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The Outsider

Eliot Cohen went inside the State Department after having publicly criticized the Bush administration for its handling of the Iraq war. Back at work in academia now, he shares his insights.

Interview by Jeffrey Anderson
Photos by Sam Kittner

Photos of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln hang on the wall of Eliot A. Cohen's office at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. A coffee table holds a dish filled with dozens of coins bearing insignia from U.S. and foreign military units Cohen has visited.

What more appropriate furnishings for one of the world's most prominent scholars of military affairs, a proponent of civilian influence on military strategy and tactics, and counselor of the Department of State under former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from April 2007 to January 2009?

Yet despite Cohen's deep understanding and respect for the American military, going to work for the Bush administration after the Iraq war bogged down in 2006 was the last move anyone, least of all Cohen, would have anticipated — particularly in early 2007, as his oldest son was about to be deployed for the second time. A hard-line policy advocate and early proponent of the war, Cohen, author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, had turned into a critic by 2005. But he answered the call of duty two years later, as Rice sought his counsel.

Cohen's 2005 Washington Post op-ed, "A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War," took the administration and the military to task for incompetence in handling the war. Cohen had similar choice words for the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission appointed to assess the situation in Iraq and recommend a future path. Such criticism is to be expected from tough-minded outsiders, Cohen says. Academics are supposed to ask hard questions and demand straight answers. That was just what Secretary Rice wanted, he says.

Being invited into the tent was more pleasant than Cohen had imagined. Not just because he and Rice could intellectually spar in the service of a just cause, he says, but also because the Bush administration was a nice place to work. He was impressed by the dedication, patriotism, and ability he found there. Though he could expect to find strong minds and political convictions, light-hearted banter and a healthy sense of humor among top administration officials took him by surprise.

Cohen led State's response on the North Korean nuclear reactor incident in Syria, and counseled Rice on Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the Russian invasion of Georgia. He found himself still a critic of the Bush administration, but now from the inside, and a partner in its mission abroad — a loyal voice of inquiry and counsel. He respects the keen judgment of General David Petraeus, whom Cohen urged President Bush to tap to lead the troops in Iraq, and the efforts of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in gearing the military for counterinsurgency. He came to see former Vice President Dick Cheney as just another principal at the foreign policy-making table, influential but with no more resources or influence than any vice president could expect.

"The key thing is to be realistic with people about the nature of the challenge, what kind of effort it is going to take. You don't want to be Chicken Little. You don't want to be Dr. Pangloss, either." But it's not just that this self-described outsider became an insider for a time. Seeing his son go off to war had a profound effect on Cohen, formerly a reservist in the U.S. Army, an adjunct at the Army War College, and a member of the Defense Policy Advisory Board and the National Security Advisory Panel of the National Intelligence Council. With his and his family's investment in the diplomatic and military effort abroad, Cohen seems back to his old role again: He has some opinions on the way the Barack Obama adminstration is set up, and recommendations for President Obama as he tackles Afghanistan and Pakistan.

About the military coins: Cohen says they originated in World War II as gold coins for pilots who were shot down, so they could buy their way to safety. Now they are morale coins. SAIS Strategic Studies has one, which is a first for academic programs, he says. "The deal is, if you are in a bar and someone puts down a coin from the unit that gave you the coin, and you don't have yours, then you have to pay for the beer," Cohen says.

Was it Secretary Rice's idea alone to hire you?

I know it was her idea. Our paths crossed as academics and when I was invited to talk with the president along with a group of outsiders. Given that I had been critical of the administration, and that I hadn't known her that well, I was surprised.

Why do you think she hired you?

She was also looking for someone who could work with the military on Iraq, Afghanistan, and counterinsurgency. She was looking for another academic to have the freewheeling conversation that academics have with one another. State is a hierarchical place, very disciplined. She wanted some intellectual give-and-take.

Did you set any conditions for taking the job?

I said I wanted the same kind of access my predecessor had had. I said I would rather not get involved with the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Why not?

First, I didn't think it was going to go anywhere. Second, it can become an all-consuming effort. And third, I didn't think it would be good for the United States government or for me to have another prominent Jew involved in it.

How was it working for her?

She was terrific. She had a band of people that she trusted, and if something came up she'd throw it to you and give you the lead on it. I spent a lot of time on the Iraq war initially. I was handed Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. And then there were a few things that blew up: the North Korean nuclear reactor incident in Syria, the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Describe your role.

I would read all the intelligence, travel to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Europe, or Israel and collect lots of views and then come back and speak directly to her. Within State, the role of counselor as a kind of useful outsider is accepted. In many ways it was an ideal position for me.

Did she follow your advice?

I always got a good hearing. On Afghanistan, for example, I was trying to give people the sense that things were not going nearly as well as was being reported, and she very much took that on board.

When did you express that view?

It began after my first trip to Afghanistan in spring 2007. The situation in Afghanistan was and is pretty murky. I think the current administration, though, may be making things out to be worse than they really are, which is not entirely wise.

How so?

There is a lot of corruption in the Afghan government. But if you criticize the Karzai government, you are likely to undermine it without having anything to replace it with. You're also likely to discourage people more than they should be. The key thing is to be realistic with people about the nature of the challenge, what kind of effort it is going to take, how long it is going to take. You don't want to be Chicken Little. You don't want to be Dr. Pangloss either.

What was your role in the North Korean nuclear reactor case?

I was part of a process designed to give the principals — secretary of state, secretary of defense, vice president, national security adviser, and ultimately the president — real options. It's a mistake to think that your job is to come up with your own preferred policy and sell it to your boss. I often felt that my job was to make it clear to my boss what the choices were, and to offer my best judgment about the plusses and minuses. In this case the options were: Do you let the Israelis deal with this? Do you try to think about dealing with it militarily? Or do you try some diplomatic option? As [British general] James Wolfe once said about war, it's an option of difficulties.

"The broad contours of American foreign policy are pretty constant. People tend to present themselves as if they are a radical break from their predecessor. But they really aren't. There's a lot of continuity." How would you characterize the outcome?

There were upsides and downsides. Once the Israelis took out the reactor, they did not want to go public right away for fear of igniting a larger war. They thought it would put pressure on the Syrians to retaliate. My feeling is, it would've given us an opportunity to put pressure on both Syria and North Korea.

How do you view North Korea in general?

I had a darker view than my boss did. I'm not going to get into the details because it's confidential. But my basic view is that there's not a deal to be had with this regime. They've been cheating and lying on the plutonium program. And as she's said, there's reason to be concerned about their uranium program.

How was it working for the Bush administration?

I wasn't expecting it to be a pleasant experience. People have this notion of it as a dour, grim place locked in orthodoxy. Much to my surprise, it was a really good working environment. It was collegial. Everybody knew that the administration was deeply unpopular. Some things were not going our way; some things were. But, on the whole, I enjoyed enormously the people I was working with.

Was the approach to policymaking different than you expected?

The broad contours of American foreign policy are pretty constant. People tend to present themselves as if they are a radical break from their predecessor. But they really aren't. There's a lot of continuity at a bedrock level. You're already seeing this [with the Obama administration] in some areas like handling of terrorist detainees. The closing of Guantanamo, for example, is largely cosmetic.

What was Cheney's role?

His most important influence was probably exercised one-on-one with the president. So we'll never know because I don't think either of them will talk much about it. But the vice president's role was not overwhelming. I know this runs counter to what people think, but I can just tell you what I saw. My boss was not overawed by him. I don't think [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates was.

Didn't he have his own policy and legal apparatus?

I would be willing to bet money that if you were to look at the size of Vice President Biden's staff that deals with foreign policy a year from now that it will be exactly the same size as Dick Cheney's staff and will have a similar level of influence.

You were pretty critical of the Iraq Study Group before you came on board.

Yeah. Trashed 'em, and in retrospect I think I was completely right to do so. It was poorly designed and it came up with a silly set of recommendations. One of the things that offended me was half the members went on this one trip where they stayed in the Green Zone the whole time. You've got to get out and see things as much as possible. You'll always be in the security bubble [because] otherwise people will kill you. But the idea that you have a bunch of wise men sitting back here, that's not right.

Were there positives in the handling of the war?

In retrospect, Bush's finest hour was the decisions he made about the surge and decisions he made about putting Petraeus in. The guy at the top deserves the blame when things go wrong, and the guy at the top deserves the credit when things go right. He made a very tough decision to double down. And that took tremendous intestinal fortitude. And, you know, that's not a common thing. It's fair to assign responsibility to him for things going poorly early on, and I think he would take that responsibility. But, in my mind, he gets the full credit for things going well.

Did you take heat for your op-eds?

No one asked me to recant anything, and it wouldn't have done any good if they had. There was some good-natured humor about it. But the banter was usually about other things. I got some ribbings for being clueless about organized sports. [Rice would] use some sports metaphor and I'd say, "Boss, that went right past me." She'd kind of roll her eyes and sigh in exasperation. Then I'd get even. We had a competition about who had more students in government service. I finally trumped her when we were on some trip together. I said, "Boss, look at the head of your security detail — he's my former research assistant."

That must be gratifying.

Wherever I went, I was working with former students. I can't adequately describe what a privilege and a pleasure that was. From watching Afghan commandos being trained, to being briefed on the North Korea nuclear program, to coming across FARC encampments in Colombia, I was among former students. In Peshawar, which is really the badlands, the person running aid programs in the federally administered tribal areas is a former student. What could beat that?

"I got some ribbings for being clueless about organized sports. [Rice would] use some sports metaphor and I'd say, 'Boss, that went right past me.' She'd kind of roll her eyes and sigh in exasperation." In the tradition of Churchill and Lincoln, you're an advocate of civilian control of the military. Why?

Any bureaucracy needs scrutiny from the outside. That goes for academic bureaucracy, which is why I am in favor of very tough visiting committees. But the critical thing is not that civilians are slapping the military around. It's asking questions and insisting on good answers. That also was my role at State: to gently — but not always gently — probe the bureaucracy and ask, "Why do you think that? What's the evidence for that? Why do we think that what we're doing now is going to work?" Those questions are going to make people in any bureaucracy uncomfortable.

Your interview in this magazine in 1994 predicted problems for the military. It took a decade for you to be vindicated. Is the military inclined to act on advice from outsiders like you?

Look, the American military is a huge learning machine. Huge institutions don't change quickly. And though it's OK for academics to be critical, let's face it, universities don't change quickly either. They're big, they're established, they're well-funded, they've got personnel systems that are difficult to change, and you have people who think this is not a job but a higher calling. And for the same reasons that it's not easy to shift Johns Hopkins in some directions, it's by an order of magnitude more difficult to shift the American military.

What has the military gotten right?

One of the things that Don Rumsfeld is not going to get enough credit for is speeding up the process of shifting away from a Cold War military model — base realignment and closure, changing the geometry of American forces overseas. The military is much better suited for counterinsurgency than when we went into Iraq in 2003. It takes time. And it's hard to change when you're fighting a war.

How should the military prepare for what lies ahead?

I've felt for some time we are in a period of international politics during which there's going to be large discontinuities that are going to come around and bite us. By definition people will not be prepared for what comes next. The question is how adaptable are they? That makes places like Hopkins all the more important because the better educated soldier is going to be more flexible. Petraeus said his most valuable experience to prepare for Iraq was getting a PhD. There's an enormous contribution we have to make in preparing soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence professionals.

Speaking of the military, how is your son doing?

The oldest one's gotten a lot of the limelight, but we've got four kids and they're all doing well. The youngest is at Cornell, the next one graduated from Brandeis and is working at the Supreme Court, the next one is studying to become a clinical psychologist. The oldest one had two tours in Iraq. Now he's in the Reserves and is going off to graduate school. We'll see where things take him. It was interesting going through the experience of having a son deployed while working on the policy issues. You just keep on telling yourself that there are a lot of people going through the exact same thing. We adjusted like most other military families did.

Did it cause you to act or feel differently?

I would talk to him the way I would talk to other junior and midlevel officers; you get a different perspective from the sharp end. It helped make me more serious about my work. I'd be serious no matter what, but it makes you more serious if you've got some skin in the game.

Did it influence your decision to go to work for Secretary Rice?

I was asked to serve, and I thought that was my duty. To have my son at war and me sitting here writing op-eds, that wouldn't have been satisfying. I'm an academic and I believe deeply in what I do. But it was good to have a sense that in my own way I'm in the thick of the fight, too.

How do you assess the challenges facing the Obama administration?

In Iraq, there is a reasonable trajectory for success. It's going to be a challenge to sustain that. I hope they are not precipitate about saying, "Well, we're going to clear out of there." Because I think it is unnecessary. It would be dumb. It would throw away something that's worth achieving.

"In Iraq, there is a reasonable trajectory for success. I hope they are not precipitate about saying, 'Well, we're going to clear out of there.' Because I think it is unnecessary. It would be dumb." How would the military respond to early withdrawal?

The military would hate it. I can tell you that the soldiers who put an enormous amount of effort into it would be furious. Most of them think we have achieved real success.

What do you make of Obama's special envoys for foreign policy, George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke?

I've always been skeptical about special envoys. What's the chain of command? As soon as you tell someone they report to the president and the secretary of state, you've undercut the secretary of state. That's a problem. Secondly, what does the regular bureaucracy do? What's their role when they have a special envoy on top of them? Third, what is the role of the special envoy? Take the Afghanistan-Pakistan issue, where Holbrooke is assigned. Pakistan is a perilous place. It's going be hard to deal with Pakistan unless you can also deal with India. And he's not the special envoy for India. So I don't get it. I think you're setting yourself up for confusion. This experience in government gave me a renewed appreciation for clean lines of authority. Maybe they'll make it work. But I would be worried.

What should be our goals in Afghanistan?

To help set up a functional Afghan state that will be tolerant of different ethnic and religious groups, provide security, and respect the rule of law. We're kidding ourselves if we think we're going to be successful in Afghanistan without a sustained effort of possibly decades. That doesn't mean a sustained military effort over that period. But I would suspect a long-term training presence. To make it work will take a long time.

What are the risks of mishandling Afghanistan?

It would be as big of a mistake to get defeatist about Afghanistan as it was to get defeatist about Iraq. Because if you decide to wash your hands of it, you're going to end up with an ungodly mess, and an even worse mess in Pakistan than we've already got. It would be seen as a large and consequential American defeat. And it's a mistake to think that prestige and reputation don't matter. What people don't realize is the epicenter of jihadi activity is shifting to Central Asia. It's potentially more dangerous than the Middle East. So I hope the Obama adminstration will look at this and say, "Well, we better figure out how we're going to succeed." And I hope they don't appoint an Afghan study group similar to the Iraq Study Group.

Jeffrey Anderson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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