Until Donald Trump was elected president, it was conservatives who knew Eliot Cohen as the brilliant and hard-working director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Supreme Command, a compelling study of how great wartime leaders used their political authority to exert control over their military brass. If liberals thought about Cohen at all, it was to revile him as a key “neocon” and early hawk regarding American intervention in Iraq.
Today it is liberals who revere Cohen, as the dean of Never Trumpers. He thrilled them and the media by publishing a Washington Post op-ed dismissing President-elect Trump and his circle of advisers as “triumphalist rabble-rousers and demagogues” who are “out of their depth and unfit for the jobs they hold.” (He had said, during the primaries, that Trump’s victory “would be an unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy.”)
This is too bad. Cohen’s new book contains a powerful message, about the American military and its place in foreign policy, that liberals won’t like and that people in the current White House could benefit from — and even agree with — if they read it. Indeed, of all our recent presidents, Trump, ironically, might turn out to be the one who most resembles Cohen’s particular object of admiration and the source of the title of the book, Theodore Roosevelt.
As Cohen points out in his introduction, TR’s most famous saying — “Speak softly and carry a big stick” — was not a formula for bellicosity but a useful reminder to Americans that, in the world of international relations, we must “use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good.” This was good advice that Trump’s liberal predecessor chose to ignore in Syria, with disastrous consequences. Likewise, in eight years in office, Obama downplayed and shortchanged what Cohen argues is still the most important component in the United States’ ability to influence events around the world: our military.
This is the heart of Cohen’s message in The Big Stick. Getting America back on track in international affairs (dare we say, making America great again?) will mean getting our military back on track, in terms both of what it can do and what it should do.
“Military power is, at best, a rough and imprecise instrument,” Cohen writes, “used painfully and with unpredictable results. It is not a scalpel, but a knife that can turn in its wielder’s hand. . . . Although it often taps some of the highest virtues of which human beings are capable — comradeship, perseverance, dedication to duty, self-sacrifice — there is nothing lovely about it. It is, however, indispensable, and at this juncture in our history, perhaps, more so than ever.”
In terms of what our military can currently do, Cohen gives us a pretty clear picture of where we are, and of what’s needed now and in the future. Even though our armed forces, and especially our nuclear arsenal, have shrunk considerably since the end of the Cold War, “the United States remains the world’s dominant military power.” Its forces are still the best equipped, the best trained, and the best led — while, owing to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the broader War on Terror, the American military is also by far the most deeply steeped in actual combat experience.
However, today it faces not one major geopolitical challenge, as in the Cold War, but four: China, Russia, supranational radical-Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, and an unpredictable, dangerous, and soon-to-be-nuclear-armed regional hegemon, namely Iran. Russia and China pose the most formidable challenges, and not just because they possess nuclear arsenals of their own. In the past 15 years, while all our attention was focused on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and on waging the War on Terror, Russia and China were ramping up their forces and their plans for breaking our conventional military strength in a future conflict — a strategy with which we are still woefully unprepared to deal.
In this regard, Cohen notes that while we have spent a lot on our military, and continue to spend a lot in absolute-dollar terms (maybe three times more than China and six times more than Russia), we haven’t been spending a lot in terms of GDP: just above 3 percent of GDP, compared with 8 percent in the Reagan years. And of what we’ve spent, too little has gone for what we are going to need in the future. Here one wishes Cohen had said more about the threats America’s military faces in the cyber and space domains, where both China and Russia are prepared to cut off our forces’ access to our global networked systems, including GPS, in the event of war. He also says nothing about both countries’ growing threat in the information domain, where Moscow’s hybrid-warfare tactics have integrated disinformation on the Internet to disrupt, distract, and demoralize opponents, as they did during Russia’s operations in Ukraine in 2014 — even though Cohen admits that our failure to develop an effective information-war strategy was a signal failure in combating radical Islam after 9/11.
Nor does he mention the Pentagon’s new so-called Third Offset strategy, the effort to harness the entire range of advanced technology, from robotics and artificial intelligence to high-energy lasers and microwave weaponry, to offset Russian and Chinese gains in conventional arms. Indeed, of all the bad decisions that a Trump Pentagon could make, the most catastrophic would be to abandon or sideline the Third Offset strategy, the Obama administration’s one positive contribution to our defense future. It would be the present-day equivalent of the U.S. Army’s court-martial of Colonel Billy Mitchell, the father of strategic air power, in 1925 — a triumph of vested interests over national security, of the kind that, as Cohen notes, happens all too often in today’s Pentagon.
Cohen is more vocal about what our military, and America’s foreign policy, doesn’t need. That’s more advice (from various well-meaning but misguided thinkers) that, in a more interdependent world, we don’t require a strong military any longer, or that a strong American military causes more problems than it solves, by tempting us to get into shooting wars we shouldn’t be part of in the first place.
These assumptions underpin the American Left’s neo-isolationism, which was born of disillusionment about Vietnam and animates its current leadership. The Obama administration brought these assumptions into office in 2009; they dictated its defense and foreign policy, including running down our military readiness and trying to “lead from behind.” The dangerous result has been that they’ve left us with more wars than when Obama took office — including one in Iraq we had supposed was won and over.
Cohen’s chief worry now seems to be that the new Trump administration is drawn to the right flank of the neo-isolationist spectrum, born of disillusionment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But is this true? Certainly Trump’s selection of his national-security team — Generals James Mattis at the Pentagon, John Kelly at Homeland Security, and H. R. McMaster at the National Security Council — doesn’t indicate a low opinion of the military or a low priority on making it strong and assertive. It’s true that some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric about possibly leaving NATO after its bungling of the war in Afghanistan, and his dismissive comments about America’s sacrifice in Iraq — “What do we have now? We have nothing,” Cohen quotes Trump as saying — have to smart for someone who, as an adviser to Condi Rice, played no small part in both (although Cohen himself, in The Big Stick, now admits that the war in Iraq “was a mistake”).
On the other hand, Trump’s embrace of the theme of “peace through strength” and of rebuilding our military (an effort that would include a 350-ship Navy, up from the current level of fewer than 285 ships), not to mention his commitment to rebuilding our depleted nuclear arsenal even at the risk of a nuclear-arms race, strongly suggests that we have a president who appreciates the importance of the big stick — even though speaking softly and moderately doesn’t seem to be his forte.
Yet Trump’s overriding virtue, from Cohen’s point of view, might be not making the mistake that Woodrow Wilson first made in World War I and that more than one president — including Cohen’s old boss, George W. Bush — has fallen for. This is the conceit that any war America happens to be fighting can be transformed into the start of a “new world order,” such that the war we win today will be the last we ever have to fight.
Teddy Roosevelt did not make that mistake. It’s doubtful Donald Trump will, either. It is more likely that he will understand that the U.S. will always be in competition with other great powers, especially in the military sphere, and that the old Roman adage “If you want peace, prepare for war” still holds true.
At one point, Cohen quotes the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “Know your enemy and know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will not be defeated.” He adds: “Iraq, Afghanistan, and the conflict with al-Qaeda showed that the United States often misunderstood its enemies. It [also] did little better in understanding itself.” Maybe the same lack of understanding applies to certain national-security experts when it comes to a new president.
– Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior.