Cohen Talks Peacekeeping, Issues Large and Small
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2001 Standing at the helm of the Pentagon is the most demanding and most rewarding job in all of government, according to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
Cohen was sworn in as the nation's 20th secretary of defense on Jan. 24, 1997. With one week remaining in office, he spoke to reporters on the record, no-holds-barred, and at length at a Jan. 11 breakfast meeting hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. He recalled some of the varied challenges he encountered during the past four years and some of the rewards.
One of the first things he had to learn, he recalled, was the need to be precise when dealing with the ever-present Pentagon press corps. "If you say something, it is news, and if you fail to say something, it can also be news," he said.
"I was on a plane heading for Japan and I had the reporters who travel with me on the overseas flights," he said. "We were talking about the Quadrennial Defense Review and they said, 'Mr. Secretary, you said everything is on the table for review in the QDR.' I said, 'That's true, but the 100,000 troops that we have currently committed to Asia Pacific, that's not on the table.'
"I thought it was important to send a signal to the Japanese people and the government that we were committed to maintaining the security in the Asia-Pacific region," the secretary explained. "I got off the plane, (and saw the) headline, 'Cohen Dashes Hopes of Okinawans.'" He subsequently had to explain to the Japanese.
"That was an eye opener for me," he noted, "because I thought it was a very strong statement that the Japanese government certainly would appreciate, and they did, except in Okinawa they did not.
"I learned very quickly that how I say something, and what I say, can have some pretty profound implications," he concluded.
U.S. forces provide a very stabilizing presence throughout the Asia Pacific region, the European Theater and in the Persian Gulf, Cohen said. "Wherever we have been deployed, we have been able to shape the environment advantageously to us," he said.
Cohen said he believes in U.S. military involvement in peacekeeping missions is necessary. He disagrees, however, with those who suggest DoD should train some people for peacekeeping and others as warriors.
Today's forces are warriors, diplomats and peacekeepers, he said, and America needs that full spectrum of capability.
"We have to do everything," he stressed. "That's why we are admired, frankly, or envied as the best force in the world -- because we do all of those things. Our primary mission must also always be warfighting, but we also have to do these other things.
Cohen said he believes it would have an impact on allied relations if the United States said we would do the heavy lifting during wartime, but in peacetime, the allies should be the peacekeepers.
Peacekeeping missions stress America's smaller force, Cohen admitted. Commanders report their units' warfighting skills depreciate during peacekeeping operations, he said. Upon returning to the states, units have to retrain for their warfighting mission.
"But I will tell you that almost all of the units who ever deploy to Bosnia come back saying we've made a real difference there," he added. "This is important." The military's highest re-enlistment rates are in units deployed in Bosnia, he added.
Cohen said he believes defense leaders need to be much more discriminating about how troops are deployed. U.S. forces are stretched very thin, he said, and that's why, for example, he turned down appeals for the United States to take a principal role in East Timor.
He also gave his thoughts on future threats, and he put asymmetrical warfare high on the list.
"Countries or groups will look for the Achilles' heel in our society," he said. "That will come through cyber attacks. It will come through the use of biological agents or chemical weapons -- things that are relatively low in cost, but high in damage."
He sees no other country posing a near-term military challenge, but called for vigilance. "You will see China, for example, continue to modernize its military by acquiring systems from the Russians. The Russians will continue to build certain types of systems they think are important for their own security," Cohen said.
The reporters quizzed Cohen for his views on missile defense, the defense budget, modernization, base closures and a wide range of other issues. The full transcript of the secretary's talk is at www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2001/t01162001_t111sper.html.