Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bill Clinton's Parallels To Today


When President Trump ordered the strikes on Syria last night, the decision came at a time of personal crisis, a special counsel investigation and a criminal investigation into his personal lawyer. These twin challenges have drawn comparisons to 1998 when President Clinton responded to al-Qaida attacks with an airstrike on Sudan on the same day Monica Lewinsky was to appear before a grand jury to give testimony about her affair with the president. William Cohen was secretary of defense at that time. He joins us from his home. Thanks very much for being with us.

WILLIAM COHEN: It's good to be with you. Thank you.

SIMON: Mr. Secretary, I want to note, as someone who was a reporter then, that there was a lot of skepticism about the timing of those attacks. They turned out to be justified. How do you feel about President Trump's decision last night?

COHEN: Well, I think it was justified. I did question both the means in which he communicated his intent and the message that went out to the Russians and the Syrians and the Iranians. Namely, it went out as a taunt. And I've tried to indicate some of my past appearances that, you know, the NFL banned taunting for a good reason. And I think at the presidential level, taunts are unwarranted because they can produce a backlash or reaction, which could be quite consequential to the United States.

So I don't like the method of announcing what we're going to do by tweet. And I think the attitude or the tone I should say with which it was delivered, I think, was not productive. Beyond that, I believe that it did warrant a component of a reaction to be a military component. But I had hoped it would go further, that we would also increase the sanctions against all three combined - the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians - because I think they're complicit in this. It's not just the chemical weapons as horrific as they are. But they've been using barrel bombs on innocent civilians.

They have, in fact, militarized - weaponized, I should say - weaponized the refugees by driving millions up into European countries thereby destabilizing them. So this is a long war. And it's been fought unfairly to be sure by having Russians, Iranians and maybe even Lebanese join in the effort to defeat those who are trying to resist or rebel against Assad's regime. But nonetheless, I think the president was right to take action.

There's an expression in terms of, don't telegraph what you're going to do, and just do it. And I think in this particular case so, we should have been more careful in what we were going to say. The president made the statement and then had to walk it back because Secretary Mattis, I'm sure, gave him a very sober message in terms of number one, we need time to plan this - number two, we need allies. This is not a U.S. against Russia. Do not allow us to make a taunt against the Russians. We're coming - very smart, very fast. That could have complicated this mission a great deal - and say, let's make sure it's multilateral, multinational.

We're not going to the U.N. Security Council because the Russians will block it. But we are looking for a coalition of the willing here. And we've got to have our best allies who have joined in this. So it's not the U.S. against Russia. It is the civilized community against a country and leader who has used barbaric means of waging war.

SIMON: Mr. Cohen, I have to take another minute out of the time we have with our other correspondents to ask you one more question. You, earlier in your career, were on the House judiciary committee that voted to impeach President Richard Nixon over Watergate crimes.

COHEN: Right.

SIMON: See any parallel with current events?

COHEN: Well, at this moment, they're still gathering the evidence. We were very careful in trying to define what constituted an impeachable offense - a high crime and misdemeanor. We have yet to see that produced by Mr. Mueller. But I think it's critical that the investigation go on and not be interfered with.

SIMON: Thanks very much, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Thanks very much for being with us.

COHEN: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.