David Brooks: The Relevance of the Shultz-Weinberger Debate of the 1980s

Roundup: Historians' Take

David Brooks, in the NYT (April 13, 2004):

Twenty years ago, Secretary of State George Shultz went to the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York to give a speech about terrorism. Fighting a war on terrorism, he emphasized, means coping with uncertainty.

Terrorists operate outside the normal rules, Shultz observed. Because an attack is so hard to anticipate, he said,"our responses should go beyond passive defense to consider means of active prevention, pre-emption and retaliation. Our goal must be to prevent and deter future terrorist acts."

We can't wait for the sort of conclusive evidence that would stand up in a court of law."We cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether and how to respond." We have to take the battle to the terrorists so we can at least control the time and place of the confrontation.

And we have to plan these counteroffensives aware of how little we know for sure.

Facing such great uncertainties, Shultz continued, the president has to take extra care to prepare the electorate:"The public must understand before the fact that some will seek to cast any pre-emptive or retaliatory action by us in the worst light and will attempt to make our military and our policy makers — rather than the terrorists — appear to be the culprits. The public must understand before the fact that occasions will come when their government must act before each and every fact is known."

The Shultz speech opened a rift within the Reagan administration. Shultz's argument was that uncertainty forces us to be aggressive. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, on the other hand, argued that uncertainty should make us cautious. As one Weinberger aide told The Times,"The Pentagon is more aware of the downside of military operations and therefore is cautious about undertaking operations where the results are as unpredictable as in pre-emptive strikes against terrorists."

Shultz and Weinberger were clear and mature. Both understood there is no perfect answer to terror and both understood the downsides of their respective positions.

Two decades and a national tragedy later, it is hard to find anybody that consistent.

If you follow the 9/11 commission, you find yourself in a crowd of Shultzians. The critics savage the Clinton and Bush administrations for not moving aggressively enough against terror. Al Qaeda facilities should have been dismantled before 9/11, the critics say.

Then you look at the debate over Iraq and suddenly you see the same second-guessers posing as Weinbergerians. The U.S. should have been more cautious. We should have had concrete evidence about W.M.D.'s before invading Iraq....

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