History should be kind to Caspar W. Weinberger. Unfailingly courteous in personal manner, steady in the face of shifting fashion in opinion, comprehensively loyal both to his boss and to the interests of the people in the Department of Defense, one could go on and on--there is much, much more to admire than to criticize.
It may be hard to recall amid the financial alarms of this fall, but Weinberger's mandate in 1981 was to "rebuild America's defenses" after a "decade of neglect" so that the country could regain a "margin of safety." Cap did what he was told to do, very much--for a while at least--with bipartisan backing, and he did it well.
Weinberger always has maintained both that the country can afford what it needs for defense, and that what it needs must be assessed primarily with reference to the outside world and not to the shifting moods of domestic politics. Such beliefs can appear rhetorical, even unrealistic, since defense policy is made at home. But he is right. Unquestionably, Weinberger did not trim his sails with every puff of hot air from Capitol Hill, or in response to squall warnings from the Office of Management and Budget or from the Treasury. This made him appear dogmatic, unreasonable, inflexible and even out of tune with the changing times.
Weinberger held to the unpopular and, to some, seemingly naive opinion that the defense budget ought not to be treated as a fit playground for domestic politics as usual--distinguished only by its size among the myriad of governmental activities. In practice, of course, defense is as political as anything else, as Weinberger knows better than anybody. However, his endlessly repeated claim that the level of the U.S. defense effort must be fixed with regard to the outside world, rather than to our domestic preferences, was true in principle, ought to be very substantially true in practice and merits strong repetition. After all, if the secretary of defense would not affirm the integrity of a steady defense program in face of a steady outside threat, who would?
On matters of policy substance, Weinberger has been much, even extravagantly, criticized. Among other things, he has been accused of simply throwing money in indigestible amounts at the armed services, with scant higher direction for the fixing of priorities (i.e. a failure in strategy); of failing to close the alleged "window of vulnerability" for the U.S. inter-continental ballistic missile force; of endorsing too many (big ticket) weapon items, without due regard either to the sustainability in combat of the armed forces as a whole, or to the practicality of the necessary personnel levels down the road; of licensing a maritime focus for U.S. global strategy that is inappropriate given that our principal adversary is a thoroughly continental power; of being willfully obstructionist on arms control, and of hiding behind a counsel of perfection with regard to the preconditions for the use of U.S. military
power. As one would expect for a tenure in office that exceeds six and a half years, the list of criticisms is long.
Although some of the criticisms have a basis in fact, there is less to them than meets the casual eye and they pale somewhat when set against the things that Weinberger plainly has got right.
In 1981 all of the armed services did need strengthening. The foreign policy and military commitments of the United States were "givens" to the Department of Defense and could not be pruned rigorously in some academic exercise in pursuit of some narrow vision of strategic prioritization. The United States could improve the coherence of its national military strategy, but as the Western superpower it has allies and friends that may need military support in Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and Central America. Similarly, the United States is obliged by geography and by its role in the global balance of power either to excel, or at least to be very competent, in all environments of potential conflict and in all categories of military force.
In conclusion, let us list Weinberger's achievements. Probably above all else, in keeping with the sound principle that "people matter most," he has helped greatly to restore the morale and sense of professional worth of the armed forces. Also on the human level, he has been an exemplary ambassador for his country to the allies.
On strategic questions, he has been right on all of the "big issues." He endorsed a reorientation of coalition-supportive maritime strategy in favor of an offensive cast, as traditionally has been sensible for a sea power. He has encouraged the U.S. Army and tactical air to add offensive designs to defensive designs, while he has argued vigorously for the addition of defensive capabilities to residual offensive capabilities for the strategic forces. In the 1970s the U.S. Navy and Army were unhealthily defensive in orientation, while the strategic forces were padlocked by policy exclusively into the mode of deterrence by threats of retaliation. Finally, Weinberger's evident skepticism of arms-control arrangements, far from being ideological in origin, reflects an accurate reading of the entire, sad 20th Century experience of democracies signing on for unsuitable technical solutions to political problems.