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Johns Hopkins Professor Eliot Cohen on Obama’s Afghan Trip

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HH: I begin the program with Professor Eliot Cohen, the director of the Strategic Studies program at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the author of many important books, including Supreme Command: Soldier, Statesman & Wartime Leadership, and the forthcoming Conquered Into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great War Path That Made the American Way of War. Professor Cohen, welcome, it’s great to talk to you.

EC: Great to be back.

HH: What did you make of yesterday’s trip and the President’s statement from Bagram Air force Base?

EC: Well, you know, I have to say that on the one hand, it’s a good thing to have the President go visit the theater. But it did have very much the feel of something of a campaign stop rather than an address about what the war is. If you look at the speech, he cast the war in very, very narrow terms, it’s all about withdrawal. He does, he is building off an agreement with the Afghans that we’ve come to, but when you actually look at that agreement, there’s not a whole lot, there’s not a whole lot in it. So is this completely a campaign stop? I wouldn’t quite say that. But does it have campaign overtones? I’m afraid I think it does.

HH: What would you say would be the reaction of the Taliban upon monitoring…obviously, they sent a suicide bomber immediately, who killed seven people, and they announced today they’re going to initiate their spring offensive on time, sort of a rebuke to the idea that peace is at hand there. But how do they read the larger message of President Obama’s trip?

EC: Well, look, I think the critical read that they made was way back at the beginning of the administration when he gave a speech at West Point, which he announced the surge, but he also announced a timeline for us to leave. And I think they, you know, there’s an old saying. You may have the watches, but we have the time. I think that’s been very much their attitude. I do not get the sense that overall, the Taliban leadership is simply demoralized. I think they’ve taken a very hard drubbing from American forces, but I think they will read this as our continued desire to disengage. Now on the side of the administration, you can say well, there is a commitment to stay there and train Afghan forces. But there are no numbers that are attached to that. There’s nothing that you can quantify. And I think, I suspect that the Taliban tend to think that if they hang on, we will be gone. And if…we may have a residual presence, but that’s about it. There’s one other thing, by the way, that I think people should be aware of, which is in the text of the agreement. He didn’t talk about it in the speech. It says that the United States pledges not to use bases in Afghanistan for operations in any other country. Well, that would include Pakistan, presumably.

HH: Wow.

EC: And that would be, if so, that would really be a huge, huge concession not just to the Taliban, of course, but also potentially to what’s left of al Qaeda.

HH: Wow, I had not seen that, Professor Cohen. I think to the book by Joby Warrick, Triple Agent, we run all the drones out of that forward base near the border.

EC: Well, I’m not going to talk about where the drones fly out of, but for sure, it would undoubtedly cramp our style in a really serious way if we could not conduct any operations against particularly the tribal areas of Pakistan out of Afghanistan. And that is at least what’s in the agreement. Whether that’s sincerely meant or not, that’s another matter.

HH: How extraordinary. You mean, you’re here on the air talking about the agreement, and you’ve actually read it?

EC: Well, I try to stay informed.

HH: (laughing) That’s so unusual for talk radio, or any media these days.

EC: (laughing)

HH: I’m pleasantly surprised. Yesterday, you mentioned the aspect of it being a campaign stop. I’m not going to rely on anyone except someone from the mainstream media. CNN’s Don Lemon tweeted out when the presidential trip was announced, wow, Prez in Afghanistan on bin Laden anniversary. No better campaigning than that. How will GOP respond? I tweeted back, by agreeing with you that it’s a campaign stop. Do you think anyone can really debate that, Professor Cohen?

EC: Well, I’m sure the White House would undoubtedly debate it. But look, for me, here’s the critical thing. I think an essential part of presidential leadership in wartime is explaining why you’re at war, why you think you’re going to succeed, and you know, how you see the road ahead as well as also the road that you’ve traveled. This is really the first time that he’s spoken on Afghanistan since that West Point speech. And there were a lot of other occasions when he should have done so, when he could have done so. And what this speech was about was really, we’re getting out of here. And the rhetoric is one of you know, we’re here just before the dawn, the people are tired of war, there’s a new light coming, this thing is coming to an end. Well, for sure it’s not going to come to an end for the Afghans. I mean, there’s nobody in Afghanistan who actually thinks this is the end of the Afghan war. I do think the message that he was trying to project is, to use his wording, that we’re going to leave Afghanistan responsibly. And I think that his message to the American people is very much one of I’ve wound down these two awful wars that I inherited, and I’ve done so in a responsible way. And in the general, he’s going to be trying to run on a foreign policy record which is superficially more plausible than his economic record, although I would argue in the end it really isn’t.

HH: Now Professor, I began my career with Richard Nixon in exile out at the Elba of America, San Clemente, writing the book, The Real War. And he was always, he went to great lengths to assure people Vietnamization was not intended to be a cover for cut and run, a decent interval. He was very put off by that argument. And I don’t know how many people believe that, but putting that aside, is this Vietnamization, Part II, and as doomed to failure as Vietnamization, Part I was?

EC: Well, the devil will be in the details. I think it will depend on the kind of forces that we keep in place, and what roles they have to play. But I, unfortunately, when you look at the number of things they’ve done, I mean, to include withdrawing troops during the fighting season, pretty clearly against the advice of the commanders on the ground without a particularly good reason for disregarding advice. I mean, I have no problem with not taking advice if you have good reason not to take the advice. There’s no particularly good reason to do that. It does seem very much driven by a political timetable, and that’s the only thing that makes sense. And building up the Afghan forces and sustaining them? That’s a long term process. I would feel better about this if there were numbers in terms of budget, in terms of boots on the ground and so on that made sense, that had a rationale, that had a logic, and that seemed adequate for the task. But I, you know, there are no numbers.

HH: When you say pretty clearly against the advice of commanders on the ground, I understand that to be the case as well, but I was challenged on it by callers yesterday, that that is the imposition of my critique on the President. What do you base that, your judgment, your assessment on that, Professor Cohen?

EC: Some of his more private communications. That’s always a thing that is hard to talk about with various people, but I think it’s, if you look at the open testimony of General Allen before Congress, where he got a pretty good grilling, and you read that carefully, and of course, generals are always having to steer a very difficult middle course between being responsible and loyal and carrying out orders, and being completely candid with Congress. But I think if you look at his statements, you’ll see that he would have preferred to have those troops through the fighting season. And the other thing one has to say is why on Earth would any commander say yes, if you’re going to draw down troops, please do it while we’re in the middle of the Afghan fighting season?

HH: Right. I’m talking with Professor Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins University, where he’s the Robert Osgood professor of strategic studies. We’ve got two minutes left, Professor. Yesterday, former Attorney General Mukasey was my guest talking about his argument in the Wall Street Journal that the way the President has acted vis-à-vis the bin Laden anniversary is not how Ike acted, it’s not how Lincoln acted, it’s not how JFK acted. And that’s all transcribed and people can read that and agree with it or disagree with it. You are a historian of leadership decisions made in war. What do you make of President Obama’s, what some are calling the touchdown spike, and others are calling simply the necessary observance of an important anniversary?

EC: Personally, I found it unseemly. I think if…he would have gotten the political dividends, honestly, if he had just noted the anniversary and paid tribute to the troops who did this. I think, you know, it was a gutsy decision. I would not take that away from him. I don’t think any other president would have made a different decision. The truth is, Jimmy Carter’s decision to launch Desert One was a much gutsier decision, because that was a much more fraught kind of mission. This is the kind of mission that our folks have been doing all the time in Afghanistan and Iraq. So it was a good decision, it was not an easy decision. I give him credit for it, but I think there’s nothing that I’m aware of that’s in any case comparable. FDR didn’t crow when we shot down Admiral Yamamoto.

HH: Do you believe, based on what you’ve read and what you understand about Governor Romney, that he would have made the same decision?

EC: No question in my mind.

HH: Any doubt about any president that you’ve studied would have made the same decision?

EC: No, absolutely. And you know, I said what I said about President Carter, and full disclosure here, I am an advisor to Governor Romney, but the truth is I wouldn’t be an advisor to Governor Romney if I didn’t think he was the kind of guy who would not have hesitated to make this kind of decision.

HH: Professor Eliot Cohen from Johns Hopkins University, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to talking to you when the new book comes out at great length about the new book, Conquered Into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great War Path That Made the American Way of War.

End of interview.

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