Cap Weinberger's Legacy

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Caspar Weinberger, who died Tuesday at 88, arrived at Ronald Reagan's Pentagon in 1981 with the nickname "Cap the Knife" for his penny-pinching ways as budget and welfare chief for presidents Nixon and Ford. But shortly after taking over the Defense Department he became known along giddy Pentagon corridors as "Cap the Ladle," for the billions of dollars he and Reagan were pumping into the nation's military might. In a rush to push the Soviet Union into bankruptcy, he championed new fleets of tanks, planes and ships — and the Strategic Defense Initiative designed, as Reagan put, to render Moscow's nuclear missiles "impotent and obsolete."

Weinberger's push to spend — along with his disdain for arms control — led the military to launch dozens of programs that the nation never could afford to build. To make his case, he began publishing yearbooks entitled Soviet Military Power. The soft-cover books were emblazoned with scary artists' renderings of the communists' latest and greatest martial hardware, warning that the U.S. was falling behind. "There is nothing hypothetical about the Soviet military machine," the inaugural 1981 volume said. "Its expansion, modernization, and contribution to projection of power beyond Soviet boundaries are obvious." Of course, the Soviets' key expansion at that time was into Afghanistan, from which they retreated in ignominious defeat in 1989.

Weinberger had left the Pentagon two years earlier by the time that happened, followed two years later by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. But since then, no Pentagon leader — or President, for that matter — has succeeded in weaning the nation's military-industrial complex from Weinberger's Cold War high. Despite the lack of a superpower rival, in fact, Pentagon spending now is higher than the Cold War average ($401 billion in today's dollars for the Cold War, compared to a $513 billion request for the proposed budget for next year).

Weinberger himself acknowledged in a recently released interview with University of Virginia scholars in November 2002 that his spending push was "the worst way to do it — the most expensive way." But he defended its wisdom. "Some of the fruits of that paid off in the Gulf War many years later," he explained, "because we had there very smart weapons which enabled us to win the Gulf War with very little cost to ourselves." Weinberger spoke those words four months before the U.S. launched the second Iraq war in March 2003. It's fair to give Weinberger credit for helping to drive the Soviet Union into history. But it's also fair to note that the current Iraq campaign might be going better if the Pentagon had shucked Weinberger's fascination with high-tech weaponry and instead invested more heavily in the troops and armor needed to seize ground — and hold it while a fledgling democracy tries to take root.