those ducks impregnable but did not. As for the commanders on the scene, who could also have taken such precautions, or asked for them from Washington, or resigned in protest at the lack of them, they, too, are absolved, having “suffered enough.” So it emerges that nobody was responsible—except MacFarlane, who somehow worked a spell on the Great Man to send the Marines in the first place; and except Israel (more on this below).

Similarly, with Iran-contra. Here, too, the Great Helmsman was blameless: he issued no arms-for-hostages orders. Nor can the Secretary of Defense be held responsible, though it was his department that shipped the arms to Iran without explicit orders from the Infallible One. Nor can the Secretary of State who, also without orders, cut out of the operation his own Under Secretary for Security Assistance and let the National Security Council contact foreign governments as if it and not he represented the President. Who, then, was responsible? MacFarlane, again (and again, Israel). In Weinberger’s world, credit accrues directly according to rank, and blame accrues inversely. Evil initiative always comes from below.

During Weinberger’s term of office he was often accused of having no defense policy per se beyond the raising of money and more money for military-service bureaucrats. And indeed in this book Weinberger talks with pride of how much extra money he got for the overall budget. His refutation of the charge that he was a mere fundraiser reduces to a single sentence: “The service secretaries and the service chiefs will be the best witnesses that they did not get all they wanted, either in budget totals or in the make-up of each budget.” But he also admits to having asked the individual services for their wish lists. Most important, he never gives a hint of any priority that he or anyone in his office imposed on them.

Weinberger today bristles at the suggestion that by his spendthrift habits he effectively killed the national consensus for bigger defense budgets. But the figures are hard to argue with. The upsurge had started during the Carter years, as advocates of defense made the case that a threat existed and that it could be met. In the aftermath of the 1980 election, when Weinberger submitted his first budget, Congress was ready to vote for anything labeled “defense.” But the enthusiasm, and the increases, faded fast. By fiscal-year 1986 the budget was down 4.4 percent in real terms. Weinberger now blames Congress, the American people, and democracy itself. He ought to blame himself for failing to put to better use the funds he secured.

On June 15, 1981, soon after Weinberger had announced his $1.5 trillion, five-year defense plan, the New York Times editorialized that spending all that money would not make the American people safer; therefore, the amount should be reduced and more emphasis should be placed on arms control. Many involved in defense policy-making at the time urged Weinberger to rise to the Times’s challenge by articulating military plans that would demonstrably make the country safer. Weinberger refused: the military professionals would make the plans, Congress would approve them because the President would ask it to, and the Times editorialists were a bunch of liberals who had lost the election. But the Times, liberal or not, had raised a reasonable point which, if not answered substantively, would win by default. Weinberger did not, and it did.

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The intellectual respectability of defense policy, especially in the area of strategic weapons, took a nosedive under Weinberger. Whether or not one agrees with the strategic policies of former Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Harold Brown, those policies were tied to weapons that the U.S. actually possessed or had ordered, and took into consideration targets that the weapons could actually destroy. Under Weinberger, by contrast, the services were encouraged to “write up” plans for “holding at risk” a Soviet leadership and Soviet strategic forces that had long since put themselves outside the reach of our retaliation. The classified documents now read like pyramids of favorable assumptions, and the public annual reports read like fairy tales.

One of the major figures in these fairy tales was SDI. Now, it is all too easy to show that the U.S. needed, and still needs, an antimissile defense. But as his book makes clear, Weinberger, for all that he carries on about SDI as a brilliant Reaganite insight that would make up for all our military insufficiencies, does not understand the need for such a missile defense, does not begin to understand the SDI program, and seems quite content to leave the U.S. undefended.

For Weinberger, what was wrong with the SALT treaties of the 1970′s was that they were followed by increases in Soviet strategic weapons—there is nothing here about the fact that the weapons in question were peculiarly suited to a disarming strike. Similarly, what was wrong with the ABM treaty in his eyes was that the Soviets violated it by building a radar installation at Krasnoyarsk-there is nothing here about the whole complex of defensive devices coming off Soviet production lines. In short, Weinberger does not appear to have grasped the precise nature of the military predicament that the U.S. was in, and that SDI was designed to address.

Weinberger says that “before 1983” there was practically no antimissile work in the United States other than marginal improvements on old-style ABMs, and that before fiscal-year 1985, when $1.4 billion was appropriated for SDI, no money was spent on advanced, space-based anti-missile defense. This is ignorance. In 1983 (fiscal 1984) the SDI label was stuck on a bunch of longstanding Pentagon programs that already added up to $1.4 billion, and that had long been scheduled to grow at least as rapidly as the SDI budget later grew. Moreover, these programs were designed to produce actual anti-missile devices, some space-based. Weinberger proudly writes that he opposed those who wanted to build these devices because they would have been “a familiar mode of solely ground-based largely ineffective systems.” This misstates the substance of amendments by Senators Malcolm Wallop, Pete Wilson, and Dan Quayle to build a variety of ground- and space-based systems. Weinberger’s pride in his opposition to these proposals is again based on ignorance. So is his confidence in the SDI program as constituted, which to date has spent some $20 billion, has transformed those programs into long-term research efforts, and has produced nothing.

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As Secretary of Defense, then, Weinberger was incompetent. It has been suggested that he would have done better as Secretary of State, the job he really wanted. This book is evidence for the proposition that he would have been worse. At least, as Secretary of Defense he had the instinct to prefer larger budgets to smaller ones. But the management of foreign policy requires above all the instinct to prefer friends to enemies. From Fighting for Peace one learns that Weinberger lacked such an instinct.

Consider U.S. policy in the Middle East. About all the countries in the area but one, Weinberger’s feelings are friendly or nuanced. About Israel, and Israel’s leaders, they are unrelievedly hostile. Menachem Begin committed the ultimate crime: he talked policy to Weinberger for four hours, and made him late for dinner. Ariel Sharon tired and irritated Weinberger by showing him fortified settlements on the West Bank, and revealed how sinister he was by baldly admitting that they had been intentionally placed on higher ground than the surrounding Arab towns. Israel’s June 1982 incursion into Lebanon occurred because Israel (or Sharon), “greatly vexed” that the PLO was complying with a cease-fire negotiated by our emissary, Philip Habib, set the “wholly untenable” condition that the PLO stop attacking “Jews anywhere in the world”; the shooting of the Israeli ambassador to London then offered Israel a convenient “pretext” for the invasion, even though “our intelligence sources supported the belief” (no facts here) that it was not Arafat but Arafat’s rival Abu Nidal who ordered the attack (so presumably Israel should have been grateful?).

Weinberger also denounces Israel for requesting, later in the summer of 1982, that the Syrian forces which had entered Lebanon and were camped outside Beirut be withdrawn simultaneously with its own troops. But this, according to Weinberger, would have “suggested legal and moral equivalence [of the Syrians] with the Israeli presence.” For Weinberger, Syria stood on a higher “legal and moral” plane. When the dastardly Israelis then dropped their insistence on a parallel Syrian withdrawal and left unilaterally, as the Americans had asked, the result, writes Weinberger, “was that the security in and around Beirut deteriorated and the United States-backed Lebanese government and army were seen to be impotent. Now the Marines were in far greater danger than before.”

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Who killed the 241 Marines on October 23, 1983? “Some faction to this day unknown.” There is no suggestion whatsoever that the Syrians on the doorstep were even indirectly responsible. But there is a torrent of innuendo that the Marines were killed, and the U.S. embassy was bombed, thanks to objective conditions for which the Israelis bore primary responsibility.

How does one reconcile Weinberger’s punctilious refusal to hold accountable the Syrians, self-declared enemies of his country, with his eager credence of the darkest rumors about Israel and the lowest construction of Israel’s motives? Surely not in terms of statecraft. For a statesman, even the worst of states that supports your basic interests, does not kill your people, and stands with you in the crunch is to be preferred to a state that opposes your basic interests, kills your people, and sides with your worst enemies. And where the U.S. is concerned, how much more should this be the case when the state that is your friend is a democracy, and the state that is your enemy is a tyranny.

It would be futile to search for a rational principle to explain Weinberger’s insufficiencies as a craftsman of defense and diplomacy. This book shows that his mind has been shaped not by a complex of reasons, but by attitudes and biases that he himself long ago ceased examining.

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