William S. Cohen
On 5 December 1996 President Clinton announced his selection of William S. Cohen as secretary of defense. Cohen, a Republican about to retire from the United States Senate, was the "right person," Clinton said, to build on Secretary Perry's achievements, "to secure the bipartisan support America's armed forces must have and clearly deserve." In responding to his nomination, Cohen said that during his congressional career he had supported a nonpartisan national security policy and commended the president for appointing a Republican to his cabinet.
Cohen was born in Bangor, Maine, on 28 August 1940. He received a B.A. in Latin from Bowdoin College (1962) and a law degree from Boston University Law School (1965). While practicing law, he served on the Bangor City Council beginning in 1969, and was mayor of Bangor, 1971-1972. Elected to Congress in 1972, he served three terms in the House of Representatives and won election to the Senate in 1978, and reelection in 1984 and 1990. A moderate Republican, he served on both the Senate Armed Services and Governmental Affairs Committees from 1979 to 1997 and was a member of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, 1983-91 and 1995-97. He participated in the drafting of several important laws related to defense matters, including the Competition in Contracting Act (1984), the GI Bill (1984), the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act (1986), the Intelligence Oversight Reform Act (1991), and the Federal Acquisition Reform Act (1996). During his years in Congress, he found time to write or co-author eight books–three non-fiction works, three novels, and two books of poetry.
During his confirmation hearings, Cohen said he thought on occasion he might differ with Clinton on specific national security issues. He implicitly criticized the Clinton administration for lacking a clear strategy for leaving Bosnia and stated that he thought U.S. troops should definitely be out by mid-1998. He also asserted that he would resist further budget cuts, retain the two regional conflicts strategy, and support spending increases for advanced weapons, even if it necessitated further cuts in military personnel. Cohen questioned whether savings from base closings and acquisition reform could provide enough money for procurement of new weapons and equipment that the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought necessary in the next few years. He supported the expansion of NATO and looked on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the most serious problem the United States faced.
After confirmation by a unanimous Senate vote, Cohen was sworn in as the twentieth secretary of defense on 24 January 1997. He then settled into a schedule much fuller than he had followed in the Senate. Routinely he arrived at the Pentagon before 7:00 a.m., received an intelligence briefing, and then met with the deputy secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The rest of the day he devoted to policy and budget briefings, visits with foreign and other dignitaries, and to what he termed "ABC" meetings at the White House with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Samuel Berger. He also traveled abroad several times during his first months in office.
One of Cohen's first major duties was to present to Congress the FY 1998 Defense budget, which actually had been prepared under Secretary Perry's leadership. Cohen requested a budget of $250.7 billion, which represented 3 percent of the nation's estimated gross domestic product for FY 1998. He stressed three top budget priorities–people, readiness, and modernization. To preserve U.S. military superiority DoD needed to recruit and retain high quality people. This required regular military pay raises, new construction or modernization of barracks, and programs for child care, family support, morale, welfare, and recreation. To enable the U.S. military to respond to crises, the budget would have to provide strong support for force readiness, training, exercises, maintenance, supplies, and other essential needs. As for modernization, Cohen stressed the need to develop and upgrade weapon and supporting systems to guarantee the combat superiority of U.S. forces. This meant increasing the funds available for procurement of new systems, with the target set at $60 billion by FY 2001.
When he presented the FY 1998 budget, Cohen noted that he would involve himself with the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which would focus on the challenges to U.S. security and the nation's military needs over the next decade or more. When the QDR became public in May 1997, it did not fundamentally alter the budget, structure, and doctrine of the military. Some defense experts thought it gave insufficient attention to new forms of warfare, such as terrorist attacks, electronic sabotage, and the use of chemical and biological agents. In commenting on the QDR, Cohen stated that the Pentagon would retain the two regional wars scenario adopted after the end of the Cold War. He decided to scale back purchases of jet fighters, including the Air Force's F-22 and the Navy's F/A-18E/F, as well as Navy surface ships. The review included cutting another 61,700 active duty service members–15,000 in the Army, 26,900 in the Air Force, 18,000 in the Navy, and 1,800 in the Marine Corps, as well as 54,000 reserve forces, mainly in the Army National Guard, and some 80,000 civilians department-wide. Cohen also decided to recommend two more rounds of base closings–in 1999 and 2001. The Pentagon hoped to save $15 billion annually over the next few years to make possible the purchase of new equipment and weapon systems without a substantial budget increase above the current level of $250 billion.
As he settled into office, Cohen knew that unforeseen problems would undoubtedly arise and that he would have to face several that had occupied his immediate predecessors in the Pentagon, among them the question of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he supported, and its relationship to Russia. At a summit meeting between President Clinton and Russian President Yeltsin in Helsinki, Finland, in March 1997, Yeltsin acknowledged the inevitability of broader NATO membership. Two months later he agreed, after negotiations with NATO officials, to sign an accord providing for a new permanent council, to include Russia, the NATO secretary general, and a representative of the other NATO nations, to function as a forum in which Russia could air a wide range of security issues that concerned that country. Formal signing of this agreement would pave the way for a July 1997 invitation from NATO to several nations, probably including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, to join the organization.
The proposed U.S. missile defense system received attention at the Helsinki summit, where Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to an interpretation of the 1972 ABM Treaty allowing the United States to proceed with a limited missile defense system currently under development. Specifically, Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to distinguish between a national missile defense system, aimed against strategic weapons, not allowed by the ABM Treaty, and a theater missile defense system to guard against shorter range missile attacks. Some critics thought that any agreement of this kind would place undesirable limits on the development of both theater and strategic missile defenses. The Helsinki meeting also saw progress in arms control negotiations between the United States and Russia, a matter high on Cohen's agenda. Yeltsin and Clinton agreed on the need for early Russian ratification of the START II Treaty and negotiation of a START III Treaty to make further significant cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenals of both nations.
The continuation, at least until mid-1998, of the existing peacekeeping mission involving U.S. forces in Bosnia and the possibility that other such missions would arise worried Cohen, who earlier had expressed reservations about such operations. Humanitarian efforts that did not involve peacekeeping, such as in Rwanda in the recent past, also seemed likely. Other persistent national security problems, including tension with Iraq in the Persian Gulf area, Libya in North Africa, and North Korea in East Asia, could flare up again, as could conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians.
In preparing future budgets, the challenge would be to find the right mix between money for operation and maintenance accounts on the one hand and modernization procurement funds on the other, while facing the prospect of a flat DoD budget of about $250 billion annually for the next decade or so. A relatively new problem that could affect the DoD budget was "vertical integration" in the defense industry. It occurred on a large scale in the 1990s as mergers of major defense contractors created a few huge dominant companies, particularly in the aerospace industry. They were called vertical because they incorporated most of the elements of the production process, including parts and subcomponents. Cohen and other Pentagon leaders began to worry that vertical integration could reduce competition and in the long run increase the costs of what the Department of Defense had to buy.
Finally, Cohen would have to address social issues that engaged the widest public interest. The status and treatment of homosexuals in the military, the role of women in combat as well as in other jobs in the services, racism, and sexual harassment were serious problems, inevitably requiring strong leadership from Cohen and other top civilian and military leaders in the Department of Defense.
Between 1947 and 1997, 20 men served as secretary of defense. Ten had prior national security experience–seven in the Department of Defense or its predecessor agencies (the War and Navy Departments); one in Defense, State, and as national security adviser to the president; and two in related agencies (AEC, CIA, and State). Their professional backgrounds varied, including four lawyers, three investment bankers, three industrialists, five politicians who had been elected to national office, one economist, one mathematician, one scientist, one career executive branch official, and one career military officer. The average term of the first 19 secretaries was slightly over 31 months, although one served less than 4 months and another more than 7 years.
The secretary of defense presides over a vast confederation of agencies that today employ about 2.2 million military and civilian personnel and consume 15 percent of the annual federal budget. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, the immediate staff of the secretary, has evolved from a mere handful of employees and limited functions when it was established in 1947 to an authorized strength of more than 2,000 civilian and military positions in 1997 and duties which require a deputy secretary, 4 under secretaries, 10 assistant secretaries, and 6 other statutory officials concerned with a huge range of functions. Over the years, OSD has borne the main burden of implementing a central mandate of the National Security Act–to provide for "authoritative coordination and unified direction [of the military services] under civilian control" and for "effective strategic direction of the armed forces and for their operation under unified control and for their integration into an efficient team of land, naval, and air forces." While some secretaries have been more successful than others in accomplishing these goals, all have encountered difficulty overseeing the services, whose historic competition for resources and missions has invariably complicated the secretary's job.
Legislative and institutional changes greatly facilitated the trend toward centralization of authority in OSD after 1947, but the outlook, temperament, and energy of the individual secretaries, as well as the disposition of their chiefs in the White House, significantly affected the exercise of power. Louis Johnson, dedicated to a tight budget and not afraid to take summary executive action, did not hesitate to cancel construction of an aircraft carrier coveted by the Navy. Robert McNamara took bold initiatives and exerted personal influence in a wide range of Pentagon concerns–the sweep of his office was perhaps wider than any other secretary's. McNamara had support in his management of the Pentagon from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and this was a critical factor. Had he served under President Eisenhower, it is unlikely that he would have had the opportunity to conduct the department's affairs in the same manner. Les Aspin, an influential defense expert while in the House of Representatives, found that running the Defense Department was quite different from being a member of Congress. Under pressure from the White House, he decided to resign before the end of his first year in office.
Quite clearly, whatever the respective philosophies and approaches of the individual secretaries, each enhanced or influenced the office in some way, although in some instances brief tenure prevented major accomplishments. James Forrestal, a hesitant innovator who was compelled early in his trailblazing tenure to arbitrate the quarrels of the military services, set standards and instituted practices that still influence his successors. George Marshall, a career military officer, contributed much to strengthening the principle of civilian control of the defense establishment. Robert Lovett's suggestions about reform contributed significantly to the major reorganization plan implemented in 1953. Thomas Gates, in an effort to improve relationships between OSD and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, initiated important and lasting procedures for consultation. Robert McNamara instituted organizational and management changes that consolidated power in OSD, and he devoted more time to developing strategic policy than any of his predecessors. Among his successors, Melvin Laird is recognized for his efforts to extricate the United States from the Vietnam War and to bring an end to the draft. James Schlesinger and Harold Brown in particular gave much attention to strategic policy. Caspar Weinberger demonstrated tenacity in efforts to secure increased budgets from Congress. Richard Cheney played a prominent role in developing strategy and directing the forces during the Gulf War of 1991, in close collaboration with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin L. Powell. William Perry presided over much of the post-Cold War drawdown of the military services and traveled abroad more than any of his predecessors, to meet with foreign officials and visit U.S. service men and women stationed all over the world.
Presidents have had varying objectives in choosing their secretaries of defense. Truman's selection of Johnson in 1949 may have had more than the usual political motivation for such appointments, but the next year, when he replaced him with Marshall, he moved to enhance the prestige of the office and gain effective military direction of the Korean War. Eisenhower picked Charles Wilson because he wanted an efficient manager rather than a strategist; Nixon chose Melvin Laird in part because of his excellent congressional ties; and Carter nominated Brown because of his scientific and technical expertise and experience in defense matters that made him well suited to manage the Pentagon at a time of critical decisions on weapons and strategy. Three recent secretaries of defense–Richard Cheney, Les Aspin, and William Cohen–came directly from seats in Congress to head the Department of Defense, reflecting the increasing role of Congress in military affairs and the need for both presidents and secretaries of defense to pay more attention to congressional relations. Thus, each president applies criteria that derive from his personal predilections and contemporary political circumstances. Perhaps most important are the president's views on defense policy and how he conceives of the role of the secretary of defense.
In sum, the factors that affect a secretary's performance are myriad: variables of circumstance and personality, the capacity to work with the president, the secretary of state, and other high national security officials; prior experience in the national security field; understanding of the federal bureaucracy, especially the military services; understanding of the budget process and experience in congressional relations; skill in crisis management; understanding of nuclear strategy; technical-scientific knowledge; expertise in managing a large organization; diplomatic skills (especially as the relationship between foreign policy and defense matters has become increasingly close in recent years); and perhaps past military service. The history of the secretaries of defense suggests the usefulness of these qualifications, but no secretary has possessed them all, and there is no guarantee that an incumbent who did would be successful.
From the beginning, the Office of the Secretary of Defense faced formidable tasks that grew in number and complexity, reflecting persistent tensions around the world, especially with the Soviet Union up to 1991, and the increasingly complicated technology of modern weapon systems. The secretaries of defense have differed considerably, sometimes markedly, in their response to these demands and have achieved varying degrees of success in meeting them. Whatever their special strengths and objectives, as leaders of a department that has become one of the great centers of power and decision in the U.S. government, they have been prominent and influential principals on the world stage.