Rice Picks Neocon Champion of Iraq War as Counselor

In a move that has surprised many foreign policy analysts here, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has appointed a prominent neoconservative hawk and leading champion of the Iraq war to the post of State Department Counselor.

Eliot A. Cohen, who teaches military history at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) here and has also served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board (DPB) since 2001, will take up the position next month that was left vacant late last year by Rice’s long-time confidant and "realist" thinker, Philip Zelikow.

A close friend and protégé of former Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and advisory board member of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Cohen most recently led the harsh neoconservative attack on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Like his fellow neocons, he was particularly scathing about its recommendations for Washington to directly engage Syria and Iran and revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – recommendations which Rice herself has explicitly endorsed in the last few weeks.

"This is a group composed, for the most part, of retired eminent public officials, most with limited or no expertise in the waging or study of war," Cohen wrote in column entitled "No Way to Win a War," published by the Wall Street Journal the day after the ISG released its report in early December.

"A fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results," he went on in a wholesale dismissal of the relevance of what he called the "Washington establishment whose wisdom was exaggerated in its heyday, and which has in any event succumbed to a kind of political-intellectual entropy since the 1960s…"

"Eliot brings a lot to the table in terms of being a counselor, being somebody who can be an intellectual sounding board for her [Rice]," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack in confirming Cohen’s appointment Friday.

Some analysts here, however, said they thought the appointment was designed instead to reduce or pre-empt criticism from neoconservatives and other hawks in and outside the administration for the direction she hopes to take U.S. policy, particularly in the Middle East. With no operational responsibilities, the State Department Counselor can be used – or ignored – at the secretary’s discretion.

"Condi may feel she needs to have a neocon right next to her to protect her flanks," said Chris Nelson, editor of the widely read Washington insider newsletter, The Nelson Report. "And, if she’s really planning to put her foot down on the Israelis, which [Washington] will have to do if it wants to get a real process with the Palestinians underway as part of a bigger regional deal with the Saudis and Iranians, then a guy like Cohen up there on the [State Department’s] seventh floor who is in on it and can claim influence on the outcome can help."

"Bringing on Cohen could help inoculate her from criticism by the Cheney camp," agreed Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in a reference to the vice president and the neoconservatives and other hawks who surround him. "One of the things that’s been consistent is that Rice never takes Cheney head-on and is very careful not to take on people who might antagonize him."

In that respect, Cohen is a nearly ideal choice. Like Cheney, Cohen was a founding member in 1997 of the Project for the New American Century whose positions on how to prosecute the "war on terror" – including the invasion of Iraq and cutting ties to the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Yassir Arafat – he has consistently endorsed.

Although lacking in any regional expertise or policy-making experience, Cohen has written prolifically in recent years on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Cohen first gained national prominence shortly after the 9/11 attacks when he published a Wall Street Journal column entitled "World War IV" – a moniker quickly adopted by hard-line neocons like former CIA director and fellow-DPB member James Woolsey, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, and Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney (on whose board Cohen also sits) – to put Bush’s "war on terror" in what he considered to be the appropriate historical context and to define its enemy as "militant Islam."

After defeating the Taliban, he argued, Washington should not only "finish off" Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whom he accused of having "helped al Qaeda," but also seek to overthrow "the mullahs" in Iran whose replacement by a "moderate or secular government would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of [Osama] bin Laden."

In another Journal article in April 2002 when the second Palestinian intifada was at its height, Cohen, who had just signed a PNAC letter which called for severing ties to the PA and asserted that "Israel’s fight against terrorism is our fight," argued that proposals to send an international force that would separate Israeli forces from the Palestinians were "not serious." "[T]here are times when well-intentioned measures can only make matters worse," he warned.

Cohen has also been quick to label critics of Israel and the so-called "Israel Lobby" in the U.S. as anti-Semites.

"Only a reshuffling of the deck – through the disappearance of Arafat, or an event, (such as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein) that profoundly changes the mood in the Arab world – will make something approaching truce, let alone peace, possible," he argued in a favorite pre-Iraq war neoconservative theme.

The following summer, Cohen achieved new fame when Bush was photographed carrying Cohen’s just-published book, "Supreme Command," which argued that the greatest civilian wartime leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, had a far better strategic sense than their generals. It was a particularly timely message in the months that preceded the Iraq war when a surprising number of recently military brass here were voicing strong reservations about the impending U.S. invasion.

He also became a charter member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI), an administration-supported group both to lobby for war in Iraq, largely on behalf of Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC). Indeed, Cohen, like his friend Wolfowitz, was already arguing publicly for Washington to rely heavily on the INC in any effort to overthrow Hussein in December 2001.

After the Iraq invasion, however, Cohen became progressively more critical of the way in which the subsequent occupation and counterinsurgency were being carried out, although, after a Pentagon-sponsored tour of Iraq that featured interviews with top U.S. military commanders there, including Gen. George Casey, last February, he became briefly more optimistic.

"After a wretched start, we have the right people at the top and the right policies in effect – and even more importantly, the right philosophy behind it all," he wrote in yet another Journal article entitled "Will We Persevere?"

Just nine months later, however, he had changed his mind. In the same article in which he attacked the ISG, he described U.S. difficulties as "stem(ming) not so much from failures to find the right strategy, as from an astounding and depressing inability to implement the strategic and operational choices we have nominally made" – an inability, for example, "as personal as picking the wrong people for key positions."

Still, while admitting in a Vanity Fair interview late last year that U.S. choices in Iraq range between "bad and awful," Cohen has called for perseverance and played a key role in selling AEI-hatched plan to add some 30,000 troops to the 140,000 soldiers in Iraq to Bush with whom he met personally as part of a small group of "surge"-boosters at the White House in mid-December.

If the surge should fail, however, Cohen’s preferred and "most plausible" option, which he laid out in an October 2006 Journal column titled "Plan B," would be a coup d’etat ("which we quietly endorse") that would bring to power a "junta of military modernizers," a development which, as he noted himself, would call into question the administration’s and Rice’s avowed goal of democratization.

In any event, he argued in the same column, "American prestige has taken a hard knock [in Iraq]; it will probably take a harder knock, and in ways that will not be restored without a considerable and successful use of American military power down the road."

"The tides of Sunni salafism and Iran’s distinct combination of messianism and power politics have not crested, and will not crest without much greater violence in which we too will be engaged," he asserted.

In a Vanity Fair interview last fall, Cohen said, "I’m pretty grim. I think we’re heading for a very dark world, because the long-term consequences of this are very large, not just for Iraq, not just for the region, but globally – for our reputation, for what the Iranians do, all kinds of stuff."

If Rice’s intent was to reassure Cheney and the neoconservatives that she is not a captive of the ISG and the "Washington establishment," that passage alone should do the trick.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.