Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that the U.S. and its allies will probably impose a “no-fly zone” over Syria and take other “more aggressive action” against the Syrian regime.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the show with former defense secretary and chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group, William Cohen. Thank you for being with us, Mr. Secretary.
WILLIAM COHEN: Good to be with you, Al.
HUNT: Syria, there’s growing complaints that the Obama administration is AWOL as the violence and mayhem get worse. The Guardian reported there was a protester in Syria carrying a sign saying, “Russia a Shameless Bitch, USA a Hypocritical Bitch.” Is it now time for the U.S. to intervene and stop this mayhem and get rid of the dictator?
COHEN: Well, the United States has been providing some assistance. There’s been a reluctance, obviously, having been engaged in two major wars in the region, at a substantial cost in lives and money, to be sure, treasure, and I think there’s a natural reluctance. Number one, we don’t know who we’re supporting here. Some elements of al-Qaeda coming in. You have Russia that is aligned with Syria. You have Iran aligned with Syria. So getting in, you really have to know what comes after step one.
If you were to take military action, for example, now, what follows the next step? If Russia or Iran then becomes involved militarily, do we then start up the escalator to greater involvement?
HUNT: So too many risks right now.
COHEN: I think that the administration has tried to play it in the way of saying, look, there are other elements, groups in the region, other countries, the Arab states who are, and the gulf states who are supporting Syria, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, providing military means, the United States providing intelligence, providing humanitarian support, providing communication systems.
I think there’s been a general reluctance. I think we’re coming to the point, however, where the violence is getting so severe, I think that you’ll see a movement towards setting up those no-fly zones...
HUNT: You had experience with that in Yugoslavia and with air strikes, too. What are the parallels? And is it harder in Syria?
COHEN: Well, they’ll have to be along the Turkish border. They’ll have to be along non - and, you know, built-up areas, otherwise you really run the risk at that particular point of having lots of collateral damage. The question is political, in the sense that, OK, assuming there’s a no-fly zone, what do other countries then do? What does Russia do? Does Russia say, we’re going to then provide S-300s in shooting down American planes? What do the Iranians do?
HUNT: They wouldn’t do that.
COHEN: Well, who knows what they would do? They haven’t been particularly helpful in...
HUNT: No, they sure haven’t been. Would we do a no-fly zone alone? Would we do it with others?
COHEN: I don’t think so. I think that the United States is not going to go into this alone. That’s why we’ve been working with the gulf states, trying to find a way to have Assad step away and to have some kind of a transition to a representative government.
But there’s been a reluctance, and I think that the pressure’s coming now because of the level of the violence, because there are more...
HUNT: To do the no-fly zone?
COHEN: To do the no-fly zone and to, to take more aggressive action.
HUNT: Let me turn to Iran, which you mentioned a minute ago. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, wrote this week that the window to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability is almost closed. Is this just more saber-rattling? Or do you think there’s a probability the Israelis will take action this year?
COHEN: I think the Israelis are more inclined -- I would say it’s a little bit better than 50/50 -- that the Israelis would take action. The rhetoric is starting to get ratcheted up. Now, that could be tactical, in order to see if they can’t put more pressure on Iran and, again, Russia and China to be more serious about putting sanctions against Iran, to break their - their desire to go forward.
Hard to say at this point. There was a report most recently that Ehud Barak, former prime minister, defense minister, said he has been reading some intelligence reports from the United States that indicate that U.S. intelligence now is more in line with Israeli intelligence. Now, whether that’s a breach of security or a relationship in terms of disclosing this or whether it’s, again, more hyperbole, I don’t know.
HUNT: We’re skipping around the globe, but that’s because you know so many -- expert in so many countries. China you know, you’ve been there a lot. You know a great deal about China, a lot of convulsion going on there, changes taking place. They’re meeting now to set up the -- you know, new -- new regimes. What do you think is happening? And how’s it going to affect U.S.- China relations?
COHEN: I think the relationship that we have established is still a stable one. I think we have to be careful in terms of the campaign rhetoric. I know the Chinese watch us very carefully. I met with a number of them when they came here most recently, and I had to really advise them that the amount of rhetoric coming out of the political campaigns was quite small compared to what it normally would be in an election year.
HUNT: But Mitt Romney said he’s going to declare them a currency manipulator on day one.
COHEN: Well, that’s, that’s one of the challenges. I think you have to be careful during political campaigns that you not make a pledge which you will then be forced to, to reject.
HUNT: And that’s what Romney’s doing?
COHEN: I think there’s a real danger that the first thing he’s going to do is declare them to be a currency manipulator. I think that that would certainly cause some real challenges to the relationship. I think the Chinese want a better relationship with the United States. I think their new leadership wants that. They need it for their own security and stability.
And I think what we do will have a major influence on whether or not there’s a sense of nationalism, increased nationalism in China that will then be provoked to say the United States is treating us as an enemy, therefore, we’re going to take more aggressive action in dealing with the United States.
So I think we have to be careful, not deferential, but be careful how we use language and what policy positions we stake out during a campaign, because you may have to end up really rejecting your own stand. And that will undermine the credibility of Governor Romney, should he become president.
HUNT: Mr. Secretary, you watch these things closely. From what you see and hear, what would be the difference in national security of a Romney administration versus the Obama administration?
COHEN: It’s hard to say at this point. I think Governor Romney has stated he’s going to take a much more aggressive posture. But then I have to ask, well, what does that mean? Does that mean you will be more aggressive in dealing with Iran? Well, how so? Does that mean you’re prepared to take military action, either alone or with -- in conjunction with the Israelis? Does it mean that you’re going to now start treating China in a much more aggressive way as opposed to trying to find commonality of interests, as opposed to exploiting...
HUNT: I gather from what you’re saying it would be -- that that might be a mistake, some of those...
COHEN: I think it would be. I think what we have to do is saying, look, China doesn’t have the same interests as we do on a number of issues, but we have a lot of issues that we do have something in common with in dealing with the environment, in dealing with the global warming, in dealing with trafficking of drugs, in dealing with piracy. There are major issues that we can deal with the Chinese very effectively, and with Russia.
But if you start staking out that they are the enemy, they are a new Soviet Union, or the new Russia is the old Russia, or the old Soviet -- then I think we’re going to find ourselves in a situation where everything is going to be very competitive and antagonistic. That doesn’t necessarily work to our benefit.
HUNT: As you know, Mr. Secretary, that on January 1, a so- called sequestration of spending cuts is supposed to take effect if Congress can’t reach any kind of deficit reduction deal, would be big, big cuts in -- in defense. Everybody from John McCain to Leon Panetta says that that’s -- that’s dangerous, is too much.
I suspect you agree with that. You also have been a real fiscal hawk and said we’ve got to get our fiscal situation in order. So they’re - they’re sort of clashing. What - what would you - what should Congress and the administration do right now, in the next four months?
COHEN: They should pass an agreement in which they agree on $1.2 trillion cuts over the next 10 years. The super-committee of 12 people couldn’t agree on how to come up with $1.2 trillion. That’s why the axe is falling. That is a totally irresponsible act on the part of Congress. You need -- you can cut programs -- any program can be cut, but it should be cut consistent with your national objectives, your national security objectives.
HUNT: Would those cuts, sequestration cuts hurt American national security?
COHEN: Oh, I think they will. And that’s one of the real, I think, pathetic situations that we’re facing. On the one hand, both parties are using this for a political purpose at this point. Republicans are not going to do anything that’s going to give President Obama any kind of a victory in this. The president’s not going to take any action that would ease pressure on Republicans or defense spending.
So each one is kind of playing a game. President Obama is saying, you know, to the American people, the -- Governor Romney and Rush Limbaugh want their tax cuts as opposed to providing for national security. And Governor Romney is going to say that President Obama wants to wage war against rich people, class warfare, rather than protect our national security.
HUNT: Should those spending cuts be accompanied by some tax increases?
COHEN: Yeah, I think so. I believe that the Simpson-Bowles proposal is the one that should have been embraced. I think - I blame both parties, both the president and the Congress, for failing to come up with that. I think we’ll end up there eventually, but we’ll do some damage to our credibility in the international - the capital markets and our rating agencies, et cetera. I think we’re making a big mistake.
I think both parties are to blame. There’s a way to avoid that, and that’s to take the exit ramp off this highway that we are rushing down, traveling down with no one driving, and we’re going down the wrong way.
HUNT: Secretary Cohen, thank you so much for being with us. And when we return, keeping it negative in the race for the White House. Bloomberg reporters are next.
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