It was “High Noon” in the Pentagon, a bureaucratic version of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. Last Friday the new “Sheriff” (Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney) opened fire on a free-lancing desperado (Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch) with a blast of well-aimed criticism. The sheriff’s veiled threat, “Everyone’s entitled to one mistake,” was only a kinder and gentler version of “This town isn’t big enough for both of us if you cross me again!”
What in the world caused this unseemly public display of temper in the Pentagon? Certainly the showdown was far more than a mere disagreement between two powerful men, and it had nothing to do with the personal relationship between Dick Cheney and Larry Welch.
The outburst reflects the first priority of a new, untried secretary of defense. He needs to establish his authority in order to bring the Pentagon under his personal control. After an undisciplined 7-year spending binge under Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, the individual service chiefs must accept new measures of austere restraint dictated by budget pressure on military spending. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, who followed Weinberger, actually tried to bring some order out of chaos, but he simply wasn’t in the Pentagon long enough to clean up and redirect the excessive military spending programs Weinberger left behind.
Even the slight progress Carlucci made in imposing some discipline in the budget process was lost during the transition from President Reagan to President Bush. Not a single important decision concerning U.S. military programs has been made since George Bush was elected almost five months ago. Worse yet, because of the leadership gap during the John Tower confirmation fiasco, the Army, Navy and Air Force were free to start lobbying for their own programs.
This is exactly what Welch was doing on Capitol Hill with respect to the Air Force rail-mobile MX, a land-based nuclear missile. He also went public with his own proposals on a number of other high priority Air Force weapons.
Welch’s initiatives were seen as an attempt to preempt important decisions which must ultimately come from the secretary of defense. This challenge to Cheney’s authority provoked his testy public blast as a strong warning to all of the service chiefs that their new"Sheriff” was going to maintain law and order in the Pentagon on his own terms.
While Cheney’s crackdown was much needed, going public with it may have been an unwise overreaction to some personal criticism leveled against him. He is only the fourth secretary of defense never to have served in uniform. His blithe statement that he would have been “happy to serve if called” during the Vietnam War was not well received when it was revealed that he had requested draft deferment five times on three different grounds during the war.
Furthermore, his distinguished political career has never before involved him directly in the conduct of Pentagon business. He clearly has no concern yet for the large political constituency top military leaders enjoy in the defense industries, veterans’ organizations and military associations. He will learn that the civilian “top gun” is wise to show a discreet measure of respect for the service leaders. Tough, private talks will serve Cheney far better than public reprimands in the long term.
Finally, at the same time Cheney struggles to create an orderly, disciplined management system that will restrain competition among the Army, Navy and Air Force and tailor military spending to fiscal reality, he must also put the Pentagon procurement system in order. Secretary Weinberger made spending money a primary measure of military strength. The military contractors became a very happy, active and wealthy part of the Pentagon team devoted to finding new ways to spend more money faster. Today we are paying far too much money for weapons that don’t work. Waste, fraud and abuse on military contracts are a national scandal. The procurement system is “broke” and must be fixed.
To do this, Cheney needs to make allies of his service chiefs--not antagonists. It will take close and willing cooperation by the Pentagon’s leadership, civilian and uniformed, to get consultants and contractors’ representatives out of the Pentagon’s decision-making process.
If he is to exercise effective control of the Department of Defense, and he must, “Sheriff” Cheney would be well advised to realize that the service chiefs are wearing white hats, and he needs their help against the guys in the black hats, the contractors who have insinuated themselves into the Pentagon’s procurement process. The “Sheriff” needs to clean out the stables at the OK Corral far more than he needs another shoot-out.