Thursday, November 17, 2011


On Tuesday the 15th of November, ex-Congressman, Senator and Secretary of Defence in the Clinton Administration (1997-2001), William Cohen spoke to members of the Oxonian Society at the Cornell Club. The following are some of the remarks made by the ex-Secretary of Defence:

States that his ex-chief, President Clinton 'possessed a brilliant intellect'. And that Clinton gave him approximately ninety-nine percent of what he wanted while in office. On the threat posed by Al-Qaeda during his term of office, Cohen stated that he was in ignorance of their true ambitions, even after the attack on the USS Cole in the year 2000. Concerning the retaliatory missile attack on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 1998, Cohen related that due to the fact that the United States at the time did not possess any bases in the immediate area, and that any attack on Afghanistan had to come from the sea, the firing of cruise missiles was the only feasible alternative. A form of military action which by its very nature was 'imprecise' and subject to possible Pakistani leaks.

As per the current unrest in the Near East, Cohen stated that he foresees the regime in Damascus as being 'one the way out'. And the upshot of the so-called Arab Spring is that the United State 'will have less influence', both in the region and indeed in the rest of the world. With the USA, in 'relative decline', as opposed to Peking's being a 'rising power'. As per how to handle Peking, Cohen advocates a mixture of 'stakeholder' tactics and containment. As per Cohen, the regime in North Korea will survive as long as the PRC will prop it up.

Cohen itemized five major threats to the United States in the upcoming years, with the first two being: i) the American economy, stating 'you cannot be a strong country with a weak economy'. Citing of all people, the British emigre historian Niel Ferguson. Cohen argued that dealing imaginatively with the American fiscal deficit was a fundamental action to remedy the American economy for the long-term; ii) the spread of nuclear weapons, especially if Persia managed to become a nuclear power. The danger of uncontrollable proliferation in the Near East with Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia among others in a rush to acquire nuclear weapons. As per Cohen, none of the three widely discussed options to deal with the Persian situation: a) containment; b) military action; c)sanctions, offers a full-proof and effective 'solution' to this complex problem. With the problem of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands a frightening possibility for Cohen.

Overall, my reaction to Cohen's talk was that he while an ultra-safe pair of hands while in office during the Clinton years, he was almost completely out of his depth as soon as a more dangerous and challenging international climate came into being in September 2001. Although I should add, that his successor Mr. Rumsfeld, was not by any means the answer to the problem of imaginative thinking required in the new environment of the 11th of September attacks. That only came with the succession of Secretary Gates in 2006. Five years too late unfortunately.


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