Eliot Cohen and Democratic Responsibility

Ximena Ortiz’s critique of Eliot Cohen’s appointment to the State Department, and Ruth Wedgwood’s response, go to the heart of the question of intellectual and political accountability in a democratic system.

Ximena Ortiz's critique of Eliot Cohen's appointment to the State Department, and Ruth Wedgwood's response, go to the heart of the question of intellectual and political accountability in a democratic system. In this debate, I must emphatically endorse Ms. Ortiz's position with regard both to Dr. Cohen personally, and on the wider points of principle involved.

Dr. Cohen's radical failings extend beyond the Iraq War to much of his intellectual record as a military historian and analyst in recent years. They are not open to serious question, since they are amply documented in his own published writings and recorded interviews.

The first is that Dr. Cohen was a leading advocate of the U.S. invasion of Iraq; and that in this role he reproduced what has since proved to be baseless propaganda from the Bush Administration concerning the Iraqi regime's possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and links to Al-Qaeda (see for example his Op-Ed "The Reluctant Warrior", The Wall Street Journal February 6, 2003, and his interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on January 23, 2002). He also, albeit less than some other neoconservatives, held out the promise that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would not only lead to a "far, far better life for the Iraqi people", but might "begin a transformation of the Middle East" ("Iraq can't Resist Us", The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2001).

In the process, Dr. Cohen was guilty of two major errors with the gravest long-term consequences: While he occasionally mentioned possible problems for the United States in Iraq after the overthrow of the Ba‘athi regime, at no point that I have been able to discover did he devote any serious, concentrated attention to what these problems might be, how the United States should deal with them and indeed what the whole U.S. strategy for the postwar administration of Iraq should be. Or if he did, then-in sharp contrast to his approach to other issues-he never wrote or spoke on them in detail in public. Dr. Cohen thereby shares intellectual and moral co-responsibility for the very failures of U.S. postwar strategy that he himself now denounces.

I would nonetheless be prepared to find excuses for Dr. Cohen if his advocacy of war with Iraq had followed U.S. success in the primary goals of U.S. strategy after 9/11, in the name of which the Bush Administration had rallied support from the American people and the international community: the fight to kill or capture the leadership of Al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters.

What is unforgivable is that Dr. Cohen and others began to beat the drums for war with Iraq while these monstrous figures were still at large and while Afghanistan was obviously very far from stabilized. His first major article that I have found advocating war with Iraq appeared on November 20, 2001-and also, by the way, helped lay the background for Bush's infamous "Axis of Evil" speech by advocating regime change in Iran ("World War IV", The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2001). The results are now clear. The diversion of U.S. special forces, economic aid and political attention from Afghanistan to Iraq began at the start of 2002, and it did not cease even after the battle of Shahikot in March 2002 had revealed the extent to which the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remained a serious threat. Cohen faced this possibility-and explicitly dismissed it (interview with CNN, above).

Five years later, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar are still free, and the Taliban has returned as a very real threat not only in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan as well. When we remember the thousands of U.S. and allied soldiers who have died unnecessarily in Iraq, we should also remember that many of the American lives lost in Afghanistan could have been saved-and some of our greatest enemies killed or captured-if the United States had continued to concentrate on that country after 2001.

This failure on Dr. Cohen's part is linked to a central failure as a military historian and analyst: his gross underestimation for many years of the contemporary importance of guerrilla, terrorist and urban warfare. It is true that his books, articles and essays do generally mention these issues, but they do so briefly and formally, in box-ticking fashion; for example, in his essay, "A Revolution in Warfare" (Foreign Affairs, March/April 1996, which in 18 pages mentions these threats in one paragraph). They are dwarfed in his work by the attention paid by him to the "Revolution in Military Affairs" and how this can supposedly ensure absolute U.S. battlefield dominance.