Is a Dangerous One

Against the grim backdrop of a murderous terrorist act, Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger have been indulging themselves in a dangerous public debate that has many of the qualities and serves about as much useful purpose as a cockfight. The instinct to kick and scratch is built into their bureaucracies. In the capital cockpit, there is no lack of audience or promoters for blood sports. But their combat is contrived. It can be stopped by high authority.

So where's the chief?

The question is not a cute carry-over from the presidential campaign. All the post-mortem polls tell us that Ronald Reagan was most valued for "leadership." And yet the administration has allowed the public impression to set in that there is deep division between the two top national-security figures on the fundamental issue of when the United States might feel compelled to use its military power -- either broadly or narrowly -- to counter terrorism.

It began with a major policy speech by Weinberger on Nov. 28, emphasizing the importance of prudence and restraint in the use of military force. In a follow-up on Dec. 9 that had the inescapable look of a calculated response, Shultz stressed the vital importance of being ready to use U.S. power to back up diplomacy. The New York Times headline: "U.S. Must Be Ready to Use Its Power, Shultz Declares." The subhead: "Differing With Weinberger, He Says Public Support Isn't Prerequisite for Action."

Now, all that Shultz said was that "there is no such thing as guaranteed public support in advance" for the use of American military power. Weinberger hadn't said there was. He had simply said that "before the United States commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance" of public and congressional backing; the operative words were "some" and "reasonable."

Now guess who said the following: "Public support for U.S. military actions to stop terrorists before they commit some hideous act or in retaliation for an attack on our people is crucial if we are to deal with this challenge."

If you guessed it was Weinberger, your faith in the consistency of high officeholders is touching, but misplaced. Shultz said it in a speech back in October in which he also said that the "prerequisites" for a sound counterterrorism strategy "must be a broad public consensus on the moral and strategic necessity of actions."

The point is not whether Shultz and Weinberger see eye to eye. With inherently different responsibilities, interests, constituencies and roles, secretaries of state and defense rarely do. The point is that when they are allowed to carry institutional conflicts of purpose to the level of ambiguous, public argument, not just the American public and Congress are confused. Allies are baffled. And adversaries are encouraged to miscalculate American intentions and resolve with potentially dangerous consequences.

Conventional wisdom has it that Weinberger and Shultz parted company over Lebanon. Shultz wanted an American military presence to reinforce his "peacekeeping" diplomacy. Weinberger didn't like the military odds, the indefinite purpose, the look of a losing proposition. This was no secret.

So it was easy enough to find evidence of deeper differences in their recent speeches. Grinding overtime, the rumor mills have them at odds on arms control, East-West trade, handling of relations with the Atlantic Alliance, Central America. Some say their clash is personal as well as philosophical. Others find it odd for the secretary of state to seem to want more forceful U.S. military presence and intervention while the secretary of defense seems to want less.

But historical perspective suggests it would be odd it it were otherwise. Diplomats are in the business of easing tensions, nurturing alliances, making commitments to protect threatened friends. All this argues for arms control, East- West commercial contact, sensitivity to allies' concerns -- and the deterrent effect of credible U.S. military power. With resources and capabilities always in mind, the Pentagon tends to worry more about giving up too much on arms control or high-tech transfers; about the security of U.S. forces in Europe; about getting sucked into unpopular, "unwinnable" wars -- with not just Vietnam but Korea in mind.

Though Dean Acheson was vilified for excluding South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in the Pacific and thus "inviting" the Korean War, the line was drawn by the Joint Chiefs and publicly proclaimed almost a year before Acheson's famous National Press Club speech on Jan. 12, 1950 -- by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles took the lead in committing the United States to defend the host of countries with security pacts rimming communist-bloc countries. Lyndon Johnson regularly credited Secretary of State Dean Rusk with being readier "to hit" North Vietnam than Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

There is, then, a familiar ring to the strains now showing between Shultz and Weinberger, and also an obvious remedy. If they cannot compose their differences quietly in the interests of a crucial coherence to policy, who but the president can?