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Newsmaker with Secretary of Defense William Cohen

March 11, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to a Newsmaker interview with Secretary of Defense William Cohen. He’s a Republican who served 24 years in Congress, 6 in the House, 18 as a Senator, before retiring last year. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: Good to be here.

JIM LEHRER: Are you at ease with being called Mr. Secretary, rather than Senator, after all these years?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, it’s difficult to make the transition I think after having spent nearly a quarter of a century on Capitol Hill the term, the Appalachian Senator still sticks, but I’m evolving into the Secretary’s position.

JIM LEHRER: Two things from today’s news. First of all, the Lake hearings finally began today. Do you believe Tony Lake should be confirmed as director of Central Intelligence?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I do. I think that he is–has experience in the capability of becoming a very good director. As I’ve indicated before, I think the President of the United States, whatever person occupies that position, Republican or Democrat, is entitled to his choices for cabinet or cabinet level positions unless Congress is satisfied that that person lacks either the competence or the character to hold that position. The burden of proof I think shifts to Congress. I think it’s a high burden of proof. I think the President should have his cabinet choices unless there’s compelling evidence that would disqualify that individual. And I believe that Tony Lake has the experience, the capability, the confidence, and the character to be a very good director.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t know of anything that would disqualify him?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I’m not aware of anything that would disqualify him. And obviously that’s the purpose of the hearings, to determine whether there are any facts that would warrant such disqualification.

JIM LEHRER: You said some of the things before, and it’s been interpreted as kind of a lukewarm endorsement of Anthony Lake.

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, I guess it’s been interpreted as a lake-warm endorsement of Tony Lake, but it’s not lukewarm at all. I know him. I like him. I think he’ll do a very good job.

JIM LEHRER: And as director of Central Intelligence and you’re Secretary of Defense, you have to work together much, a lot, will you not?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Indeed. I’ve worked together with Mr. Lake, working very closely with Sec. Albright, Sandy Burger, the National Security Advisor. It’s a very close working team, and that’s important.

JIM LEHRER: And Lake–you don’t foresee any problems working with him, if he is confirmed?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I see no problems whatsoever.

JIM LEHRER: All right. The other thing is the China connection that has gotten so much attention lately. Your predecessor, as Secretary of Defense, William Perry, put in place several cooperative steps with the Chinese. One of them had invited the defense minister here, and then there’s some Chinese navy ships that are going to dock at Pearl Harbor and all that sort of thing. What is your attitude about that sort of thing?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I think they’re very important, and I think Sec. Perry made an important contribution to establishing a much better relationship with China. And I think these military to military contacts are essential if we’re going to have the appropriate balance in our relationship with China, and we ought to understand that it’s not always going to be easy, because this is a country that’s going to emerge as a regional power certainly. We’re going to have areas of potential cooperation and also potential conflict, and we have to resolve those conflicts in the best possible fashion. So these military to military contacts, relationships, exchanges are critically important to making sure that as we hit these potential periods or issues that we have a competition or conflicting interpretation or of interest that we’re able to work them out in a satisfactory fashion. So I will support them very strongly.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see them being jeopardized by these allegations that they may have tried to influence our congressional elections in ’96?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I think these military to military contacts are important. The allegations about improper conduct are separate and apart from that. I think that our relationship as a sovereign power and dealing with them in a very important century that we’re going to enter into is not going to be diverted by this. I think it’s important we separate that out, whatever allegations are proved to be founded in fact. They’ll have their consequences, but in terms of our military to military contacts, I think those must go forward.

JIM LEHRER: You have not seen any evidence from the Chinese side in the last few days, have you, that they feel differently about this in terms of the military stuff?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I have not had any conversations with military leaders in recent days, but I would expect that we will continue a strong military to military relationship.

JIM LEHRER: On Bosnia, Mr. Secretary, you said repeatedly now that U.S. troops are going to be gone in 18 months. That’s the commitment. But there seems to be–have you changed in the last few days your hardness on that point?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Not at all. As a matter of fact, it’s not my position. It’s NATO’s position. NATO has agreed to end its mission in Bosnia in June of 1998. And we are part of NATO, and we will leave as well. When NATO leaves, all the nations will leave. The United States will be out but all the other nations will be out, and that’s the commitment that’s been made. I intend to see to it to the best that I can that we adhere to that time frame. I just recently completed a trip to Bosnia and had an opportunity to see our troops in the field, and Americans should be very proud of the young men and women who are serving in our military. They’re bright; they’re patriotic, enthusiastic, have high morale and good training, and they are committed to their job. But they also understand the mission has to end and will end at the appropriate time. And that will be next year.

JIM LEHRER: But the 18 months seems arbitrary. Is that based on what’s happening on the ground, or is that based on the support that might be generated or not be generated forward here in the United States?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: It’s an arbitrary date, but every date that one picks tends to be arbitrary the closer one gets to it. But, nonetheless, we feel, NATO feels that that is time enough to allow the formerly warring factions to make a determination as to whether they’re going to pursue a peaceful relationship or return to war. But they will have had three seasons of peace. The seeds of peace have been planted. Hopefully, they will take root and grow even deeper and become self-sustaining. That’s our policy, to allow them enough time to make that determination, and I saw some quite positive signs. I saw farmers in the fields. I saw houses with roofs being put back on that had been blown apart by fire power. I saw factories starting up, and so we think that that will be time enough for them to make that kind of determination.

JIM LEHRER: Have you asked the military commanders, General Joulwan and others, point blank, hey, what do you think is going to happen in 18 months if we pull out of here?


JIM LEHRER: What do they say?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: They feel that we’ll be out of there at the end of the time frame. The mission will come to an end in June of 1998, and that we will leave.

JIM LEHRER: And no crashing behind them as they leave? I mean, no–no rekindling of the war, no rekindling of the–

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: No one can predict that, but that’s going to be up to the parties. We are giving them and providing them with an opportunity to pursue a path of peace. If they choose to return to the path of war and the agonies of war, that’s going to be their choice, but we have given them an opportunity to have a cease-fire to allow for a reconstruction of their country, to allow for the infusion of capital coming into their country, and to see that the fruit of peace is much better than the bitter taste of warfare.

JIM LEHRER: On a more general area, Mr. Secretary, several of your Republican colleagues accused President Clinton before you became Secretary of Defense of downsizing, allowing the downsizing of the American military to a point where we were in jeopardy in terms of performing all of its missions. You’ve now been on the job. You’ve seen it from the inside. What, in fact, is the state of affairs.

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I think we have downsized to the point where we ought not to go any lower. We’ve had a significant reduction in the procurement budget since the height of the Cold War. We’ve had a significant reduction in our force structure and strength, manpower as such. And so I think we’ve gone about as low as we should go. Now, we may make further reductions, depending upon what we go through as far as this quadrennial defense review, trying to determine–

JIM LEHRER: Explain what that is.

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: That’s a review that’s underway right now to determine exactly how we should shape our forces for the future to make a determination to the best extent we can what the future is likely to look like. What will the nature of the conflicts be, or the threats to our security be in the year let’s say 2010, 2015, because we have to start planning now to shape our forces to fit those kinds of scenarios and situations, and so we’re looking across the board. We’re looking at is our strategy right, do we have the right strategy for the future, and once we decide upon what our strategy should be, what is our force structure, how do we structure our forces to carry out the missions that will be required at that time? What sort of–

JIM LEHRER: How in the world do you make–how in the world can you make a determination like that?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, we have to put our best minds together to look into the future, understanding that it is not predictable with any degree of certainty, but as best we can what are the likely events that we’re likely–

JIM LEHRER: Those are political decisions, are they not, rather than military?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: They’re both. They’re a combination–looking at how we expect events to unfold in Europe. Do we expect, for example, to have NATO enlarge? And the answer is, yes, we do. We see that enlargement taking place. We see a relationship with Russia unfolding, it could unfold in a very positive fashion. We know that there are going to be continued trouble spots certainly in the Middle East. We have to be concerned about countries who are spreading the use of weapons of mass destruction and acquiring missile technology, and so we know there will be terrorist threats out there. So we can reasonably anticipate the kind of future we’re likely to confront. And then we have to then shape our forces to deal with that in the most effective fashion we can.

JIM LEHRER: What about the basic concept that the United States military must be prepared to fight essentially two Desert Storms at once, do you subscribe to that?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, that’s something we’re looking at right now as to whether–as a superpower, and we have to understand what are the benefits and the responsibilities of being a superpower and what are its costs, and what are the liabilities one would confront if you don’t choose to be a superpower. But assuming that we make that choice that we intend to have a power that’s capable of being projected, of influencing events well beyond our borders to protect our national security, then we have to take into account what the world scene is going to look like. Should we have the capability of responding to a Korea should there be the case, if that should implode or explode? Should we also be prepared to deal with Saddam Hussein once again moving into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia? Do we have to concern with an Iran that seems to be determined to spread terrorism all throughout various parts of the globe? Then I think you can say we have to have a full spectrum of capability and that may very well entail having the opportunity or capability of–

JIM LEHRER: Two big wars at once?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Two big or medium sized wars at once.

JIM LEHRER: That’s 500,000 personnel, American personnel were involved in Desert Storm.

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another Desert Storm. Several things have taken place. No. 1, Saddam Hussein’s capability has been significantly reduced. No. 2, we have been able to preposition much of our equipment in areas that will allow us to very rapidly expand our capabilities, so–

JIM LEHRER: Anywhere in the world?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Anywhere in the world. And certainly in the Middle East, and certainly we have forward deployed forces in the Far East as well, and so we are capable of responding to contingencies in most parts of the world, yes.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the other part of what has become the role of the United States military which was to keep the peace, to bring humanitarian aid, particularly in Africa and other places like that, are you on board on that? Do you think that’s a legitimate function of the U.S. military, and did you find as Secretary of Defense that the U.S. military is onboard as well?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, first of all, we are keeping the peace by being forward deployed, by having this superpower capability, we are keeping the peace in most regions of the world by virtue of our presence, by virtue of our power. With respect to peacekeeping missions per se, I think it’s important that we be very selective because there will be no shortage of missions that we could be committed to and by committing armed forces to peacekeeping missions, we are draining significantly resources down from our primary mission, and that is protecting the vital national security interest of the country. So we have to have some balance; we have to be selective; and when we find that an area is so overrun and incapable of responding to humanitarian needs or on a catastrophic basis, then we can make a case for having our military perform limited types of missions until such time that civilian authorities can, in fact, respond in appropriate fashion.

JIM LEHRER: Is it your impression, Mr. Secretary–and I realize this review isn’t finished yet–but is it your impression that this was going to take a monumental change in direction and structure of the military to accommodate this new vision, these new missions?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I think we have to take a responsible change, make a responsible change. It may be more radical than some would envision and may not be far enough as far as others are concerned, but my goal is to do the right thing in terms of sizing our force to fit our strategy as best we can determine what the future’s going to look like.

JIM LEHRER: And that will be when, when are you going to do this?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, we hope to have the report presented to Congress by May 15th.

JIM LEHRER: Are you comfortable being a Republican in the Democratic cabinet?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Absolutely. I must say that I’ve enjoyed my relationship with President Clinton and Vice President Gore, the entire national security apparatus, that the people have been terrific. There has been no disagreement, no dissension, no differentiation of treatment of me from anyone else.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see yourself as a member of a team, or as an independent contractor that’s been brought on to run the defense establishment?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: No. I see myself as a member of a team. I serve at the pleasure of the President. I hope to serve him well. I bring obviously some independent judgments to bear, but I am principally a member of his national security team.

JIM LEHRER: No frustrations–oh, my goodness, if I was still a United States Senator, I could make a statement, I could go to the floor of the Senate and express my opinion on such and such or wa wa, whatever?

SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I think I have to be more disciplined in my remarks because they tend to carry more weight as far as foreign entities are concerned. They look with much greater scrutiny on something I might say, so I have to be a bit more disciplined than I was as a United States Senator. But there’s been no frustration. I’ve enjoyed this job very much. I enjoyed being a Senator. But I’m enjoying this job even more so.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.