By James P. Pinkerton
Caspar Weinberger was the best secretary of Defense that America ever had.
Among the 20 men who have held that post since 1947, there have been some other greats, too. And there have been some big disappointments -- you know who you are.
Yet Weinberger, who died March 28, outshines them all, and heres why: He embodied the ancient Roman wisdom: Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum. (If you wish for peace, prepare for war.) Weinberger wanted peace, but he also wanted victory. And through preparation, he got it: a peaceful victory for America in the Cold War.
But first, he proved himself as a warrior. Volunteering for the army before Pearl Harbor, he enlisted as a private and came out four years later as a captain, having served in the Pacific on Gen. Douglas MacArthurs staff.
As secretary of Defense from 1981 to 1987, he presided over the biggest peacetime buildup in U.S. history. A lot of money? You bet. Thats the American way: We prefer to invest in costly machines, including the Strategic Defense Initiative, so as to vanquish our opponents with materiel, or the threat of materiel, as opposed to manpower. Weinbergers way was a bargain: Money is cheaper than blood.
Weinberger did all this in the teeth of a lopsidedly hostile press. There was no Rush Limbaugh back then, only Dan Rather & Company; the liberal media mocked Weinberger at every turn. Yet Weinberger always kept his courtly manners, even as he stuck to his position.
In his eulogy at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday, Colin Powell, who served as Weinbergers military aide, recalled that the secretary was unfailingly polite in answering a question -- even if he didnt always answer the question asked.
But Weinberger also made a lasting contribution to U.S. policy; unfortunately, it wasnt lasting enough. In a 1984 speech, he outlined what came to be known as the Weinberger Doctrine, which declared that the United States must use force only as a last resort. And if force were to be used, the war had to be fought wholeheartedly, with the clear intention of winning.
What Weinberger was saying was that the United States would make no more half-hearted interventions, such as in Vietnam, or the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, which occurred on Weinbergers watch. That Lebanon mission, of course, culminated in the 1983 truck-bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 military personnel. The United States withdrew from Lebanon shortly thereafter, proving that Weinberger and his boss, President Reagan, werent knee-jerk hawks; they were smart enough to cut their losses.
Yet in the years since Beirut, a curious intellectual revisionism has set in, in which neoconservative policy-makers have sought to trash Weinberger and Reagan for their weakness in the Middle East. These neo-critics cite the Lebanon withdrawal as a pathetic moment of retreat; their theory, apparently, is that the Marines should have stayed in Lebanon, somehow to bring law and order to combatants who were enthusiastically engaged in civil war.
So today we have Americans watching over civil war in Iraq, not Lebanon. Whatever one thinks of the Iraq mission, this much is obvious: The last six secretaries of Defense -- including the incumbent, Donald Rumsfeld -- did not take seriously, as did Weinberger, the prepare for war injunction contained in that old Roman adage.
Weinberger preached that a war plan had to be wholehearted: Preparation often precludes the need to fight. So in Iraq, where was the overwhelming force needed to subdue a country of 25 million people? Where was the training for counterinsurgency? The adequate armor? The effective anti-improvised explosive device technology?
In fact, there was a disgraceful lack of military preparation for Iraq, and the war hasnt been handled well since, either. Still, it was nice of Rumsfeld to show up and eulogize Weinberger -- even if Rumsfelds presence at the funeral highlighted the stark contrast between the performance of the two Defense secretaries.
Special to Newsday