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Secretary Cohen's Remarks at the 1998 Eisenhower Institute Leadership Dinner

Presenter: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen
April 28, 1998

SECRETARY COHEN: Leo [Hindery], thank you very much for your overly generous remarks. I am familiar with the playwright, John Osborne, who said, "Never believe anything that you see in the mirror or in the newspapers." And to that I think some would add, "Or anything that's said about an award honoree." But, tonight, I hope you will suspend, at least for a few moments any sense of disbelief.

Let me also thank Senator Collins. I think you're here this evening somewhere behind these lights. And for coming this evening, along with Senator Charles Percy, Secretary Dalton and Mrs. Dalton, General Ralston and General Eberhart, Eisenhower Institute President Paul O'Day and Chairman Rocco Siciliano, and all the board members, members of the Eisenhower family, Susan, and Merrill Atwater -- he did a splendid job, I thought, in leading us in both the Salute to the Flag and to the National Anthem; President Haaland and the trustees and students of Gettysburg College, former CIA Director Richard Helms, Mrs. Helms; former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and General Andrew Goodpaster and, finally, Paul Nitze, distinguished guests.

First, let me put you at ease by saying that I subscribe to Dwight Eisenhower's theory of a good speech. While he was president of Columbia University, he attended a dinner where every speaker talked at length until the evening threatened to become morning. And when Ike's turn finally came, he wisely decided to discard his prepared text. He stood up and he reminded the audience that, "Every speech," he said, "has a punctuation. Tonight," he said, "I am the punctuation. The period." And then he sat down. And he later confided that it was his most popular address.

Well, tonight I am not the period, but I hope not to delay the punctuality of your dinner, at least not too long. I must tell you that receiving this honor is really very humbling because it comes from an organization that does so much to promote the lessons and the legacies of our 34th President, and also because of the great Americans who have received it. We have several tonight, Brent Scowcroft, General Powell, Lloyd Bentsen, Bob Dole, George Bush, and Elie Wiesel.

I'd like to take this occasion, also, to express my thanks to President Bill Clinton for giving me the opportunity to serve as Secretary of Defense. He showed a great deal, I think, of courage in crossing party lines to ask me to serve in his Cabinet. I am truly indebted to him to have the opportunity that I've had for this past year-and-a-half to serve with the finest men and women in this country. I owe him a great debt of gratitude.

I also want to express my thanks to General Joe Ralston, who is here this evening, who serves as Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I have worked very closely with him and General Shelton, but I must say that, General Ralston, you have been a very steady hand at the helm and I have really relied upon your great wisdom and insight and confidence. I want to express my thanks to you this evening.

Finally, I'd like to express some thanks to the First Lady of the Pentagon, my wife, Janet. She, according to "Parade Magazine," fills up every room that she enters. She has entered rooms all across this globe and she has filled them up with her personality and her passion for the welfare of the men and women who serve us. I want to say thank you very much, Janet, for being such a great lady of the Pentagon.

Dwight Eisenhower is one of the very first faces that I see whenever I enter my office in the morning and it's the last face I see when I leave, because I happen to occupy an office which is situated on a corridor which is dedicated to him. In the pictures and paintings that grace this hallway, I see many images of Eisenhower. I see Eisenhower, the West Point Cadet, with his winning and life-enhancing smile. I see Eisenhower, the General, who is embraced by the troops that he loved and whom he led on a crusade to free a continent from tyranny and oppression. I see Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, who laid the foundation for the strong defenses that would keep the Free World free through almost 50 winters of Cold War. And, of course, I see Eisenhower, the President, who could well have been describing himself when he wrote that, "A great man must have vision, integrity, courage, understanding and profundity of character." As a soldier, statesman and citizen, Dwight Eisenhower always pursued his vision of a strong and secure America with integrity and courage and character.

But the world has changed a great deal since Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House. A quarter of a century ago, Alvin Toffler warned all of us that we had entered the Age of Future Shock. I think the intervening years have confirmed his visionary brilliance. Time has accelerated events. Technology has miniaturized the world reducing those vast oceans to mere ponds and the globe to the size of a small ball spinning on the finger of science. As technology continues to telescope time and space, I must tell you that I am quite wary of predicting either the pace or the product of this change. I am always mindful of the observation of the ancient Greeks that, "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make prophetic."

Not long ago, the roar of the Asian Tigers echoed across the Pacific seeming to herald a new era of Asian economic supremacy. Today, America and the International Monetary Fund are helping many Asian nations to emerge from beneath a tidal wave of currency crises and financial shocks.

Not so long ago as Europe emerged from the shadow of the Cold War, some felt that NATO, itself, would have to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Today, NATO is reinvigorated, reaching out to embrace new democracies across central and eastern Europe. From the hills in Bosnia to the hallways in Brussels, NATO and Russia are reaching across old divides to build a partnership that is strong and enduring.

Only a year ago, Bosnian leaders from rival factions were barely talking to one another. The Dayton Agreement was being undercut at every turn by hard-liners and hate mongers and talent. Well, there are still those who would rather dig fresh graves than heal old wounds. They are rapidly dwindling to a minority. Today there are new Bosnian Serb leaders who give hope that all Bosnians one day can work together. A new common flag now flies over Bosnia's government buildings and a common currency is going to be in people's pockets very soon. More families are going home and more war criminals are going to The Hague.

Not so long ago, at the end of the first Persian Gulf War, many believed that Saddam Hussein's power in the Gulf had been permanently thwarted. And some even thought that perhaps -- at least hoped -- that his ouster was either imminent or inevitable. Today, the eyes of the world once again are focused on Saddam Hussein's Iraq and on his attempts to build an arsenal of terror.

So it's clear that any predictions of the emerging world must be circumscribed by a good deal of humility and caution.

I think it is fair to say that we are living in an era of transition. I find it quite ironic that at the very moment in history when our ideas and our ideals are spreading to the far reaches of the planet, the dark wings of self-doubt flutter about our shoulders. Although we are viewed as the world's only superpower, the American people are not quite sure what role we should play in world affairs, what the burdens and responsibilities of a global power are, and just what we need to pay to bear and carry these responsibilities out.

There is a memorable scene, for me, in the movie, "Three Days of the Condor" in which a young intelligence officer has a conversation with an older intelligence officer who once served in the OSS. The young man turns to his older colleague and says, "Do you miss the good old days?" The senior colleague looks at him and says, "No, not really. But I do miss the clarity of it all." I see Director Richard Helms and George Tenet having that conversation today.

But it is precisely the absence of clarity, the opaqueness of the windows into the future that make formulating a far-reaching national security policy so challenging. In the past, we have oscillated between being over-committed with our forces and resources and isolationist indifference given to events in distant lands. We always have to be conscious of the need to be selective in our use of our military power, but we really can't afford to abdicate our larger responsibility to promote our ideals and our influence.

It was T.S. Eliot who said that, "Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, lies the shadow." Well, somewhere in that shadowland between romantic globalism and narrowly defined pragmatism lies the basis for a conceptually sound and a politically grounded policy that will allow the United States to play a constructive and influential role in world affairs.

A statement that captures both America's place in the world and the task before us reads as follows: "The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for American democracy. For with this primacy and power is also joined the awe-inspiring accountability to the future. Opportunity is here now, clear and shiny. To reject it or ignore it or to fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of the after-time."

This might read as at least a portion of an editorial taken from The Washington Post. It actually was expressed by Winston Churchill in his legendary Iron Curtain speech back in 1946. But now, as then, we need to ask ourselves: How do we seize the clear and shining opportunities of our world?

I think for starters we have to act as President Eisenhower said. We have to steer a steady course between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly. We need to recognize that while gunboat diplomacy must not ever be our calling card, our diplomats cannot be successful without the power of our gunboats to support their efforts to achieve at the bargaining table what we otherwise could win on the battlefield. If we are going to fulfill the role of what Richard Haas has termed the "World's Reluctant Sheriff," we have to realistically identify our vital interests and pursue clear priorities.

Key to this policy is one of engagement. By engagement, I mean having our forces forward deployed in Europe, in the Mediterranean and in Asia, helping to shape attitudes and to influence events in ways that are favorable to our interest. Not only should our forces be forward deployed, but also our diplomats and business men and women who not only follow the flag but often lead it.

Ultimately, we have to recognize that without America's active leadership, the world we want, a world with more security, democracy and more freedom, is going to remain like Gatsby's green light -- forever out of reach. And so, I think we have to resist the siren songs of isolationism that emanate from both the left and the right side of our political spectrum for America to come home, as if somehow we could safely retreat to a continental cocoon and tuck ourselves inside and watch the events unfold on CNN.

Someone once said, "Whatever happens in Indonesia is important to Indiana." That someone was President Eisenhower, almost 40 years ago, long before the bullet trains of photons raced across the Pacific or the current Asian economic flu threatened emerging markets with its contagion.

In addition to the primary goals of helping Russia to maintain its commitment to economic reform and to a democratic society and for China to emerge as a major power that is fully integrated into international institutions, we have to maintain our current capabilities as we prepare for a brave world of new challenges and terrors, of asymmetrical threats in the form of chemical and biological weapons in the hands of rogue states or simply irrational zealots.

For the foreseeable future, there are few who will have the power to match us militarily or economically, but they will be students of Sun Tzu and the Art of Warfare, dedicated to exploiting the weaknesses of our very strengths. The more reliant we become upon computers and information systems, the more vulnerable we become to cyber-terrorists who will conceive unlimited ways to cripple our infrastructure, our power grids, our banking systems, our financial markets, our space-based communications systems. So we have to remain muscular enough to deal with and deter conventional threats and agile enough to anticipate and defeat attempts to send poison arrows at our Achilles' heels or, more appropriately, poison pills at our databases.

One of the most demanding challenges will be presented by transnational terrorists, groups who operate on their own outside of state sponsorship. We can tell Libya that if you bomb a discotheque in Berlin, you will find a Tomahawk missile in your tent in Tripoli. Or to Saddam Hussein that if you use chemical weapons against American troops or against our allies and our friends, there is no bunker in Baghdad that will provide you with a safe haven. But what are we going to do when some group dumps biological viruses into Virginia's water supplies or those of any other state or city? Who will we hold responsible? Who will we retaliate against?

One answer to this coming threat is obviously to develop greater defenses; but another is to gather greater intelligence. But with greater intelligence comes less privacy, more intrusion. The American people are going to have to decide how much liberty we're willing to give up in order to secure our safety. I think we are just beginning to face up to this challenge with the current debate over whether U.S. companies ought to be allowed to market encryption devices for computers unless law enforcement agencies are permitted to have access to the keys that will allow them to track down international crime operatives or terrorist groups who either operate within our shores or off our shores.

These are but two of the tremendous challenges we face, and none of which I would add quickly should lead us to despair. They should challenge our imagination, our will power, and character to seize the opportunities of this moment in history.

Ladies and gentlemen, I promised you brevity. I can see by the look on some of your eyes, at least, that dinner is now getting cold. But I intend to keep my word. As Lady Godiva said, "I am nearing my clothes."

But let me take a moment, let me take this moment to thank all of the men and women in our military. Their dedication, their sacrifice, their patriotism, make us the envy of the world. In his book, "Citizen Soldier," Steven Ambrose, who wrote a little bit about President Eisenhower -- at least two volumes -- but he talked about the unique quality of American soldiers that General Eisenhower led to victory half a century ago. He wrote that, "At the core, the citizen soldier of the United States knew the difference between right and wrong and he was unwilling to live in a world where wrong triumphed. So he fought and won. And all of us in this day and those who are yet to be born are eternally grateful." Today, our citizen soldiers still represent America's refusal to live in a world where wrong triumphs and we are all forever grateful.

I quoted earlier from a Churchill speech. Let me conclude with a reference to a dinner he once hosted for a very distinguished journalist, Stuart Alsop. Churchill had consumed I think several bottles of wine that evening, perhaps a bottle of champagne and I suspect just a touch of brandy. But he was concluding the evening and he was looking at Stuart Alsop with that great steady gaze of his and he said, "America, America, a great and strong country, like a workhorse pulling the rest of the world up behind it out of the slough of despond and despair to its peace and prosperity." Then he looked directly at Alsop and he fixed those cold blue eyes and he said, "But will it stay the course? Will it stay the course?"

Well, 50 years later, we can answer his question. America has stayed the course because that is our history, a history shaped by great leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower and America will stay the course because that is our destiny.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

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