Eliot Cohen and Democratic Responsibility

March 16, 2007 Topic: Society Region: Americas

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.

This indifference was extremely widespread in U.S. military and military-bureaucratic circles before 9/11 (as I found in the response to a policy brief that I published on the subject in the spring of 2001, entitled "Soldiers Before Missiles: Meeting the Challenge from the World's Streets", Carnegie Endowment Policy Brief no. 4, 2001). But given what should have been the searing lessons of Vietnam, Beirut, Mogadishu, the Israeli experience in South Lebanon and the Russian experience in Chechnya, that does not make it any the less intellectually culpable on Dr. Cohen's part.

Finally, in the years before and immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dr. Cohen used one aspect of his historical "scholarship" to drive a particular contemporary agenda: namely, his argument that on several occasions in modern history, dynamic and visionary political leaders have been correct in intervening directly in the control of military operations, overruling their professional militaries (Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, Free Press, 2002). Dr. Cohen mentions in this regard Lincoln, Clemenceau, Ben-Gurion and Churchill, though not oddly enough Hitler or Stalin.

From 2001-2003, this historical material was clearly intended by Dr. Cohen to bolster support for the Bush Administration's drive for war with Iraq, against the cautious, eminently well-founded advice of military figures like General Eric Shinseki. Dr. Cohen dismissed as illegitimate "whingeing" the military's attempts to influence the public debate by leaking this advice to the media-something which should be their right and duty in a democracy, or at least one where the public has a right to full information about the basis for critical government decisions ("Generals, Politicians and Iraq", The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2002).

In the process, Dr. Cohen is guilty of some very bad historiography. This applies especially to his suggestion that Churchill was not just a great leader whose rhetoric and example inspired British resistance to Hitler, but that he was a successful strategist. In fact, an overwhelming mass of open material has long existed to demonstrate that this was far from the case (from the naval point of view, see for example Correlli Barnett's Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War, W.W. Norton, 1991). The great majority of Churchill's personal military decisions, often forced through against the advice of his military commanders, ranged from the bad to the disastrous. This was true of the decision to employ fleet aircraft carriers in anti-submarine sweeps in 1939, leading to the loss of HMS Courageous; the failure to plan properly the British intervention in Norway in 1940, which was Churchill's personal responsibility as First Lord of the Admiralty; the decision to divert British forces from North Africa to Greece early in 1941; the dispatch of a hopelessly outnumbered British naval squadron to face the Japanese in November 1941; the decision to defend Singapore rather than evacuate it in the face of the successful Japanese offensive in Malaya; and backing from 1940-42 the RAF's obsession with bombing Germany at the expense of aerial protection for British convoys.

Churchill should have stuck to inspiring the people, gaining international allies, and managing the war effort as a whole-and left the planning and conduct of operations to the professionals. As a result of his failures, by the time of the planning of the Normandy invasion of 1944, he had in effect been sidelined by the U.S. military leadership, with the enthusiastic concurrence of the British admirals and generals. Cohen quotes one incident of Churchill encouraging a criticism of his arguments by a military subordinate; the memoirs of Field Marshal Alanbrooke, Field Marshal Wavell, Admiral Tovey and others are replete with examples of exactly the opposite tendency.

Manipulating historical "scholarship" in this way for the purpose of contemporary politics is of course a common sin. However, if you do engage in this kind of behavior, then you should at least be exposed to the ultimate test of every policy advocate: that of success. In Dr. Cohen's case, he used these arguments to help defeat and silence objections by sections of the U.S. uniformed military to the planning of the Iraq War which have since been proved beyond doubt to have been entirely correct.

And by contributing in this way to a hasty, poorly-planned military operation, it must be repeated that Dr. Cohen took on himself a measure of the moral, intellectual and political responsibility for precisely those U.S. administration mistakes in Iraq which he now denounces, and which have cost so many American lives. It is disappointing-though not surprising-that Dr. Cohen himself does not realize that this record demands from him, as an honorable man, a lengthy period of quiet, private reflection on his mistakes and the reasons for them.