TOPICS > Politics

Secretary of Defense William Cohen

March 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, a Newsmaker interview with the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen. He has just returned from a trip to Asia. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

WILLIAM COHEN: Pleasure to be here.

JIM LEHRER: Among the places you went, Vietnam, why did you go there?

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, I had been trying to go for the last couple of years, and the trip had been postponed on several occasions, but it was important because I think that the Vietnamese government as such is reaching out. They have shown an openness to the United States and to other countries. They have been negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. Government and, so, for all of those reasons we want to see if we can’t integrate, help integrate Vietnam into the world community and they seem quite eager to do that.

JIM LEHRER: This is 25th anniversary of the fall of Vietnam, the end of the Vietnam War.

WILLIAM COHEN: And the fifth anniversary of our normalization with Vietnam.

JIM LEHRER: But you didn’t — the Vietnam War wasn’t a haze over your trip in any way?

WILLIAM COHEN: There was no haze at all. There was the event that I really went to really partake in and that was the joint task force that is out there trying to account for our missing in action and to recover any remains that we can find. And I made it very clear to all of the Vietnamese leadership that I spoke with that this is central to the United States, that we will continue to insist that they do everything they can to help us account for our missing in action. So I went out to a rice paddy and saw the incredible work and the incredible cooperation that the Vietnamese people are giving to this joint task force. Some 200 Vietnamese people are standing side by sides with Americans, and they’re knee deep in mud sifting through an excavation point to look at every possible conceivable speck of dirt, even to find any remnants of a pilot who we believe was shot down over Vietnam.

JIM LEHRER: But you are the first defense secretary to go since 1971, and clearly since the end of the war, was this your idea? You run the United States military. And this was the — you went to a country that essentially won a war against the United States military and it ended 25 years ago. I mean, was there something that you wanted to do or that they wanted you to come? Explain that.

WILLIAM COHEN: I wanted to see if we can’t explore ways in which we could have established military to military relationships.

JIM LEHRER: Military to military?

WILLIAM COHEN: Yes, exactly I went as Secretary of Defense and would explore ways in which we could perhaps cooperate to find those step-by-step procedures that could build a sense of mutual confidence not to rush into any kind of an embrace but rather to see whether or not – for example — we could help with their de-mining effort. They’re still quite a few mines laced throughout Vietnam, which can pose a threat to innocence people, to farmers trying to farm the territory and so forth. So that was one area. Flood control. They had a disastrous flood last we are year. We think the Army Corps of Engineers could be very helpful in preventing that or helping prevent that in the future.

Other types of areas, veterinarian exchanges to look at medical research and medical types of techniques that we think could be helpful to them, to explore on a joint basis the science behind the use of chemicals like Agent Orange — all of that was something that we think key with be helpful in building this kind of relationship, and then over a period of time to see if that can’t be expanded — all of that within the context of bilateral relations with the Vietnamese government. So it’s not just military to military but it has to be in the context of full diplomatic, economic trade, other types of activities with the U.S. Government.

JIM LEHRER: The big issue, of course, in Asia right now is China versus Taiwan. What is your reading of that? Is this all talk, or is this a serious threat of an armed conflict between those two?

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, I think that there could be the potential for armed conflict, but both sides appear to have stepped back. While I was there, I also stopped in Hong Kong to visit with Hong Kong leadership as such with the — Chairman Tung and others to encourage the Chinese to lower their rhetoric, to step become from this abyss that both sides seem to be heading toward with the Taiwanese talking about independence, which we do not support — with the Chinese government talking about military threats and intimidation which we also do not support and encourage both sides to step back.

That appears to be the case for the time being. And what we’ve encouraged is more dialogue and I think that we’re seeing at least some reaching out on the part of the new president in Taiwan to see if he can’t establish this kind of a dialogue with the Chinese government. So it has the potential for conflict but that would be a disaster certainly for China and for Taiwan, so we want to encourage both to step back.

JIM LEHRER: You have read some signs that this may not happen, that they really are stepping back?

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, there are positive signs coming out of the new president – Chen. He has indicated that he is willing to seek to somehow withdraw the party platform as far as independence, the quest for independence. He has also indicated he is willing to go to Beijing to sit down with Chinese leaders to talk about ways in which they could reconnect themselves in terms of a positive nonmilitary type of atmosphere.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you went to Japan and you also went to Korea on this trip. Do they want to talk about the China, Taiwan thing? Are they worried about that as well?


JIM LEHRER: What is their concern?

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, everyone throughout the region is worried about that. To the extent there were ever a conflict involving China and Taiwan it would have consequences which I think are not quite easy to fathom at this point, diplomatic, certainly economic, potentially military. They’re all concerned about that. They want to see this situation resolved peacefully because certainly their stability and their prosperity is put at risk if there is any kind of a conflict in the region. And so they both were very interested in seeing that each side stepped back and they were quite encouraged by what I think the results were so far.

JIM LEHRER: Did they say things to you, like Mr. Secretary, the United States has got to do more, the United States has got to get in here and keep this from happening. Did they hold us responsible for keeping these two folks apart in some way?

WILLIAM COHEN: They don’t hold us responsible. We obviously have a very important relationship with China and we have a commitment to Taiwan as well under the Taiwan Relations Act. So they see us as being the major superpower who has certain responsibilities, but I also encouraged their leadership to be convey the same message to the Chinese government and to the Taiwanese — same message throughout. Both sides have to step back. The Taiwanese have to drop their statements about claiming independence because we do not support that. The Chinese have to top talking about taking military action or threatening to take military action.

JIM LEHRER: Is the United States preparing for that eventuality?

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, we always have our security preparations to try and discourage and deter combat wherever we are deployed and so we’re prepared for virtually any contingency.

JIM LEHRER: That is going to be tricky, isn’t it, Mr. Secretary, if something like that happens to the United States?

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, it’s a very dangerous situation should you have China seeking to impose its will upon Taiwan through the use of military force. That’s one of the reasons we tried to discourage it and will continue.

JIM LEHRER: Now, one of the things, of course, about Asia is that we have 100,000 U.S. troops still there. Are they still needed?

WILLIAM COHEN: Absolutely. Those 100,000 troops have managed to keep the peace and maintain stability and encourage prosperity throughout the Asia Pacific region. In fact, I tried to point out and have pointed out to the Chinese leadership that they have been a principal beneficiary of American presence throughout the region because were we to leave, it would create a vacuum that would have to be filled by someone. The filling of that vacuum could be greatly destabilizing and create quite an arms race and potential for conflict. So China has been able to pursue Deng Xiaoping’s four modernizations and to do so in a peaceful atmosphere. It’s allowed them to gain some prosperity and quite a bit of stability throughout the region so all of Asia Pacific I think is grateful for our contributions to stability. We in turn have benefited from that. This is not something that is simply out of charity. We are principal beneficiaries of a stable, prosperous Asia, and we found out that there was the so-called “Asian Flu” and we caught a cold back here as well.

JIM LEHRER: But is there a specific military mission for the 100,000 Americans?

WILLIAM COHEN: Yes. They are there to deter North Korea from moving militarily against South Korea. We are there to try to encourage four-party talks between the North Koreans and South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, others. We want to have a deterrent posture and maintain that deterrent posture throughout the region. We have good relations with Singapore and Thailand, all of the so-called ASEAN countries, the Southeast Asian nations – so our presence is very much wanted and they are indeed very grateful for it.

JIM LEHRER: Nobody is asking to you get out there?

WILLIAM COHEN: No, not at all. Not at all.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Another part of the world, Kosovo, peace isn’t working quite as well as the United States and NATO had hoped, is it?

WILLIAM COHEN: Well, it could be better. We’ve come a long way from last year. We have this one year anniversary that we’re also looking at this week. And if you compare it to where we were last year with Milosevic trying to expel – well he did — 800,000 people, who have since returned to Kosovo, some 550,000 who were internally displaced — some 300,000 school children now back in school. So we have come a long way from where we were a year ago by waging an air campaign against Milosevic. We still have a lot of work to do. And that is on getting civilian implementation of this peace process, namely we have to have more police, we should not have to rely upon our military forces to carry out police missions. We should get courts and judges and prosecutions. We should have local elections, set up a political process so there can be a return to the form of autonomy they had enjoyed before Milosevic cracked down in 1989, 1990.

JIM LEHRER: But, as a practical matter, Mr. Secretary, is the establishment or the reestablishment, depending on how you want to phrase it, of a real multi-ethnic society really going to be possible? Isn’t it true now that every time there are Serbs and Albanians living close together, they have problems, they are killing each other, they’re fighting like crazy?

WILLIAM COHEN: It’s going to take time. They’re going to have to either live side by side or face the possibility of killing each other face to face. We’re trying to discourage that. It’s going to take some time, but passions are still high. Any time you have a family that has been murdered by the Serbs or vice versa there are going to be long-term lingering hatreds that the result from that. We’re trying to cool those passions and over a period of time show that the prospect for prosperity and peace is going to be much greater if we learn to live together and not be constantly digging into the old wounds.

JIM LEHRER: No second thoughts about the NATO operation in Kosovo?

WILLIAM COHEN: I have no second thoughts. I think there was no choice. I think NATO could not have sat on the sidelines, sitting on its principles as such, and being indifferent to the kind of ethnic cleansing that was taking place. There was no choice but for NATO to take action.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Secretary. Thank you very much.