They called him "Cap the Knife."
Big budgets didn't intimidate Caspar Weinberger. After all, he'd been the state finance director for California. Washington ran pretty much the same way. "You just had to add about nine zeros to everything," he said.
Weinberger earned his nickname during the Nixon administration. As head of the Office of Management and Budget and then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he tried to shave a few zeros off big-ticket programs.
When Cap returned to D.C. as President Reagan's secretary of defense, old hands gaped at how often "Dr. No" said yes to amped-up defense budgets. He even emerged as a fervent supporter of the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan's "Star Wars" program that birthed missile defense.
Cap's turnaround was not hard to explain. Under Nixon, domestic spending had to be fixed. Wildly expanded under LBJ, it had become wasteful to the point that it was a drag on the economy. Under Reagan, defense spending had to be fixed: It had shrunk to the point that national security was in jeopardy.
"[W]e were losing the respect and support of our allies because of the Carter administration's erratic policies," Weinberger recalled. "Both our allies and the Soviets suspected we lacked the conventional military strength -- and perhaps the will -- to prevent a Soviet advance into Western Europe."
The Reagan era-recapitalization of defense made both dollars and sense. The investments started under Weinberger ensured an adequately trained and ready force for the next 20 years.
Since the 1990s, presidents have trimmed investments in modernization and capacity while cashing in on the force built before they took command.
Our newest secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, seems poised to turn this story on its head. Rather than invest in the military to meet strategic requirements, Hagel appears to be more than ready to crank out military strategies driven by an imperative to cut spending first.
This will surely leave us with a Carter-like force -- less ready, less capable and far more expensive to fix when foes try to exploit this self-imposed weakness.
Hagel has launched a short-term "strategic choices and management review." Despite the encouraging title, most observers view the initiative as a directive simply to develop a plan for implementing the severe "sequester" cuts directed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- rather than a call to lay out the strategic choices -- and risks -- associated with various spending reductions.
Fueling the speculation was the fact that Hagel put the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in charge of the exercise. CAPE's job is to evaluate cost-effectiveness and alternative programs for getting the best balance of cost and performance.
CAPE is a number-cruncher. CAPE doesn't do strategy. Hagel can count on CAPE to put a happy face on sequester-size defense budgets.
Even more worrisome was Hagel's announcement that CAPE's assessment would provide the foundation for the Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR is supposed to be a long-term assessment of missions, capabilities, threats and resource requirements -- not a rubber stamp for budget cutting.
It certainly looks like the secretary is putting the accountants ahead of the strategists. Times have really changed.
When Cap the Knife arrived at the Pentagon, he took off his accountant's green eyeshades and became a strategist. But now that Hagel has settled behind that desk, he has put on blinders.
Budget-driven defense strategies always wind up wasting money in the long run and leaving us less secure. Hagel's start creates grave doubt that he will leave a 20-year legacy of trained and ready forces.
-Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner.