Host: Brian Lamb
Interview with Eliot Cohen, Director, Strategic Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University
BRAIN LAMB, HOST: Eliot Cohen, on Sunday, July the 10th, 2005, you wrote a piece for "The Washington Post" which had the headline, "A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War."
Where did you get the idea to write this?
ELIOT COHEN, DIRECTOR, STRATEGIC STUDIES PROGRAM, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: Well, the -- I guess it's the assistant editor of Outlook, Steve Mufson asked me to write a piece about Iraq. And I think initially the idea was sort of a reaction to the president's speech at Fort Bragg.
But I think the idea for an article like this had been stewing inside me for a bit because I -- well, first, there's the imminent departure of my son to go fight in Iraq. But also I found myself thinking about this war from these very different vantage points.
One as a commentator, pundit, and somebody who advocated the war. Second is a military historian which gave me a very different sort of perspective. And then as a father, and I thought it would be interesting to try to write a piece which would put those three pieces of me side by side.
LAMB: We have some things to talk about before we get to the article. First up, what was the response to this?
COHEN: I don't think, other than a book that I wrote, "Supreme Command," that I ever got a reaction -- as much of a reaction to anything I've ever written. Hundreds of e-mails, phone calls.
You know, you get obviously some wingnuts on the left and some wingnuts on the right and some people who seem like they're from outer space. But the thing that was most interesting, I got a lot of phone calls and e-mails from general officers, some of them retired, many of them serving, including some who are in Iraq right now, some quite senior, a couple of four-stars, a bunch of three-stars.
And I'm very gratified to say that they were overwhelmingly supportive. They agreed with it. And then part of the angle on that is many of those folks have kids who are in the service and so there was, I think, a sense of identity that, you know, here you had the father who has been in this sort of business.
And I'm not a solider, obviously, I'm a professor. But I've been the national security world one way or another for 25 years or so. And -- but also who has a son who's going to be on the front lines, in some cases it's a daughter. As so I think it struck a chord with many of them.
LAMB: How much can you tell us about your son?
COHEN: I don't want to say too much because there are all kinds of people who watch C-SPAN, including people who are pretty ill-disposed. I'll just say that he was a graduate of Harvard University, did very well, Phi Beta Kappa and all that sort of stuff who decided early on that he wanted to be in the service so he joined ROTC, and is now an infantry officer and headed off pretty shortly to Iraq.
LAMB: What kind of a role would he play in the Army in Iraq? What can you say about…
COHEN: Well, he's going to be an infantry platoon leader, so he'll be really at the pointy end. I don't want to say exactly what unit he's going to be in. He's in a good unit, a very good unit. And he'll be leading an infantry platoon. So he'll be on some mean streets somewhere.
LAMB: How long has he been in the Army?
COHEN: Well, on active duty really since June of last year. So something over a year now. The Army actually puts you through a very elaborate training process post-ROTC. You go do your infantry officers basic course. You go to jump school, get your parachute wings. He also went to Ranger school which is a very, very demanding school. So you add all that up, that's about 10 months plus or minus.
LAMB: Are you surprised that he's doing what he's doing?
COHEN: Not at this point. I mean, he, you know, was beginning to indicate that he was interested in doing something along these lines towards the very end of high school. And then in college he was initially thinking, well, maybe he would join the reserves, which is what I had done in graduate school.
And then he made the decision that he wanted to be in for four full years and that he's actually going to be eventually in military intelligence. And that's the nominal branch that he will be in. But they have an option where you can be in the infantry for a few years, and he decided to do that.
LAMB: How many kids do you have?
COHEN: I've got four. He's the oldest. We have two daughters. One of them is a junior in college, another is a freshmen. And our youngest is a boy who’s going to be a junior in high school.
LAMB: At what point will he be in Iraq, roughly, month of August?
COHEN: Within a month-and-a-half or so depending on where they -- depending on various things, within a month or two.
LAMB: When did you learn he was going to go?
COHEN: To Iraq?
LAMB: Into combat.
COHEN: Oh I assumed he was going to go into combat a long time ago. I assumed that really shortly after 9/11. He was already in ROTC. And before he had gone in we had a long conversation. I didn't -- I certainly didn't discourage him from joining the service, far from it. But I also didn't want to -- I didn't want to push him.
And, you know, one of the conversations we had, is I said, you know, you have to assume you're going to be going into harm's way. And he's, not surprisingly, a pretty smart kid, and he understood that. And so -- but I've -- no, I assumed that he was going to be going somewhere hazardous for years now.
LAMB: What does your wife think?
COHEN: Well, as a friend of ours said to us about six months ago, she said, so you're proud and scared and she's scared and proud. And I think that's roughly it I think. It's particularly hard on a mother. But she's a real trooper. And you know, this is going to be a long year. We will both have our ups and downs.
And you know, there are times when I'm feeling more anxious. There are times when she's feeling more anxious. But you know, in that respect, we're no different from hundreds of thousands of other American families. And you know, people just grit their teeth and get through it and try to be as supportive as they can.
LAMB: One of the differences though between you and others that might be watching this is you had a lot of exposure to the military. Let's start with the fact that you're on the Defense Advisory…
COHEN: It's the Defense Policy Advisory Board. It's usually called the Defense Policy Board, the technical name is the Defense Policy Advisory Board.
LAMB: What does that mean?
COHEN: Well, it's an advisory board to the secretary of defense. And since you've raised it I'll immediately say that it's -- I'm not speaking in any kind of official capacity. And the truth is I don't really have an official capacity.
There has been -- I think this has been in existence for a couple of decades now. It's an advisory panel of distinguished citizens, many of whom are former senior officials. So they're people like James Schlesinger or Tom Foley or Harold Brown, former secretary of defense. Judging by those names you can see it's bipartisan.
There is some retired military. There are some retired politicians. There are a few academics, of whom I'm one. And we just give the secretary of defense advice on policy matters. It's -- you know, just because of the way federal rules, there are all kinds of disclosure things you have to sign. But we're not -- we don't make policy, that's for darn sure.
And basically we come in every few months and give our two cents. I've always had my doubts about what exactly these kinds of boards really do. The secretary of Defense indicates that he finds the exchange valuable.
It's not all at -- you know, it's not a -- by no means simply a group of people who are plotting what the administration does. I think far from it.
LAMB: Do they pay you?
LAMB: But you have over the years spoken to a lot of generals, taught generals…
LAMB: … what?
COHEN: Well, you know, I taught at the Naval War College for four years. We run together with Syracuse University a number of executive educational programs for the Defense Department, so a couple of times a year running seminars for general officers.
LAMB: What are you teaching?
COHEN: What are we teaching? Well, I mean, I suppose you could say most broadly strategy, or how to think strategically. Usually it ends up being what I would like to think of as applied military history. That is to say, helping people develop their analytical skills to the issues you have today by looking at a piece of history.
So once a year I'll take a band of about 25 generals and we'll spend several days roaming around, say, western Maryland and doing the Maryland campaign of 1862, the campaign that culminated in the battle of Antietam, which in turn led to the Emancipation Proclamation.
We'll look at it from the point of view of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and we'll get it from the point of view of Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan, and we'll ask questions about civil military relations.
And I think what I've found is that that kind of historical perspective can really inform the kinds of questions that you pose about the world you're in today.
LAMB: When you were last here on "BOOKNOTES," this book, "Supreme Command," was what we were talking about. About four leaders in wartime: Abraham Lincoln; Clausewitz -- not about Clausewitz, Clemenceau…
LAMB: … David Ben-Gurion; and Winston Churchill.
LAMB: It was before the president decided to go to war -- or at least before we knew he had decided to go to war. And he was reading this book at the time. So here we are three years later. What has changed either -- I mean, who did he follow in your book, anybody?
COHEN: Well, you know, the first thing I would say is the president said that he read the book, and I've no reason to disbelieve him, but you know, I've never had a conversation with him about it. I've met him a grand total of one time. I was in a White House receiving line for a big…
LAMB: And you had not met him when you were here before.
COHEN: No. And this was a big holiday season kind of reception where hundreds of people. And you know, it was one of these things where you shake hands for 10 seconds, smile, get your pictures snapped. It was -- no conversation about that.
So -- and I'll tell you the truth. My view is it's very unusual for a political figure to read a book and really be influenced by it while they're in position. First they are -- they come pretty fully formed in terms of predispositions and attitudes and so on.
And they are just too busy I think to really sit and ruminate and digest. There are exceptions to that. But I -- so I don't really think so. I think the extent the book had an impact, I'll tell you from people who actually read it, it tends to be much more the uniform military who were going -- to some extent are going through a difficult time where they feel they have a civilian leadership that's very assertive although I would argument sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. And it helped explain things to them.
I think the president probably is not shaped by any book, he was shaped by his life experiences, his instincts. And what those were probably to be a little bit more controlling than his father and forceful in terms of very broadly saying what he wanted to have done. I don't have a sense that he's deeply immersed in all the details. And part of the argument in the book is frequently that's what a president has to do.
Now to be fair, in our world we have a secretary of defense who's effectively kind of deputy commander-in-chief who does a lot of those functions.
LAMB: Who would have been responsible for you getting on the Defense Policy Advisory Board?
COHEN: I believe my name was -- you know, I'm not sure. I think my name was probably put forward by Richard Perle, who at that time was chairman, but I don't know.
LAMB: But you are tied from your past to Paul Wolfowitz in some way.
COHEN: Yes. Paul Wolfowitz was my dean at SAIS for about six years…
LAMB: What is SAIS?
COHEN: I'm sorry. School of Advanced International Studies, part of Johns Hopkins, located here in Washington. And I had actually worked briefly for him. He was a number of levels up, when I was at the Pentagon briefly in 1990.
I then -- I worked in what was then the policy planning staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He was the undersecretary of defense for policy.
LAMB: And today your primary income comes from where?
COHEN: Oh, I'm a professor. I'm schoolteacher…
COHEN: … at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I teach -- it's a graduate school of international relations. And I'm basically a schoolteacher. I mean, I write small articles. I write books. I occasionally do some consulting work. But I'm first and foremost a professor.
LAMB: And your position on going to war in Iraq before it happened was what?
COHEN: I was in favor in of it. I was in favor of it for a number of reasons. And I talk about those in the article. I think, first, even before September 11th, it seemed to me this was a festering sore. There was no way around dealing with it basically because the inspections regime had collapsed.
And the sanctions regime, which had also kept Saddam contained, was collapsing as well. The French, the Germans, the Chinese, the Russians were not going to support it. And it seemed to me that Saddam was a force for instability in the region. I was not sanguine about what was going to happen once that regime completely collapsed -- in other words, the inspections and the sanctions.
After September 11th, I think I found as well persuasive the argument that there would be positive secondary effects from the overthrow of that regime and its replacement by something more reasonable. And I think to some extent we've seen it. Some of them are in a way negative. That is to say, enabling us to get out of Saudi Arabia, which was a major, major irritant.
But I believe then and I still believe that, you know, if you could help create a reasonable kind of regime in Iraq, which is not the same thing, you know, an advanced liberal democracy, but something much more reasonable, that there would be positive secondary and tertiary effects in the region.
And you know, I think you see that in something like, say, Lebanon; or even beginning to see it in places like Egypt.
LAMB: I want to go back to this article, which our audience can find on our Web site. It's easy to find there. It's a Washington Post piece from July the 10th, 2005. And the headline on it is "A Hawk Questions Himself As His Son Goes to War."
I'm going to read a lot of it in short snippets and then get your reaction. I'm going to jump all the way to the end to start.
"What the father in me expects from our leaders is simply the truth, an end to happy talk and denials of error and a seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight."
Who are you talking about?
COHEN: Well, obviously I'm talking to -- hopefully to the president, to his senior subordinates. This was, in some measure, to the congressional leadership. It seems pretty clear to me that we messed up quite badly in the first year, the 18 months in Iraq.
But beyond the normal range of errors that one expects in war. And one of the responses I've gotten, they've said, well, people always make mistakes in war, which is true. But you have to have some sort of reasonable standards for what's a reasonable amount of error and mistakes.
As I talk about in the article, one of the things I have found particularly offensive is just the -- you know, initially at any rate, a complete denial that we had made any mistakes or that there were things happening that we hadn't foreseen, or there was even denial that we faced an insurgency.
There was for way, way too long this absurd notion that, well, there's only 5,000 bad guys out there that are bitter enders and they're just the remnants of the regime. It's clearly something else.
And the thing that -- I mean, I'm angered as a father who is about to send his son off to war, but the -- if you will, the pundit in me, or the commentator in public affairs is also angry about that because it got in the way of making good judgment.
So I think -- I'm not looking for a mea culpa, but I'm looking for something, say, much more detailed I think than we got out of the president at Fort Bragg. A much more detailed accounting of where this is going to be, I think we have to be quite honest about how long this is likely to go on. This is going to be a very long process, how costly it might be.
And I think I would also -- and this comes into the category of seriousness, I would like to see a call for some sort of sacrifice. Not a draft. A draft is not workable. But I wish I saw more senior administration officials out there trying to persuade young people to enlist.
I wish we had a tax increase to help pay for this. Even if, you know, you could construct and economic theory that says you don't need a tax increase to pay for this, some sort of sense that when you go to war you're asking people to give.
LAMB: Your first question in this was you supported the -- you ask yourself this question?
COHEN: Yes. These are my questions to myself.
LAMB: You supported the Iraq war when it was launched in 2003. If you had known then what you know now, would you still have been in favor of it? And one of the things wrote: "What I did not know then that I do know now is just how incompetent we would be at carrying out that task."
The word incompetent is strong.
COHEN: Yes. Well, when I wrote the article I decided -- these are thoughts which have been -- I've had for a while. And some of these are things actually which I've been saying more privately to people.
LAMB: What has been incompetent?
COHEN: What was incompetent? The parts that were incompetent I think had to do chiefly with the preparation for and execution of what the military "Phase 4," but in other words, the period after the overthrow of the regime, occupation, military governance, that sort of thing.
What would be some examples of incompetence? Well, one huge one to my mind is we created a system where we did not have a civilian authority well-prepared. You had retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who actually did a very good job with very scanty resources, to begin putting together something that could help run the country.
But there weren't people really assigned to it. You didn't have staffs. At the last moment, we appoint Ambassador Bremer really to be our proconsul, then created a system where you had him on the one hand with what was then called the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, and you had General Sanchez, who was the military commander, two bureaucracies that did not communicate with one another. A CPA that was under-resourced, we didn't have people set and ready to go. We didn't have kind of a concept on how you were going to try to run that country after we took it.
And I could even sort of forgive if that hadn't been allowed to persist for a year. You know, in my book, "Supreme Command," one of the things I talk about it Abraham Lincoln, who had his share of people who just couldn't cut it for whatever reason. Well, we had that and those people just served their normal terms of office, even when it was quite clear to everybody, and clear to people in the government that they were not doing well and they weren't communicating with one another. In fact, they were hostile to one another.
This wasn't just -- and the bureaucracies were hostile to one another. And we let that go on. And I find that mind-boggling. So that's one area. One other -- well, there are a whole bunch of areas, but one other area, it's clear we had no decent plan for development of Iraqi security forces.
Leaving aside simply the issue of disbanding the Iraqi military, the concept we had for what kind of force we were going to create was a static Iraqi army that could sort of defend Iraq's borders, although they weren't going to have the kinds of things they would need to move around the country.
We did not -- we had not thought about how do you go about creating a kind of gendarmerie to maintain domestic order. And we improvised it on the fly. That's incompetent.
LAMB: The fourth thing on my list is "read Osama bin Laden's fatwas," this is what you've written, "in the late 1990s and see how the massive American presence in Saudi Arabia, a presence born of the need to keep Saddam Hussein in his cage, fed the outrage of jihadis with whom we are in a war that will last a generation."
Saudi Arabia, what is it -- why are we so tied to Saudi Arabia? And explain what you were saying.
COHEN: Well, I believe it was February 1998 that Osama bin Laden issues this fatwa of jihad against crusaders and Jews…
LAMB: Stop a second and what does it mean to issue a fatwa against…
COHEN: Well, a fatwa is kind of a religious proclamation. And Osama bin Laden is not a Muslim cleric, but Islam is a very decentralized religion. So it's actually one of the difficulties I think we face in the current environment. You don't have a small number or even a single kind of identified leader.
But this was one of the more important of Osama bin Laden's -- it's really his declaration of war against us. And it's quite interesting. When he gives his three reasons for effectively going to war against us, the first were direct outgrowths of the first Iraq war.
One is the presence of -- our presence in Saudi Arabia, which he regards as defiling holy ground. The second one is the suffering of the Iraqi people as a result of that prolonged sanctions regime that we had in place and that stayed in place for a decade after the first Iraq war.
So those were his top two reasons. It seems to me, in retrospect -- but not just in retrospect, I felt it at the time, that it was going to be very hard to sustain a large American military presence in Saudi Arabia without some sort of reaction.
Saudi Arabia is both necessary, it's a -- of course, has these huge oil reserves, and it's a problem because it's exporting a variant of Islam which is extraordinarily militant and intolerant. It's not what the rest of Islam is. But it's extremely well-funded.
And it's very dangerous. And unfortunately a lot of the private funding for terrorism, including of the kind we've seen, say, in places like Great Britain, has clearly come from private Saudi sources.
So Saudi Arabia is in some ways, if you will, a client. And in some respects, I suppose, an ally. And in other respects very much a problem for American foreign policy.
LAMB: How much military did we have there when we were at the height and how much do we have there today?
COHEN: I'm not sure I could give you a good number at the height -- well, at the height, of course, you know, we deployed vast forces there, hundreds of thousands.
LAMB: In '91.
COHEN: In '91. But on a routine basis, it was in the tens of thousands. I'd say something, 20,000 to 30,000 is probably roughly right. One of the things we were able to do as a result of this war, which I think was one of the positive consequences of it is we basically pulled out of Saudi Arabia.
There's a military advisory mission that's still there and so on. But we have really shifted out of Saudi Arabia and I think that was an eminently sensible and desirable thing to do.
LAMB: Was that our idea or was it theirs?
COHEN: No, I think our idea. You know, I suspect this was one of those cases where we wanted to do it. They probably would have preferred that they be the ones who took the initiative. And I think instead we took the initiative, which I'm glad to see us doing.
LAMB: Why does the administration continue to send signals that we have this close tie with Saudi Arabia?
COHEN: Well, we do have a certain kind of close relationship. I think part of the problem is that we can't imagine anything that's any better than what we've got. And you've got a Saudi Arabia that's run by the House of Saud, thousands and thousands of princes.
It's extremely corrupt. But on the whole the royal is probably more moderate than anything that would be likely to replace it. There is kind of middle class, but it's not organized. And there is this large Wahhabi element which the House of Saud cut a deal with at the very onset of the regime, which is still there and which is -- the only word you can use is fanatical.
LAMB: I mean, it's -- help me out here. They're fanatical. They're funding Wahhabists around the world supposedly. Coming from the royal family, why wouldn't we just give them an ultimatum?
COHEN: Well, because you have to be able to deliver. The House of Saud would always argue, and I think on the whole we would tend to buy it, that they are sort of keeping the crazies in line, which in one way they do, although most of that is domestic.
I'm not quite sure what we would do. Would we occupy Saudi Arabia? I think that would be a tall order, especially given where we are right now. And I don't think we would be willing to do that simply in order to seize the oil.
I think we would lean on them. We probably don't them nearly hard enough. And for a long time, Saudi Arabia, like a number of other states, has, I think, tried to divert attention from the corruption of the regime by being willing to support either actively or passively really rapid denunciations of us.
LAMB: This is a bad pun. Do they have us over a barrel, though? I mean, when it gets down to it, we need the -- what is it, they're -- 15 percent of our oil comes from there.
COHEN: Well, oil is fungible. So, you know, if Saudi Arabia went off the market, the shortages would end up being distributed around the world. That's why you can never really -- the idea of energy security, you know, we've got our supply of oil, that just doesn't work.
Although countries, whether it's us or the Chinese, try it all the time. I do think in the long run our dependence on oil as a source of energy is a really troubling thing because it's not just Saudi Arabia. What are the other countries that are major oil producers? Well, you know, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and places which are either hostile or very corrupt or very unstable.
So, you know, one of the things I would be very much in favor of is a really hard push on -- not just on conservation but on alternative energy sources. And I've -- honestly, I've never seen administration, neither Democrat or Republican, which is willing to be really aggressive in that line. I wish there were.
LAMB: More from you article. "Decades of American policy had hoped to achieve stability in the Middle East by relying on accommodating thugs and kleptocrats to maintain order. That policy too had failed. It was the well-educated children of our client regimes who leveled the Twin Towers after all."
LAMB: Those are the Saudi…
COHEN: Well, also the Egyptians. I mean, the pilots were Egyptians, the muscle of 9/11 was provided by the Saudis. You know, for a long time you just didn't talk about human rights or civil liberties or anything in that connection to the Middle East. And there is still a school which effectively says, you know, Arab societies just can't handle anything that is remotely like our concept of civil liberties or individual rights.
I don't believe that. And I -- not only do I think that -- just as an American I find that hard to believe that there is anybody out there who just by, I don't know what, their DNA, doesn't have some sort of aspiration to be free.
But I think just as a prudential matter, the policy which we have pursued for decades of basically completely ignoring the domestic aspect of these regimes and what they're doing to their societies, has turned around and bitten us because first those societies turned out to be very problematic, and secondly, one of the reasons why populations in that part of the world are as hostile to us as they are is because they see us as being in bed with their rulers, which, on the whole, we have been.
And I give the administration a lot of credit for realizing that that was ultimately a mistake. And I think that's a realization which is out there more broadly, even in place that don't seem to really agree with us very much, even among the Europeans I think I detect some realization that you do have to be concerned about what goes on in these societies.
LAMB: And you wrote this because of your son. Did you tell your son you were going to write this?
COHEN: Yes. I mean, I mentioned it to him first. I -- you know, he's just another second lieutenant. You know, he's colored green the same way all soldiers are colored green. I don't want him to be a famous lieutenant. His job is taking care of his guys and doing his job.
And he feels that way, too. And that's why -- one of a number of reasons why, you know, I'm not going to mention his name or his unit or anything like that. And you know, I also want to make it very clear from this respect I am no different from hundreds of thousands of other fathers in this country.
The one thing I'm quite conscious of is I've got a pen and I've got -- I can say certain things and I was able to get this on the front page of the Outlook section of The Washington Post. And most fathers can't do that.
LAMB: What was his reaction when he read it?
COHEN: He -- it was kind of a grin saying, well, I'll bet you that will get a lot of responses. He's a very kind of cool kid.
LAMB: You wrote: "I could not imagine," for example, "that the civilian and military high command would treat Phase 4," that's the phase we're now, "the post-command period that has killed far more Americans than the real war, as of secondary importance to the planning of General Tommy Franks' blitzkrieg."
Now you're on the Defense Policy Advisory Board. You've been inside -- how long have you been doing it?
COHEN: Probably since the beginning of the administration.
LAMB: So you've been inside the Pentagon many times and did you think that they were planning correctly for this Phase 4 when you were…
COHEN: I assumed they were planning -- I was not briefed on plans for the war. We don't get briefed on any of that stuff. I mean, again, you know, people say the Defense Policy Board and it makes it sound as if these are the people who are telling Don Rumsfeld what to do.
Instead that's not the way it works. What happens is there are various topics in which you might get briefed and then you opinionize and the honest truth is that you're getting from that group the kinds of opinions you read in the op-ed pages of the newspapers.
I -- towards the end, not because of the DPB, but because I've got lots of military friends, I was beginning to get a queasy feeling about the quality of the planning. This is more just from friends who are in the Central Command staff, Central Command being in charge.
And that really -- I was beginning to get somewhat anxious. I was also, I think, a little bit anxious at the -- sort of the blithe cheerfulness of some of the people on the civilian side about what Iraq would look like post-liberation.
Not -- I was in favor of this, but I also -- because I'm also a military historian I know there are lots of unpredictable stuff that happens.
LAMB: How could they miss it so dramatically?
COHEN: I think it's a whole bunch of different things coming together. I think on the civilian side it was some wishful thinking about what Iraq was, shaped in part by their interactions with Iraqi exiles from the 1970s, remembered I think a society that was basically pretty secular, pretty advanced, pretty moderate in some key respects, and didn't really fully take into account what 30 years of totalitarianism and war was going to do.
In the case of the military, particularly the United States Army, I think a lot of it had to do with their understanding of what war is. And unfortunately I think you did see here the culmination of something that had been taking place for a while where the Army was going to define for itself what war is.
War was Tommy Franks' blitzkrieg. And somebody else takes care of all that other stuff. In fact, there's a term: "military operations other than war." And if you say, "operations other than war" it means, not very important.
And in fact there were plenty of people out there saying, we just don't do that sort of stuff. Well, again, the historian in me says that's nonsense. I mean, if you look at American military history it's filled with doing these kinds of things. But that was the self-understanding that was out there.
I think, you know, there was a failure at the National Security Council to stay on top of this. One of the things, for the life of me, I still don't understand is there was not a single person at the NSC whose job was Iraq who is really kind of a senior person…
LAMB: Inside the White House.
COHEN: Right. A senior person whose job was making sure the different parts of the government were coming together on this. I don't understand why. You know, you had this very powerful secretary of defense, a very powerful secretary of state, and a very powerful vice president, but the administration opted early on for a relatively weak National Security Council staff, quite unlike, say, the Kissinger model.
So I don't have a sense of really forceful NSC that was making sure the decisions were arrived at and plans were briefed and all that sort of stuff.
LAMB: You wrote: "I never dreamed" -- you mentioned this earlier, "I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and General Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders early in the occupation of Iraq, brave, honorable, and committed though they were, would be so unsuited for their tasks and they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless."
How hard was it to write that given your inside position?
COHEN: None of this was hard to write, you know.
LAMB: I mean, no worry about showing up at the next Defense Policy Advisory Board saying, Eliot, you're going off-track on us here?
COHEN: I really don't care. And colleagues of mine on the Defense Policy Board will tell you I really don't care. I mean, look, I'm very fortunate. I'm a full professor. I've got tenure. I can't be fired. I don't depend on these people for any of my income. My family isn't dependent on them.
LAMB: Can I stop you just for a moment?
LAMB: Is that the problem with all the others who are dependent on the future, who have made money off of being involved in this whole process?
COHEN: No. I should say, I mean, just that's how my colleagues -- a number of them have been quite forthright.
LAMB: Where, though?
COHEN: They tend to do it privately. And I understand why. That's -- they are people who have been inside the system for a very long time. They are personal friends of a lot of these folks in a way that I'm not nearly or in a different way. And I think if one of them did this it would -- well, I shouldn't say that.
I think many of them feel you can do more from the inside. And I think I may have thought that for a while though there is no particular reason why you should track my op-eds. But I've been writing critical things for some time now.
LAMB: Go back to what you talked about in the very beginning…
COHEN: But I just want to say, there is nothing particularly -- there's nothing courageous about this. This is -- I'm doing what an academic ought to do, which is tell the truth. And…
LAMB: I know, but you go back to your first point we read about "what the father in me expects from our leaders is simply the truth." And then you go and you say that you're independent and you have tenure, you don't have to worry about your money coming from this and all. And then you talk about the other Defense Advisory -- I mean, all through this town, how many times have we seen where people will go out front and say, we're winning this war and then behind the scenes they say to you privately, this is a mess?
COHEN: Well, actually, there is less of that than you might think. And that's what's so troubling about not being truthful. I actually think it's harder for people to really say one thing and believe another than most people -- most observers in politics think.
Actually, I believe that the problem is you begin saying the party line, which you have to do if you're in the government. I mean, the government is not the university world, and it couldn’t function if people said whatever they thought.
You keep on saying the party line, you keep on saying -- the problem is you begin believing them. That's what I find scary. If these people were really completely two-faced, there is a part of me which would feel a little bit better about it, but what is scarier to me -- or was scarier was in conversation, for example, I had with one senior person where, you know, I just kind of said, look, you've got -- there is clearly a problem with the Sunni Arabs.
They've been displaced, you know, they ran that country. That was where the elites were drawn from. And you have the Shia and that's within the Arab context in particular, this is a very unsettling thing for the Shia to be coming on (ph).
And his response, he said, no, no, you don't understand, the Sunni love us. And I just thought he was out of his mind. And at first I thought, well, maybe he's just, you know, soft-soaping me to get me off his back. And after a while I realized, no, he actually believed that.
And that just struck me as so delusional there really almost was no point in talking.
LAMB: Let me go back to what I just read. "I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and General Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders, early in the occupation of Iraq, brave, honorable and committed though they were, would be so unsuitable for their tasks and that they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless."
Correct me if I'm wrong, we have not seen Paul Bremer for a year. He never testified after he left there. Ricardo Sanchez I have not seen him anywhere. Paul Wolfowitz, for that matter, went -- your old mentor or whatever, went to the World Bank, we've not seen him. Colin Powell is gone. We've not had any cross-examination.
A lot of the people that got us in are gone. And the criticism that you make of Paul Bremer and Ricardo Sanchez, how much of that have we seen from others?
COHEN: By the way, the part that was hard about writing that was I give both Bremer and Sanchez a lot of credit as human beings. I mean, Bremer took this extraordinarily difficult task, after the war was already won -- I mean, the so-called war, the intense phase, with no preparation, with no staff, and he plunged in. And I know he gave it his best and he's a smart, patriotic guy who did his best.
So -- and the same, and General Sanchez is a fine soldier, although not, I suspect, the kind of guy you want fighting an insurgency.
LAMB: Why not?
COHEN: Let me answer that this way. And this again, gets to the competence issue. What military history teaches me is that there are certain kinds of generals who are good at fighting these wars and others who aren’t -- there are certain kinds of generals who are great fighting the big D-Day kind of invasion or, you know, the big battle in Central Europe against the Soviets, and then others who are really good at what one French officer calls the sort of termite war.
And what political leaders needed to do, and this is something I did say privately very early on is we need figure out real soon, immediately, who are the ones who are really good at this? Who are the ones who are not good at it? You've got to, unfortunately, even no matter how wonderful they are, get rid of the ones who are not good at it and very rapidly promote the ones who are good at it.
You won't see in our system where we've taken any colonel and two years later he's a major general because he's really good at doing this. What we've done is we've -- you know, people are still under kind of normal promotion tracks.
Now we'll take someone like General Petraeus who's very good, and who is good at this kind of war, we'll put him in charge of Iraqi security forces. But it's not as if he's jumping any further than -- or any faster than he ought to.
On your -- back to your question about people responding to all this. This is one area in which I think Congress has failed.
LAMB: Is that -- let me just jump in. Is that because they're -- both sides are run by Republicans and they're in support of the president?
COHEN: It's -- I think the Republicans have been very wary of doing anything that would seem to undercut the administration. And I think the Democrats, unfortunately, are so -- many of them, not all of them, I mean, I would make honorable exceptions for say people like Joe Lieberman and Senator Jack Reed, that so much of the criticism of the Democrats has, first, not been terribly effective and not terribly substantive, but also again sort of tinged with a kind of partisan animus, that Congress isn't really doing what Congress ought to do, which exercise a certain amount of oversight.
And in fact, I think there should have been pretty extensive hearings. There should still be pretty extensive hearings. I mean, you know, Congress in the past has done a wonderful job in some of these. Congress did a great job in investigating Pearl Harbor, to take one example.
LAMB: Well, while you're talking about it, what about the media, what kind of marks do you give them?
COHEN: You know, actually, I'm softer on the media than a lot of people. I think on the whole, once one accepts that first journalists will look more for bad news than for good news. And they will look more for kind of dramatic events than sophisticated analyses of trends and so on. I think on the whole the quality media in particular, but the media in general didn't do such a bad -- they didn't do such a bad job.
I mean, there are different people who get blamed at this stage in the war. You know, one, the American people actually take a completely undeserved criticism for being, you know, uncertain or insufficiently supportive. And I think that's just nonsense.
I think the press take more of a hit than they deserve, that part of the purpose of this article is to focus attention on the leadership, because there are the ones who are in charge.
LAMB: Let me get back to why have we not seen George Tenet, since he left the CIA, in front of a congressional committee, or Paul Bremer, or Ricardo Sanchez? Why have there -- has there been…
COHEN: I don’t know. And I also cannot explain to you why it is that the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian decoration that we've got, went to Tommy Franks, who was a civilian for about a year or so after before he got it. So it wasn't clearly for his civilian achievements. To George Tenet, who, again, a wonderful guy and patriotic and smart and all that, but who presided over two major intelligence disasters. Or Ambassador Bremer, who, again, you know, dedicated, patriotic fellow, but who was not a success in his job.
Those three guys got the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That's just wrong.
LAMB: And you still support the president?
COHEN: What do you mean?
LAMB: In this Iraq war.
COHEN: I think -- I mean, despite everything, as I say in the article, I remain tepidly optimistic. The things that I -- there are a number of -- there are quite a few things I admire about the president, I should say.
I admire the basic vision. And I definitely admire the resolve. And you know, it's easy to say that, well, he's determined, and to confuse that with stubbornness. But in wartime determination means an enormous amount. And the president's backbone is made of steel. And we're very lucky that he has got a backbone made of steel. But there are plenty of other things that I'm critical of.
LAMB: Don't have much time, I want to run through some things quickly...
LAMB: … and get quick responses. "The failures and squandered opportunities of that first year in Iraq do not look that different from some of the institutional stupidities we saw in Vietnam."
COHEN: Right. I think the same failure to understand that the political processes and the security processes were intimately linked, and the same thing in Vietnam. You had a desire on the part of the military to turn this into essentially a military problem with the civilians thinking that developmental issues and so on were separate.
It was quite late in the Vietnam War we realized, no, actually these are completely interlocked.
LAMB: You say most insurgencies do, however, fail.
COHEN: They do. You know, states, by their very definition, have a lot of resources that insurgencies don't, particularly in case like this where you don't have a single, unifying ideology or a single leader.
LAMB: "Pride, of course, great pride, and fear, and occasional burning in the gut," talking about how you feel, "a flare of anger at empty pieties and lame excuses, at flip answers and a lack of urgency at a failure to hold those at the top to the standards of accountability that the military system rightly imposes on subalterns."
Anything more you want to say about that? That sounds pretty strong.
COHEN: Yes. It was intended to. No, I think that actually says it pretty well. I'm -- I've always been very -- look, I love hanging around with military people for a number of reasons, although I -- you know, they're like all people, they have their faults and the rest.
But they do have a very strong sense of responsibility and of accountability. And that's something that I would like to see more of in other circles.
LAMB: "It is a flicker of rage that two years into an insurgency we still expose our troops in Humvees to the blasts of roadside bombs knowing that even the armored version of the Humvee -- or the humble successor to the jeep, is simply not designed for warfare along guerilla-infested highways while at the same time knowing that plenty of countries manufacture armored cars that are."
How important is that to you to write as your son goes to Iraq thinking that he will be in one of those things? And did you think about that before?
COHEN: I thought about that. But you know, it's important, I want people watching this to understand that this is not -- the article is not intended to be, you know, anxiety-gripped father drumming his fists against the wall and gnashing his teeth.
What I wanted to do and I hope what I did is to render these are the sentiments of many fathers -- well-informed fathers. And that's one side of it. And it's just one of those things which is very hard to explain. And so I thought I would put it out there.
LAMB: "It is disbelief at a manpower system that following its pre-war…"
COHEN: By the way, I should tell you, a number of quite senior military said, hit the nail on the head.
LAMB: On the Humvees. "It is disbelief at a manpower system that following its pre-war routines shipped soldiers off to war for a year or 15 months, giving them two weeks of leave at the end, when our British comrades, more experienced in these matters and wiser in pacing themselves, shipped troops out for half that time and give them an extra month on top of their regular leave after an operational deployment."
COHEN: That's -- I am actually as mad about that as about the other stuff. And as mad -- and one of the things I also talk a little bit later on is about a particular case which came to me indirectly, of what happens when you have a soldier who nominally has a year between deployments, but it ends up being much less than that, because he transfers from a unit that was in Iraq to a different unit that's headed to Iraq, and then he gets extended for a year because he's over there. And that's really just a reflection of the fact we've got an Army that's too small.
LAMB: "And all of this because after 9/11 when so many Americans asked for nothing but an opportunity to serve, we did not expand our Army and Marine Corps when we could, even though we knew we would need more troops."
LAMB: Now is it really true that no military leader has asked for more troops to go to Iraq?
COHEN: I don't know. I don't know what the inside is…
LAMB: You know why I asked that, because they all say that.
COHEN: Well, there are two separate issues here. One is the force strength in Iraq. And I think that is actually an area which is -- that reasonable people can disagree whether a much larger force would have been useful and would be useful now.
The other issue though is the size of the base from which you were operating, that is to say the overall size of the Army of the Marine Corps, and of the kinds of personnel policies they do have them practicing.
Part of what you're seeing here is just peacetime kinds of policies continued through into wartime without anybody thinking terribly hard about it. That's a different matter. But on the size issue, those are really two separable issues: size of the force in Iraq and the size of the rotation base you're working from here.
LAMB: You wrote: "A variety of emotions wash over me as I reflect on our Iraq war, disbelief at the length of time it took to call an insurgency by its name." How long did it take?
COHEN: As I recall, we were at I think about six months into it at least.
LAMB: Why was it so hard to admit it?
COHEN: You would have to ask the people who didn't want to use the word insurgency. The military was willing to use the word insurgency, the civilians less so, because I think it would have meant, you know, confessing that the victory wasn't nearly as complete as we thought it was.
LAMB: "Incredulity at seeing declarations pinned on the chest and promotions on the shoulders of senior leaders, both civilians and military, who had the helm when things went badly wrong." You kind of talked about that one.
"Disdain for the general who thinks job one is simply whacking the bad guys and who, ever conscious of public relations, cannot admit that American soldiers have tortured prisoners or in panic killed innocent civilians."
A lot of talk shows in this country suggest that anybody that suggests we did anything wrong at Abu Ghraib or in Guantanamo are un-American.
COHEN: Right. I had a piece in The Washington Post, actually, after Abu Ghraib broke called "Our Soldiers and Us," which again, you know, overwhelmingly positive response from military people.
The thing that most people don't understand is military people -- one thing you get from associating with the military, and I've been associated with them for well over a quarter of a century, there is a higher proportion of the best kind of human being in the military, but it's a normal distribution.
And at the left end of the curve, there are scoundrels and the sadists, and you know, they sometimes get a free reign. And the military very appropriately has very high standards which they are aware of. And you do them no good by not holding them to the standards that they themselves believe in -- that the best of them believe in.
And it's an -- I would say, a highly uninformed kind of patriotism that refuses to acknowledge that, yes, our soldiers sometimes do those things.
LAMB: Last couple of comments by you in the July 10th Washington Post which people can find on our Web site. "A desire badly controlled" -- or, I'm sorry, no, let me…
COHEN: Much different.
LAMB: "Barely controlled to slap the highly educated fool, who having no soldiers friends or family once explained to me that mistakes happen in all wars and the casualties are not really all that high and that I really shouldn't get exercised about them."
I suspect somebody said that to you.
COHEN: No, that definitely happened. The only question was whether I was going to slap them or throttle them.
LAMB: How long ago did that happen?
COHEN: That was last November.
LAMB: He's a highly educated fool, does he know who you are -- if he reads that, does he know who you're talking about.
COHEN: I hope so.
LAMB: When did he do it?
COHEN: We were both at a -- on our way to a social event and just kind of met each other. You know, the thing gets to me is, of course mistakes happen, but that doesn't mean that they're still not mistakes. And to be kind of cavalier about the human consequences of it is, I think, unforgivable.
And that gets to the business of being serious. It's serious business going to war.
LAMB: So when your son goes, are you going to say goodbye to him at any certain time, at a certain place?
COHEN: Oh, yes. Pretty soon. He's there -- they have two weeks of block (ph) leave and we're throwing a big party for him and we're going to go take some vacation time together and, you know, then we'll say, goodbye.
But you know, one of the great things about the modern age is we'll be in touch over the phone and by e-mail. And so, you know, we'll be much more in touch than family and soldiers ever were in any other war.
LAMB: What was the response of reading your article from your other three kids?
COHEN: They are all kind of amused by their father, I think, so they -- I think they're probably a little bit surprised that I was as blunt as I was all the way through. But you know, at this point they're kind of used to me. So there's always a little bit of amusement about their father, which is fine.
LAMB: When is your term up with the Defense Advisory Policy Board?
COHEN: I have no idea. I'm -- you know, I serve at the pleasure of the secretary. If he wants me there, I'll be there -- I mean, I -- look, I feel, the country is at war, so if you're asked to serve, you serve in whatever capacity it is.
If they don't want me, that's fine with me too. I've got lots of -- it would free up a couple of days every quarter. But if people feel I can do something useful there, I'll try to do it.
LAMB: We're out of time, Eliot Cohen, thank you very much.
COHEN: Thank you very much.