Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that President Barack Obama must contend with two losing scenarios in evaluating his options for any U.S. military strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the program with Bill Cohen, former defense secretary. Thank you for being with us, Mr. Secretary.
WILLIAM COHEN: Pleasure.
HUNT: You were the defense chief during the U.S. military strikes against Kosovo in 1999. What are the similarities between that and the challenges that we face in potential acts against Syria?
COHEN: Well, the similarities, you have a situation where Slobodan Milosevic was about to - trying to purge roughly - ethnically cleanse about a million people. And the notion that you would tolerate ethnic cleansing at that time was so abhorrent that we were able to rally the entire NATO organization to say action must be taken.
Here you have also a dictatorship and a dictator and tyrant who basically has unleashed what we think - and we’ll have to prove - chemical weapons upon his own people. And so this should, in fact, horrify most of the civilized world.
HUNT: Would a military task be more difficult?
COHEN: This task will - well, it was difficult in - in Kosovo, but this will be more difficult. You have Russian systems involved, more sophisticated. You have civilians very heavily mixed in with the population. They were in Kosovo, as well, but we had to be very discrete, in terms of the targets that we hit. You have a region which is potentially engulfed in conflict, conflagration of countries in the region that you didn’t have necessarily in the - in Kosovo. So it’s the same, but it’s different.
HUNT: It’s different. You say - you have said that the president should go to the United Nations and to Congress. Now, that would mean a delay of at least two or three weeks, maybe a month or longer. Does that worry you at all?
COHEN: Not that long. I think, for example, you can go to the Security Council right now. The Russians want to have a presentation right now.
HUNT: The dangers of doing both what you described is - is when you go to the UN, you know what everyone is going to play, 2003, Iraq. Here we went with great certitude and we were wrong. That cast doubt on our credibility, to some, at least. And, secondly, Congress might not go along, Mr. Secretary.
COHEN: It might not. But if you have a - the UN, which we expect will not go along, because of - of Russia, at least you put Russia in the corner saying, “Here’s the evidence.”
COHEN: It’s pretty overwhelming. And now you’re supporting a country in which they unleashed this kind of terror upon their own people? It would isolate Russia, certainly. And then the president would be free to then take action consistent with a humanitarian type of mission and say, “We tried. We put the Russians on record.”
Secondly, as far as Congress is concerned, you may not have to under the War Powers Act get a vote in advance. But it seems to me, politically speaking, the president would do well to bring the members of Congress and say, “Look, this is what we have.”
HUNT: So you’re not saying necessarily a congressional vote. You just want to have much more consultation.
COHEN: Much more consultation and a much clearer objective than what we’re seeking to do and understanding that you can’t just take one shot. You can’t just unload the Tomahawks and say, “Well, that’s it.”
HUNT: You have to have a mission.
COHEN: “This is a teachable moment.” No, this is not a teachable moment.
HUNT: But the president said his mission, during his PBS interview this week, was that he had no interest in any long-term involvement. He says this is not open-ended, but we will punish Assad enough so he - so he’ll know never to do it again. Is that a mission?
COHEN: Well, first of all, under the international rules, you don’t punish. You have to degrade and deter, so that would be the language that they would use.
The mission itself, it would be limited, but I don’t think you can limit this mission. I think that there are so many players involved, I think the Russians would resupply almost immediately. I think the Iranians would resupply almost immediately. There’s questions about what the Hezbollah group would do in - so you have more players involved here.
So you say, well, now we’ve made our point, but it looks, if it’s too weak, which I suspect it would be, then it’s going to be dismissed as being feckless. If it’s too strong, then it achieves what the president doesn’t want to achieve.
But for me, at least, this whole notion - in the past, the president said, look, I don’t want to get involved, I don’t want to change the balance on the ground. I’m prepared to provide limited weapons to - small-arms weapons to the rebels in order to buy time. My question is, buy time for what?
HUNT: For what?
COHEN: Unless you’re prepared to change the dynamic on the ground, unless you’re prepared to inflict enough damage that causes Assad to say, “Hey, we might lose this thing, let’s negotiate a settlement,” then you’re just asking people to continue to fight with no hope of ever achieving their particular goal and more bloodshed, another 100,000 people.
HUNT: Why has the tide seemed to have turned against this in the last couple days? And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but the Brits are now delaying. The French seem queasy. The Arab League says, you know, it’s not going to - it’s not going to get involved in this.
COHEN: Which was disappointing, by the way.
HUNT: Yeah. I mean, why all that? Is that - does that reflect on American credibility and standing?
COHEN: I think it has something to do with it. Sure, there’s still a question about the intelligence. We went with such convincing evidence, proved to be faulty, so there’s that lingering doubt. Secondly, you’ve got members of Congress and the public they represent, the American people, saying, “Haven’t we been through a trillion in Iraq and a trillion in Afghanistan and now we’re on the road” - well, and we say, “But it’s very limited.”
But you have unintended consequences. For example, would the Russians, by moving their ships into the region, possibly try to interfere with the effectiveness of the mission we might undertake? We’re talking about launching sophisticated systems that might be able to be altered in flight. Maybe not. But if you have a missile that goes in and kills several hundred or a thousand innocent civilians, what does that do to American credibility?
So these are all very important issues that the president has to take into account. It’s not simply a Goldilocks solution: not too heavy, not too light, just right. Very hard to calibrate that and then walk away and say, “Well, we taught them a lesson.”
HUNT: How do you think this is being read in Tehran? And how will it affect Iranian behavior in the next -
COHEN: Oh, I think the Iranians will do whatever they can to say that this will - this will redound to the great disaster of the United States and to Israel.
HUNT: But what do you think they privately - how do you think they privately read this?
COHEN: They privately read it that this could, in fact, take such a heavy toll on Assad that it does change the dynamic on the ground, it does set a precedent for the United States taking action against them, conceivably. The real issue is, can - can the president of the United States persuade the American people that this is such a heinous act and persuade the international community they must stand behind this? Or else it’s going to undermine credibility for the rule of law internationally, that you can’t go to the UN, because they won’t act, and if you do it on your own, you’re acting unilaterally, and so the whole regime of international law will start to crumble.
HUNT: One other subject. What would you do right now in Egypt?
COHEN: I would - I would not do anything in Egypt. I would wait to see whether or not the Egyptian military is going to be able to maintain control.
HUNT: Do you think they will be able to? You know some of these people.
COHEN: I think they will be able to, at least in the short term. Whether long-term the Muslim Brotherhood is able to recalibrate their - their operation and continue to be a force for - for any kind of endorsement remains to be seen.
HUNT: Just quickly, though, we talk about the rule of law, and our law seems pretty clear-cut. If there’s a coup - and there was clearly a coup - then we’re supposed to cut off military aid. Aren’t we really ignoring our rule of law?
COHEN: We have. As a matter of fact, we’ve decided to place our interests over our ideals. And we start to play and hedge with words like this, just as we’re now saying the use of chemical weapons violates international norms. We didn’t say international law, because the law gets pretty specific, in terms of they’re not a party to the chemical weapons treaty, et cetera. So we’re - we’re playing with words -
HUNT: But you don’t think we should cut off military aid to Egypt right now?
COHEN: I don’t. I think that we should have maybe a temporary, you know, suspension for a while, but I would not cut off, because I think the Egyptian military is going to produce what is some element of stability, with a hope in the next year we can get back to a democratic regime.
HUNT: Secretary Bill Cohen, thank you so much for being with us.
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