National Security & Defense

A National-Security Deep Dive with Professor Eliot Cohen

(Portrait via Twitter/book cover via Amazon)
A top conservative foreign-policy strategist on Trump and the world.

Eliot Cohen is the Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He served under Condoleezza Rice at the Department of State and recently published a book on U.S. foreign policy, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

Tom Rogan: What motivated you to write The Big Stick?

Eliot Cohen: The first thing was that we were on the verge of a foreign-policy debate about America’s role in the world that was coming about 25 years too late. That debate should have been triggered by the end of the Cold War. But it didn’t happen because hegemony, then, was cheap — other people paid for the First Gulf War, after all — and casualties were low. And then you had the crisis of 9/11 and everything that followed. So, in some ways, it’s only now that we’re going to have that first-order debate about America’s role in the world.

Second, it struck me that there had been a steadily emerging divorce between the world of people who think about foreign policy and the people who actually think about defense. One of the really false choices out there is between “military options” and “diplomatic options.” When you’re most effective, the two work hand in hand.

The third issue is that it seemed to me that Bush, Obama, and Trump didn’t expect to be wartime commanders in chief, yet they were bound to be. So there needed to be some serious thinking not just about what military force structure we want, but how we actually use force.

Rogan: In The Big Stick you suggest offering military commissions — perhaps to the rank of lieutenant colonel — to critical-skill civilians. Do you believe President Trump, as the “shake-things-up dealmaker,” might get behind this idea?

Cohen: The issue is a broader one. Given the extraordinary assets of American economy and American society, the Pentagon has not been great at tapping those. One of the areas I talk about is the ability to tap American economic strength to deliver military power as its needed — to ramp it up — and that’s something by and large we have not been able to do that effectively. But the other part of it is the ability to tap American society. It struck me in the aftermath of 9/11 how little effort there was to bring special talents into the defense and intelligence establishments. After World War II, we created these mammoth bureaucracies — which are quite good in many ways — but which don’t really draw as much as they could on everything else that’s out there in society.

Rogan: What is your key concern on what President Trump has done so far vis-à-vis foreign policy?

Cohen: Everything that flows from his character and temperament. The immediate issues that have been most egregious have been his trashing of Mexico and his rude conversation with the Australian prime minister. And in general, the way that he has been downplaying and disparaging some of our alliances. But in some ways the biggest concern thus far has been the serial lying. Because a president has to be credible.

A time will come when Trump has to go on television and say, “Look, here’s the information that I’ve got and I’ve decided it’s necessary to do thus and such, and I need your support.” But at that point, at least half the country won’t believe him. I won’t believe him unless I have other sources to corroborate what he’s saying. And that’s a serious weakness for a president of the United States.

Rogan: Expanding on that point, do you believe that President Trump’s trust deficit is a counterpoint to President Obama’s credibility deficit, post his 2013 Syria red-line failure?

Cohen: These are two related but separate things. First, when Trump makes a pledge about what he will do in the future, you can’t take that promise to the bank. And there, I think there will be similarities between Trump and Obama. At the crunch, both of them will be willing to back down. In some ways Trump’s willingness to back down may prove to be more of a problem than his belligerence. But what I’m really thinking about is if at some point, Trump has to get up and say, for example, “We’ve just had a raid and we’ve killed Osama bin Laden,” there will be a substantial body of opinion that says, “Unless I see the body, I’m not going to believe it.”

Rogan: How would you suggest President Trump persuade U.S. allies to spend more on defense?

Cohen: The first thing, always, is stop digging. Stop making the problem worse by attacking your allies. There’s no silver bullet. Because this president’s view of everything seems to be driven by the idea of “deals,” I don’t think he’s interested in building relationships. If you look at his business career, he has had dreadful relationships with a lot of people — who he has walked away from because he thinks he can do it. What is important is what kind of relationship you are going to be creating with allies.

Rogan: As President Trump looks in the mirror and realizes that his personal legacy is at stake, do you believe he will make more rational foreign-policy choices?

Cohen: My feeling is pretty pessimistic: Seventy-year-old-plus men don’t change. The things that cause him to be erratic are deeply rooted in his personality, which is so problematic that you’re almost in the realm of something that’s clinical. And so you might have moderation in one case, such as with Japan last weekend, but fundamentally he is who he is. So, he will be erratic down to the end.

Rogan: What is your gut instinct on the nature of Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin?

Cohen: I believe Trump thinks of Putin as someone who is a tough guy, and he sees himself as someone who is a tough guy. And so there’s a bond there. I’ve read [the controversial dossier written by a former British intelligence officer that was released by Buzzfeed] and I’m agnostic about it. It will be interesting to see if reporters can confirm some parts of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some pretty unsavory Russian monetary relationships with the Trump Organization.

I don’t think Trump is [a Russian] FSB operative. But Trump has no particular use for American values abroad, and he doesn’t care if Russia is, for example, carpet-bombing Aleppo. The ideological background of someone like [Steve] Bannon is perhaps a stronger tie to Putin. I think Trump has this simple idea that you can ally with the Russians to go after the Islamic State. And I just don’t think that’s true.

Rogan: To what degree do you believe that Putin is the lesser of two evils when contrasted with the ultra-nationalist Russian Right, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and co.?

Cohen: I’ve never bought that kind of argument. People made it during the middle of the last century: that if you’re really hard on Stalin, then the hard men will take over. I think our ability to assess those things from the outside is really limited. And there’s enough evidence that tells us Putin’s a pretty bad guy. I don’t think we should be thinking that way at all.

Rogan: Dealing with regimes like that of Putin, how important is it to push back against limited incidents — such as the June 2016 FSB attack on a U.S. diplomat in Moscow — as it is to enforce commitments such as President Obama’s August 2013 Syria red line?

Cohen: When you’re dealing with a thuggish regime, it’s important to always push back. Never let them get away with it.

‘When you’re dealing with a thuggish regime, it’s important to always push back. Never let them get away with it.’ — Eliot Cohen

Rogan: When it comes to Trump’s national-security team, who gives you the most confidence?

Cohen: Defense Secretary Mattis. I think highly of CIA director Pompeo. I don’t know Secretary of State Tillerson, but he seems good. Given the administration’s attitudes, Mattis is probably in the strongest position in that he’s a retired four-star general and Trump seems to admire that. I think Tillerson is probably in the weakest position because this administration will be very strongly tempted to bypass the State Department and conduct foreign policy from the White House.

Rogan: Now some specific defense questions. First off, do you believe the land-based U.S. ICBM force is still necessary?

Cohen: It makes sense to have it. It offers a force that is really instantaneous and really reliable. Because what people need to remember is that we don’t just need this for the “big one” with the Soviet Union. We also face threats like North Korea. And U.S. Navy submarine and U.S. Air Force nuclear capabilities take more time to authorize and effect. Also, speed does affect the opposition’s strategic calculations.

Rogan: Do you believe the U.S. Navy should transfer procurement funding from the carrier fleet to the attack-submarine force?

Cohen: The truth is, you need both. I would not accept the choice between the two. I completely support spending 4 percent-plus of GDP on defense. There’s a lot to be said for carriers. There’s an awful lot to be said for submarines. I would put particular emphasis on submarines, but we need just about everything.

Rogan: Do you believe the U.S. government should persuade allies to prioritize defense capabilities that complement our own?

Cohen: Yes. I think that is a good idea. That means really leaning on allies to do some of the things that would make sense as they plug into our forces. But for us to do that successfully we have to look like a reliable partner.

Rogan: I’d like to ask you about some specific foreign-policy actors. First, how should the U.S. balance our relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Cohen: There is something between trying to get these guys to be Jeffersonian democrats — which they will never be — and just saying, “We couldn’t care less what you do domestically, as long as we have a good foreign-policy relationship with you.” One of the themes of my book is the intersection of American interests and American values. Sometimes those things will be in tension, but more often than not they will overlap. And what’s important is the way in which they overlap.

Rogan: Do you believe the U.S. Intelligence Community should engage in contact with adversaries such as the Lebanese Hezbollah?

Cohen: I have no problems with having discreet contacts with some of the worst people on the planet. Just as long as you have no illusions as to what they are: that you are perfectly willing to shake hands with them one day and shoot them the next. People tend to think of diplomacy and force as either-or propositions. They’re not. As long as you’re mentally willing to chat with the enemy one day and blow them up the next, I have no problem with that.

Rogan: In a slightly different regard, do you believe the media has judged President Obama’s foreign policy with positive bias as opposed to its assessment of Trump’s foreign policy?

Cohen: There’s a kind of intellectual dishonesty in obsessing the way people do about the Obama administration. It’s over. The Trump people own everything. I would go even further than that. The Obama administration’s obsession with Bush really crippled them. They always wanted to be un-Bush and they always had a ready excuse for why they had screwed things up in the form of the Bush administration. And it crippled them. On a whole bunch of grounds, I would push back on that.

Rogan: Is there anything you would like to add?

Cohen: A couple of things I believe are noteworthy about my book. First, in it I tried to be as honest as I could be in assessing the last 15 years of war. And that’s not easy, because I was involved in some of those events. And in the final chapter, I tried to consider what it means for a president to be involved in war. Nothing really prepares you to be a wartime commander in chief, and it would behoove any new president to think very hard about what it means to take a country into war, or to wage the ones you are already in.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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