The Talented Mr. Cohen

March 2, 2007 Region: Americas

The Talented Mr. Cohen

Given his past policy recommendations, Eliot A. Cohen’s rise to Secretary Rice’s counselor harks back to the commendation of the incompetent, circa Presidential Medal of Honor.

"You've done one heck of a job, Eliot", is clearly the ascendant sentiment within the Bush Administration regarding Eliot A. Cohen, tapped,  according to The Washington Post today , by Secretary Rice to become one of her top advisors. Cohen, after all, is long due for administration commendation-in the Brown-Tenet tradition-after having so tirelessly, and on such very noteworthy basis-agitated for the war in Iraq before that inferno began to so voraciously consume U.S. lives, treasure and geopolitical strength.

There is much that distinguishes Cohen. After the U.S. military had scarcely tipped its toe into Afghanistan, some of a less dogged temperament may have advocated assessing the progression of that war over a period of time. Not Cohen. In a  November 20, 2001 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal , Cohen looked unflinchingly past the horizon-and the brink-advocating not only the Iraq War but also regime change in Iran.

And given Cohen's tireless advocacy of the Iraq War, some observers may have been tempted to conclude that he would either continue his past support of the war in the face of escalating consequences, or concede an error in backing the war in the first place. Again, not Cohen. This scholar of note demonstrates far greater intellectual dexterity, arriving at an altogether different posture. In a  July 10, 2005 Op-Ed in The Washington Post , Cohen poses questions to himself regarding the Iraq War and deigns to provide the reader with his insights.

In that Op-Ed, Cohen professes "Alarm at our continuing failure to promote at wartime speed the colonels and generals who have a talent for fighting it, while also failing to sweep aside those who do not." He goes on to note his "Incredulity at seeing decorations pinned on the chests and promotions on the shoulders of senior leaders-both civilians and military-who had the helm when things went badly wrong."

Cohen gets it altogether right on this important point. The administration has seen fit to decorate those with demonstrated incompetence with medals, promotions-even prestigious appointments. Cohen does not see fit to chronicle in that Op-Ed the details and mechanics of that incompetence but his willingness to point it out has won him praise in many corners for candor. (More on this below.)

And Cohen is quite correct that policymakers-and one can even extend the argument to policymakers to be-should be held to account. In this spirit, it seems appropriate to briefly peruse Cohen's own competence of judgment and foresight.

Flashback to Cohen's November 2001  Wall Street Journal Op-Ed . In it, he counsels: "the U.S. should continue to target regimes that sponsor terrorism. Iraq is the obvious candidate, having not only helped Al-Qaeda, but attacked Americans directly (including an assassination attempt against the first President Bush) and developed weapons of mass destruction." Even the Bush-decorated George Tenet-who Cohen presumably makes indirect reference to in his 2005, self-generated Q&A session-stopped short of suggesting Iraq's hand in the attacks on America.

But perhaps even more remarkable were Cohen's observations regarding Afghanistan. The "U.S. must mobilize in earnest. The Afghan achievement is remarkable-within two months to have radically altered the balance of power there, to have effectively destroyed the Taliban state and smashed part of the Al Qaeda-is testimony to what the American military and intelligence communities can do when turned on to a problem." Mission Accomplished, anyone? Indeed, to not only account for a war's success in just two short months but to also counsel the taking on of another front in that time frame requires a predisposition that is nothing short of remarkable.

And of resounding significance today, given Cohen's recent appointment, is the position he outlined on Iran in that same Op-Ed piece. Although he advocates the strengthening of civil society in Iran, he upholds regime change as the ultimate goal: "The overthrow of the first theocratic revolutionary Muslim state and its replacement by a moderate or secular government, however, would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of bin Laden."

Equally as noteworthy as his policy counsel has been the tenor of his punditry. While State Department officials have said they selected Cohen out of a desire for a more open debate, Cohen does not restrain himself by such conventional objectives. In responding to a much-commented opinion paper published last year on the impact of the Israeli lobby on U.S. policy by scholars Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer (who is on the advisory council of The National Interest ), Cohen did not restrict himself to voicing his rejection of the argument and detailing his thinking for doing so. Again, not Cohen. Instead, he took his criticism in a far more unique direction, accusing both scholars of anti-Semitism.

Regrettably, The Washington Post article today announcing Rice's selection of Cohen as her incoming counselor-in replacement of Philip D. Zelikow-failed to take a retrospective of Cohen's past policy recommendations and predictions. Cohen is described, in the headline, as a "Critic of Iraq Policy", and there is no mention of his past advocacy of the war. Indeed, the article quotes from Cohen's 2005 Q&A Op-Ed-in which Cohen is more than willing to name the names of the "incompetent", and point to "cockamamie schemes", but is altogether more circumspect on what precisely was done wrong and what would have improved matters.

It might have been useful for the Post article to have juxtaposed Cohen's criticism of the administration's handling of Iraq with his unqualified argument for the war's unmistakable necessity, such as his testimony before a House committee in the run-up to the war, in October 2002: "the choice before the United States is a stark one, either to acquiesce in a situation which permits the regime of Saddam Hussein to restore his economy, acquire weapons of mass destruction and pose a lethal threat to his neighbors and to us, or to take action to overthrow him. In my view, the latter course, with all of its risks, is the correct one. Indeed, the dangers of failing to act in the near future are unacceptable." In billing such a long-time advocate of the Iraq War as a "critic", The Washington Post has demonstrated a newfound flair for satire-on its news pages.