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Cap the knave; Reagan's longtime secretary of defense is out to rewrite history.

Cap the Knave

The appointment of Caspar Weinberger, Cap the Knife, as secretary of defense in early 1981 was hailed by both supporters and critics of the incoming Reagan administration. The conventional wisdom was that Weinberger, who had served with apparent distinction in such key jobs as director of the OMB and secretary of HEW in the Nixon-Ford years, was the right choice to manage the defense buildup begun by Carter and certain to be continued by the hard-line Reagan administration. Moreover, unlike some of Reagan's other appointees, Weinberger was believed to be a moderate and a pragmatist rather than a zealot--that is, a man who would work well with other members of the national security team and Congress. Indeed, this reputation was the reason I eagerly accepted Weinberger's offer to become his assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, and logistics, a post I held until September 1985.

When Weinberger left office in November 1987, after serving longer than all but one (Robert McNamara) of his 14 predecessors, his reputation was in tatters. The defense buildup proceeded without any clearly defined sense of strategy or purpose; the Pentagon was racked by some of the most severe procurement scandals in its history; and the defense budget and programs that he bequeathed to his successor, Frank Carlucci, were so far out of balance that his five-year plan had a shortfall of $500 billion. (In his first month in office, Carlucci had to make some $200 billion in reductions.)

Weinberger proved himself so narrow-minded, obdurate, and rigid that he lost the confidence of Congress and ultimately of the president himself. Congress slashed Weinberger's proposed budgets and passed--over his objections, but with the support of the president--the most sweeping reorganization of the Department of Defense in history, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. President Reagan, Weinberger's long-time mentor, was forced to appoint the Scowcroft Commission to straighten out the mess Weinberger had made of the strategic modernization program and the Packard Commission to straighten out the mess Weinberger had made of the procurement system.

I found Weinberger exceedingly difficult to work for. He seemed to have fixed ideas on every issue, and those who did not accept his interpretation of the facts were branded as disloyal. His staff meetings, like his press conferences and congressional appearances, rarely involved two-way conversation. Weinberger seemed to feel that if he repeated an opinion often enough, repetition alone would make it come true.

Weinberger's memoir (*1) takes Manichaeism and hyperbole to an extreme. Individuals who support his world view are described in such glowing terms that it is almost sickening. His hero, Ronald Reagan, is magnificent, warm, decent, selfless, patient and politically courageous, easy to brief, extraordinarily firm, and possessed of phenomenal memory. Even Ed Meese is described as well-informed and effective in argument. On the other hand, members of Congress or the administration who opposed Weinberger or the president represent narrow parochial interests or special interest groups, and are ultimately disloyal.

Weinberger's Manichaeism and hyperbole also extend to nations, their leaders, and international events. The Soviet Union is and always will be the evil empire, whose military power is still increasing despite the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. The Shah of Iran's fall resulted from U.S. harassment and demands that he release his political prisoners. On the other hand, Weinberger holds the Ayatollah responsible for the war with Iraq, even though Iraq attacked first. Moreover, he asserts that Iran was able to hold its own in the war only because Iraq had decided it did not want to commit the substantial resources required for a military victory. The former secretary conveniently forgets that Iraq resorted even to chemical weapons.

Most memoirs are somewhat self-serving, but Weinberger carries his to the extreme. In the opening chapter, he portrays himself as reluctantly taking up Reagan's offer to become secretary of defense, when in fact he campaigned vigorously for a high-level post with the president-elect. Throughout the book, he simply dismisses the problems that plagued his tenure in office and undermined support for national defense.

Weinberger is at his disingenuous best in his Iran-contra discussion. He blames the whole affair on the incompetence of McFarlane, conveniently overlooking the fact that he joined Clark, Meese, and Casey to block Jim Baker's appointment as national security adviser, making McFarlane's appointment possible. More seriously, he ignores the implications of the fact that--unbeknown to the president and the other members of the national security establishment--Weinberger had contemporaneous intelligence reports about the secret November 1985 arms shipment to Iran, as these memoirs reveal.

Why did Weinberger not act upon this knowledge, given his adamant opposition to sending arms to Iran? Why did he tell the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he did not learn about the CIA shipment of arms to Iran until early 1986?

The answer to both questions is that Weinberger basically is not the person he appears to be. Had he acted upon his knowledge of the November 1985 shipment, he would have jeopardized his place in the administration or jeopardized the Reagan administration itself. Given his zealous devotion to Reagan and his agenda, he could do neither. Just as he ignored the inconvenient facts that undermined the case for his defense buildup and the weaknesses of his management style in the Pentagon, he ignored the intelligence reports and may even have perjured himself before Congress. Ironically, a book he wrote to vindicate himself confirms our worst fears about him and makes me wonder how so many (including me) could have been so mistaken about his appointment in 1981.

(*1) Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon. Caspar Weinberger. Warner Books, $24.95.

Lawrence J. Korb is director of the Center for Public Policy Education and a senior fellow for Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
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Title Annotation:Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan
Author:Korb, Lawrence J.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Previous Article:Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon.
Next Article:On the Law of Nations.

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