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Ex-Defense Secretary Cohen On Foreign Policy Challenges Facing Trump


We're waiting to find out who's named defense secretary by President-elect Trump. It's a vital job, overseeing millions of civilians and military personnel all around the world. It's the person who symbolizes the American principle of civilian control of the military. Even if it's a former member of the military, he or she would show up every day in a suit. And the job is even more vital than that, given that the secretary of defense would have to turn some of candidate Trump's promises into reality.

We spoke with William Cohen, a Republican who served as secretary of defense under Democratic President Bill Clinton. What does this president, or any president for that matter, need from a secretary of defense?

WILLIAM COHEN: The president has to have confidence in his secretary of defense that he's getting cold, hard advice on military options. The military doesn't make up the mission. The military will go to the president and say, what's the mission, sir? What is it that you want us to accomplish?

And now we'll tell you, here are the risks involved. We'll do whatever you direct us to do, assuming it's consistent with our constitutional obligations. Yeah, we can do this. But it may involve more blood and more treasure. And you'll have to make that determination, Mr. President. So you want that...

INSKEEP: There's a strange minuet that you're describing here, Secretary Cohen. I'm thinking about the fact that Trump on the campaign trail said, I'm going to bomb the stuffing out of ISIS. He used a different word.

COHEN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: If he gives such an order to the military, they have to make that real and maybe come back to him and say this demand is impractical - this won't work.

COHEN: Well, let's say, Mr. President, in order to bomb the stuffing out of ISIS, that means - do you want us to carpet bomb an entire city, killing thousands of innocent civilians? Well, no, that's not what I had in mind. Well, do you want some sort of limited, on-the-ground capability?

So you give the range of options to say, you know, here's what we can do. President-elect, during the course of the campaign, made a number of statements which I think are clearly unachievable and undesirable. And without being too cynical about it, I've always said a presidential candidate - rule No. 1, make no promises. Rule No. 2, if you make them, be sure you break them because what happens on any candidate appealing to their base, they're making statements which are unrealistic in terms of being able to carry out, for the most part.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the way that the president-elect has spoken about Russia?

COHEN: I'm troubled by it. I'm troubled that he would see President Putin as someone to be admired. You can say that, well, he's a strong leader. OK. That's true. But it's not admirable how he's led - by crushing his opposition, by jailing his opponent, by engaging in assassination of opponents, by invading Crimea, by threatening the Baltic states, etc. I think it's important that President-elect Trump say, I want to have a better relationship with Russia. I think that's a good thing. But you have to understand President Putin's agenda. And his agenda is basically to reduce America's influence in Europe and in much of the world.

INSKEEP: Can I just review a little bit of history here, Secretary Cohen? When you were defense secretary in the 1990s, the United States got involved in places like Kosovo...


INSKEEP: ...In projects that were described as nation-building.


INSKEEP: George W. Bush became president, said - I don't want to do nation building. I want a humble foreign policy - ended up being involved in the most gigantic nation-building projects in the history of the country. President Obama came in, wanted to get out of Iraq, get out of Afghanistan, found that very, very hard to do. Now we have another president who has suggested we're too involved overseas.

Do you think that we, as a country, are going to be involved in nation-building, so to speak, one way or another?

COHEN: Well, the question is, can you simply wall yourself off from the rest of the world? Can you say Syria is not our problem? Well, Syria is our problem in the sense that Putin has been bombing civilian areas in Syria, driving them into Europe - doing what? Destabilizing the European nations. They're overwhelmed with Syrian refugees. So we can say it's not our problem - leave it up to the the Syrians and the others to resolve, except that now we've got a crisis in the European nations, who are now moving more and more to the right. And their policies are going to be quite different vis-a-vis the United States and the rest of the world.

Now nation-building - we need to do some nation-building at home. I agree with Mr. Trump on this. We need to do some nation-building here. I was in New York yesterday with my wife. Coming back, coming in Penn Station, the escalator stopped working. We had to schlep the bags all the way down - bounce, bounce, bounce - and you know that you're in a Third World country as far as infrastructure's concerned. And Mr. Trump is absolutely right on that.

So we've got a lot of work to do here at home. But just because we have work to do at home doesn't mean we can ignore what's going on in the rest of the world or should forfeit our ability to shape world events in ways that are favorable to us and our allies.

INSKEEP: Secretary Cohen, thanks for coming by.

COHEN: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: William Cohen was U.S. Secretary of Defense and a Republican senator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.