Advanced Search
Eliot Cohen
Eliot Cohen
Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
ISBN: 0743230493
Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
—from the publisher's website

The relationship between military leaders and political leaders has always been a complicated one, especially in times of war. When the chips are down, who should run the show -- the politicians or the generals? In Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen examines four great democratic war statesmen -- Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion -- to reveal the surprising answer: the politicians. Great states-men do not turn their wars over to their generals, and then stay out of their way. Great statesmen make better generals of their generals. They question and drive their military men, and at key times they overrule their advice. The generals may think they know how to win, but the statesmen are the ones who see the big picture.

Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion led four very different kinds of democracy, under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They came from four very different backgrounds -- backwoods lawyer, dueling French doctor, rogue aristocrat, and impoverished Jewish socialist.Yet they faced similar challenges, not least the possibility that their conduct of the war could bring about their fall from power. Each exhibited mastery of detail and fascination with technology. All four were great learners, who studied war as if it were their own profession, and in many ways mastered it as well as did their generals. All found themselves locked in conflict with military men. All four triumphed.

Military men often dismiss politicians as meddlers, doves, or naifs. Yet military men make mistakes. The art of a great leader is to push his subordinates to achieve great things. The lessons of the book apply not just to President Bush and other world leaders in the war on terrorism, but to anyone who faces extreme adversity at the head of a free organization -- including leaders and managers throughout the corporate world.

The lessons of Supreme Command will be immediately apparent to all managers and leaders, as well as students of history.

Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
Program Air Date: September 22, 2002

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Eliot A. Cohen, author of "Supreme Command," what was your first reaction when you learned that President George W. Bush was reading your book?
SELIOT COHEN, AUTHOR, "SUPREME COMMAND: SOLDIERS, STATESMEN AND LEADERSHIP IN WARTIME": Well, hard not to be pleased. I had an inkling that it might happen because when the book came out, the White House asked for three copies, one of which was to be autographed to the president. So I assumed it was -- there was at least a chance he was going to take a look at it. But you know, it was very pleasing.
LAMB: Have you ever met him?
COHEN: No. No.
LAMB: When you wrote the book, did you envision someone like him reading it?
COHEN: Well, not necessarily somebody in power because my feeling has tended to be that people in power don't have time to read books. But I did hope that it might be the kind of book that would reach people starting out perhaps earlier on in their careers, who might be in a position where they'd be influencing decisions of war and peace, who would read it and think about it and carry it forward.
LAMB: As you know, we first learned about this through the Associated Press, and then Dana Milbank wrote about it in "The Washington Post." Obviously, the White House wanted the world to know the president -- or the president wanted the world to know he was reading this book. Why?
COHEN: You know, I don't even know that it's obvious. I really am clueless on this, I have to tell you. I think it's possible that it was a very deliberate signal, very calculated. Of course, this being Washington, that's usually going to be the assumption. I think, you know, it's looking at decisions of war and peace, and so it's entirely plausible that he is just reading it and he just said it.

If it was calculated -- I'm not sure that it was -- then I suppose it could be interpreted as some kind of signal about how stern or demanding a commander-in-chief he's going to be, but I'm not even sure it's a signal. I really don't know. And you know, as I've become more and more of an historian, having started out as a political scientist, I'm just much warier about saying things without having some kind of evidence behind them.
LAMB: Why did you pick Abraham Lincoln, Clemenceau, Ben-Gurion and Churchill to focus on?
COHEN: Well, I'll give you the more elaborate answer, I suppose, in some ways, the truest answer is these were four statesmen that I'd always admired enormously. Kind of the more structured reason, I suppose, is this, that here you have a -- I wanted a certain kind of historical continuity, so starting with the middle of the 19th century, going up to the middle of the 20th century. I wanted to look at four democracies, so that's why -- people ask me why didn't I do Franklin Roosevelt, for example. I wanted just one American, one Frenchman, one Brit, one Israeli.

And I thought each of the four were -- they were so different from one another, and yet they had so much in common that the -- kind of the tension worked quite well. And so I'm quite happy, actually, with the four I picked, although I've gotten lots of suggestions about other ones I should have looked at.
LAMB: Well, just briefly, go over each one of them. Let's start with George Clemenceau. Who was he?
COHEN: Well, George Clemenceau was the prime minister of France in the very last year of the First World War. He is, in some ways, I think, the most interesting character, the one about whom I think I knew least before I began work on the book. The thing that's amazing to me is he becomes premier at age 76, and he takes charge when France is really just in terrible shape. And it's not at all clear that France is going to win the war. In fact, he's thinking about the possibility that they may have to withdraw, even lose Paris. And he's determined to fight to the end.

And his interesting challenge is he's got to weigh the advice of two very different military professionals, Ferdinand Foch and Philippe Pétain, who have very different attitudes to how the war ought to be fought. And there's this 76-year-old doctor sorting it out.
LAMB: Abraham Lincoln.
COHEN: Well, of course, Abraham Lincoln, probably our greatest war president. I would say even greater than Roosevelt. The thing that entranced me about Lincoln -- and still entrances me -- is the way in which he's -- deceptive is probably a harsh word, but this is a man who worked extraordinarily subtly and indirectly. My favorite quotation, which I put in the book, is from Willie Herndon, his law partner, who said, "Any man who ever took Lincoln for a simple man usually found himself lying flat on his back in a ditch." And so a lot of that chapter is about Lincoln's cunning, if you will.

Also, the other thing with Lincoln that I found interesting was there was a standard narrative. You know, the story of the Civil War is Lincoln finds a general. And the more I dug into it, the more I said, "No, that's not the whole story. It's not even really the essence of the story."
LAMB: Winston Churchill.
COHEN: Well, Winston Churchill's my hero. I mean, he -- Winston Churchill is the man of all of them I find utterly fascinating. It'd be very hard to write a book about civilian wartime leadership without talking about Winston Churchill, I think. The thing that interested me -- there are two -- is there is the standard narrative that this is the man who gives the lion's roar, who's tremendously inspiring, who has, of course, this magnificent command of the English language, but has terrible judgment. That's really been the standard account. And the more I dug into Churchill, the thing I find most interesting is the way in which he was actually a man of system and a man who was much more thorough and deliberate than he's been portrayed. And so teasing that out was really quite interesting.

Also, Churchill is the one who knew how to ask questions, and his questioning I just found marvelous.
LAMB: And finally, David Ben-Gurion.
COHEN: Ben-Gurion is probably the one least known to an English-language audience. He's the founding father of the state of Israel. A lot of the material for that is really still available only in Hebrew. There's some of it that's been translated, not all. I've got a pretty good knowledge of Hebrew, so I was able to look at his wonderful wartime diaries that he kept. He was a tremendously compulsive diarist, just writing non-stop.

The thing that I liked about Ben-Gurion was the way in which he -- he had this ability to apply an enormous amount of common sense to a problem and say, you know, "You're thinking about it all wrong." And there's a kind of a brutal honesty about it. The other thing is that for a man who, in many ways, personally quite unpleasant and -- a man of terrific temper, and so on, he had a quality of moderation about him which is actually shared by these three other statesmen, which I found fascinating.
LAMB: Before we leave -- we'll come back to him, but before we go on to other stuff -- you paint the picture of a Ben-Gurion in that little house.
LAMB: At what point in his life?
COHEN: Ben-Gurion went to this -- well, he had actually -- his house in Tel Aviv is not all that big, either. He had two houses, one in Tel Aviv, which is actually an amazing place to go because it is, in a way, kind of like my dream house. It is wall-to-wall books, literally. There are one or two walls with plaques, and then everything else is books. He had this fabulous library of, I think, about 12,000 volumes in, I don't know, nine languages or something like that. And he read. He was a fabulous reader.

But what happened was, after he retired from politics the first time, in '53, he goes back to -- he decides to move to this little kibbutz in the southern part of Israel, and he decides that he wants to take part in the -- kind of the reconstruction of the land, or "pioneering," as he talked about it. And so he's in this poor, impoverished little kibbutz, and he's living in this house, which isn't that much bigger than a trailer, honestly.

And the thing that, when I visited it -- because it's now located next to the main research site, where they have his archives -- the thing that struck me were the images that he had. There are four different images -- and I talk about this in that chapter in the book -- which really say everything there is to say about his life.

There's a picture on his desk of one of his old comrades from the socialist movement, a fellow named Berl Katznelson, and that really, I think, gets to his roots in the socialist movement in what was then Palestine. There's a statue of -- there's a replica of Michelangelo's Moses. So there's his connection to the history of the Jewish people. And in this little sitting room that he has, there is a micrograph of Abraham Lincoln that's been made out of the words of the Emancipation Proclamation. And that's, I think, the kind of more general humanist side of him.

And then in his little, tiny bedroom, there's the most surprising thing of all. And I've always asked people who are curious about this, "Well, OK, what picture do you think he would have hanging in his bedroom?" It's a picture of a contemporary. And of course, the answer is Mahatma Gandhi, which nobody would ever guess -- Gandhi, the pacifist. Ben-Gurion was a man of war. But it says something about what a tremendous range there was in him and what an understanding of the importance of a kind of spiritual power. It's fascinating.
LAMB: If I remember correctly, more than one of these liked Abraham Lincoln.
COHEN: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that attracted me to these four is that there were these threads between them, these connections between them. Clemenceau had actually visited the United States just at the end of the Civil War. I think he'd like to say that he got to Richmond before Lincoln did. And he was a great admirer of Lincoln. Churchill was a tremendous admirer of Clemenceau. And in fact, if you look at some of Churchill speeches, some of his best lines, including the motto of his Second World War memoirs are, you have to say, lifted from Clemenceau. And Ben-Gurion a tremendous admirer of Churchill, but also of Lincoln. So there are connections there, as well.
LAMB: Speaking of connections, Dana Milbank in "The Washington Post" article about this book made the connection with you and Bill Kristol, and then Bill Kristol and the position on Iraq.
LAMB: Bill Kristol says on the back of this book, "a commanding study of leadership in times of war. If I could ask President Bush to read one book, this would be it."
COHEN: Well...
LAMB: What do you think of the connection? And how well do you know Bill Kristol?
COHEN: Bill and I are friends going way back to graduate school days, and we've remained good friends. And that was a wonderfully generous blurb. Well, having said that, I will say I have mixed feelings because I have my positions on Iraq, the same way other serious people do. And you know, part of what I do, I comment on that.

On the other hand, the book is not about Iraq. And that's something one says over and over, and I've been particularly saying it in interviews with the overseas press. And people just don't get it. I mean, you can think it's a terrible idea to go to war with Iraq and think this is a great book.

And I've also been unhappy that it's been pegged politically because Bill's blurb, which is wonderful, is on the back of the book. On the front of the book is a blurb by Paul Kennedy, you know, who I suspect doesn't agree with Bill Kristol about very much.

I think, having said that, there's a certain kind of connection in that, you know, if we do end up going to war again with Iraq, there are lessons here. And there are particularly lessons because the book comes in the context of a really rather difficult moment, I think, in American civil-military relations. And that's, of course, been the subject of my scholarship in other areas. So there is a real connection, but the whole thing has made me a little bit uneasy, I have to confess.
LAMB: Well, if you don't know who Paul Kennedy is, where's he coming from? And he was the author of "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers."
COHEN: Well, Paul Kennedy is a wonderful historian who teaches at Yale. I think you'd have to say that his position on most things is, you know, pretty standard kind of liberal position on things. But he started off primarily as a military historian and wrote a wonderful book on the history of British naval power. We've gone back something of a ways there. So I mean, the reason why I'm highlighting that is just to say that, you know, it's a book which really stands quite apart, in one way, from the Iraq debate, although it is in another way relevant to it.
LAMB: Well, the largest endorsement comes from Tom Ricks, who's a journalist.
LAMB: With "The Wall Street Journal," now with "The Washington Post."
COHEN: Right.
LAMB: And it's worth reading because it'll help us...
COHEN: Sure.
LAMB: ... continue some of this discussion. "This is the most important book in a long time on military affairs." Do you know him, by the way?
COHEN: I know Tom quite well, yes.
LAMB: "It is likely to become the standard volume on the subject of top command. It also promises to change the way we all look at how wars should be managed by presidents and other civilian leaders. Military officers especially may be shocked by Cohen's conclusion that the best civilian leaders are those who meddle and ask tough questions of the military subordinates. But even those who disagree with him will come way informed by the argument."

Go back to that sentence, "People will be shocked by Cohen's conclusion that the best civilian leaders are those who meddle." Who meddled among these four?
COHEN: Oh, I think if you were one of their military subordinates, you probably felt that all four of them were meddling in different ways. If you mean by "meddling" asking lots of questions, even making suggestions about things like, you know, particular troop movements, and so on, you'd have to say that all four of them were playing quite an important role.

One thing that's also, I think, important and that's -- you know, I'd like an opportunity to correct -- this is not a book which is a mandate to politicians to just kind of begin barking orders to their generals and say, "Do this" and "Do that." It's really a book about the nature of the dialogue that goes on and that should go on between political leaders and their military subordinates. And that's really the heart of it. It's what I call the unequal dialogue because the politicians ultimately have to be in charge. And my central argument is that, really, there's nothing that in principle they can't get into because there can be larger ramifications from even very technical things.

One of the examples, for which I've just mentioned, I think, it's the spring, early summer of 1943, Churchill ends up making this decision about whether or not the Royal Air Force in its bombing raids over Germany is going to be using chaff, strips of aluminum foil to jam German radars. Well, you know, why on earth should a prime minister who's also minister of defense end up having to make that decision? And you know, isn't that an example of micro-management and meddling?

And if you unpack it, actually, I think it's revealing. First, the military doesn't agree with itself. You have the Royal Air Force's bomber command wants to use this stuff, obviously, to save bomber crews and be able to deliver the bombs more effectively. On the other hand, you have the Air Defense Great Britain, which is the successor to Fighter Command, knowing that they have no counter to this, being very much afraid that you were going to have more German air raids, being deathly afraid that if the Germans see how well this works, they'll do exactly the same thing back to the British.

So you have a deadlock. There is no expert military opinion on whether or not you should use chaff, code named "window." And it ends up getting bucked up to a political leader to make. Now, that's a, you know, particular kind of case, but I think it illustrates the way in which sometimes even seemingly quite small decisions can actually have some rather large -- much larger implications having to do with risk or political objectives, where the politicians have to be involved.
LAMB: As books go, this is relatively small.
LAMB: It's 288 pages. Published by Free Press. You say in the acknowledgements or in the preface, I can't remember where, that this book took too long.
LAMB: Why? When did you start it?
COHEN: Well, I first began thinking about it when I was teaching at the Naval War College.
LAMB: When was that?
COHEN: That was from 1985 to 1990.
LAMB: And where is the Naval War College?
COHEN: The Naval War College is in Newport, Rhode Island, and it's one of the countries five senior service colleges. So the students we got are commanders or captains in the Navy, lieutenant colonels or colonels in the other services, usually about half from the Navy and the Marine Corps, half from the other services, plus international students.

And I taught in the strategy department, and I remember one day, a disgruntled officer coming up to me and saying, you know, "This isn't a course about strategy. This is a course about civil-military relations." And he wasn't terribly happy about that. It was somewhat more productive than our first exchange, which consisted of him looking at me and saying, "How old are you, son?"
LAMB: How old were you?
COHEN: I was 29.
LAMB: And he would have been in his 40s.
LAMB: Yes.
COHEN: But I thought he was absolutely right, that in fact, so many of our discussions -- and we were looking at a lot of historical cases -- turned on civil-military relations. So I began churning over this. You know, some of these just kind of career twists and turns that lead people to defer books -- I came to Washington to teach at the School of Advanced International Studies...
LAMB: Johns Hopkins.
COHEN: Right. The Air Force asked me to direct its study of the Gulf war. That took a few years out of my life. But I think I also had a lot invested in the book. I mean, these were issues that I just found myself churning over and wanting to get right and wanting to be quite careful about how I put. And you know, when I finally got it done -- the truth is, there was a lot of research to be done. I had a lot of French language material, a lot of Hebrew language material, a lot of archival material to look at. And so I'm actually not that apologetic about it. Somebody once said, you know, "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long letter." And I kind of feel that way about the book.
LAMB: So that was 17 years, from the start in '85 until...
LAMB: ... the time it comes out.
COHEN: Heaven help me. Yes.
LAMB: Before '85, though, you got a Ph.D., I assume. And where'd you come from? Where was home originally?
COHEN: Well, home is Boston, Massachusetts. I'm a New Englander. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate and did my Ph.D. there with Samuel Huntington.
LAMB: Whom you call the greatest political scientist in the United States.
LAMB: Why?
COHEN: Well, Sam has really made enormous contributions in I would really say all the four fields of political science. Political science is conventionally divided into political theory or political philosophy, comparative politics, American politics and international relations. And I think if you look at Sam's work, you see it in each of the four fields, he has written a major, major work. And you know, his book on civil-military relations, "The Soldier and the State," even though I take issue with it, is just clearly a monumental piece of work, and it still towers in the field.
LAMB: What issue do you take with him?
COHEN: Well, I think Huntington's argument in "The Soldier and the State" is that it's possible to have much more of a bright dividing line between the responsibilities of politicians and of soldiers than I do. I think, in practice, that's much blurrier. And part of it is, I think, our point of departure. My point of departure is, having been immersed, partly because of my teaching experience at Newport, in the works of Carl von Clausewitz on war, who argues that war is just a thoroughly totally political phenomenon. In many ways, it's quite a subtle argument, in some respects. And I think if you take that seriously, then it becomes very hard to separate out those parts of war which are purely technical or purely tactical from those which are political. Whereas Huntington's argument is that it really is possible to do that.

I think there's also something of a difference about the nature of the military profession. And there's been a lot of debate about the nature of the military profession. I think he -- of course, he's drawing on a body of literature that, in fact, goes back to the '30s and before, which has the military profession being articulated in almost the same way that medicine or law is.

And one of the arguments I make in the appendix to the book is that, actually, it's a very peculiar kind of profession for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is, by and large, generals, in particular, don't actually get to practice their profession very much. You know, they're not at war the whole time. Most of the time, they're preparing for war or doing lots of other things, but they're not actually waging war. And there are other differences, as well. So I qualified it.

It's not a -- certainly not a rebuttal of Huntington or not a rejection of Huntington, but I would say it is a pretty substantial modification of his arguments.
LAMB: How many years did you spend at Harvard?
COHEN: Well, all told, I think I had 13 years there. I was an undergraduate. Then I was a graduate student. And then I was an assistant professor and while I was an assistant professor, I was also an assistant dean. So I had once wrote an article for the "Chronicle of Higher Education" called "My Four Lives at Harvard" because it seemed to me the institution looked different from each of those vantage points -- undergraduate, graduate student, faculty, administrator.
LAMB: Is it fair to call you a neo-conservative?
COHEN: I really don't like that term.
LAMB: Some of the press has done that.
COHEN: I know. I really don't like that.
LAMB: Can you label yourself?
COHEN: No. And I hate being labeled, and I don't like labeling others.
LAMB: From a political standpoint, have you worked more for Republicans than the Democrats?
COHEN: Yes. I mean, well, the only governmental service that I had was in a Republican administration. I worked briefly in the Pentagon in 1990. But you know, I've got as many professional friends who are Democrats as Republicans.
LAMB: Did you ever serve in the military?
COHEN: In the 1980s, when I was graduate school, I decided for a whole bunch of reasons that I wanted to get some military experience. So I joined the United States Army Reserve. I went through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. I was commissioned and spent six years as a military intelligence officer.
LAMB: Did you get a Ph.D.?
LAMB: And what was your dissertation on?
COHEN: The dissertation was on conscription, and it was about American attitudes towards military service, and in particular, why the United States throughout its history has shifted among different kinds of systems of military service, from an all-volunteer, essentially professional force, selective service, militia-type conscription. And in a way, it was an effort to try to bring together a certain amount of political philosophy, some kind of institutional studies, and also some international politics.
LAMB: I can't escape asking this question anyway, with regard to Iraq, because even if this book wasn't written for Iraq, I need to ask you if a president reads it and he's about to do something in Iraq, what would he have learned? You go back to conscription. How often in this country have we sent men into battle -- or women -- without having conscription? And will that make a difference if the decision is made to go into Iraq?
COHEN: We've done it lots of times -- you know, the Mexican War, Spanish-American War. We've done both. I don't think that, in particular, makes a difference. To go back to the question of what would a president take away from a book like this, I think it would be, first, the importance of asking lots of hard questions and not simply accepting a plan that's presented to you, and being quite insistent on options.
LAMB: You think this president is doing that?
COHEN: I don't know. I have sufficient respect for the fact that we just can't tell what goes on behind closed doors to say...
LAMB: You haven't gotten any inkling from anybody.
COHEN: No. I think the evidence is out there in public that Secretary Rumsfeld is very much that way. One little piece of data I thought was very interesting all along in the Afghan campaign was that Secretary Rumsfeld was reported to be talking to General Franks, the theater commander, three or four times a day, together with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And that's quite unusual. By and large, the tendency, particularly since the '80s, has been to communicate through the chairman. So Rumsfeld is certainly, I think, a model of a hands-on political leader.

I think the other thing, by the way, I would say to take away from the book is the importance of remaining on top of the process all the way through. One of the chapters talks about the United States, really from Vietnam through the Gulf war and a bit beyond. And it seems to me pretty clear that the civilians didn't really -- they were in control all the way through at one level. But at another level, they didn't really think hard through the conclusion of that war. And the way in which that was really manifest is it's quite clear that General Schwarzkopf, the theater commander in Iraq in the first war, goes into armistice negotiations really with his own terms of reference that he drafted. And all that happens was the State Department changed the word "negotiate" to "discuss" because only the State Department can negotiate. And I think, hopefully, somebody read that and took it seriously, wouldn't allow that to happen again.
LAMB: You also mentioned earlier -- and you mentioned several times in the book Clausewitz.
LAMB: And I'm not sure that's exactly the way to pronounce it, but who was he, and why did you reference him so often?
COHEN: Clausewitz is the author of, I think, the greatest non-fiction book on war ever written, a book called "On War." He was a German general, served during the wars of the French revolution and empire, starting at age 13, and ending up all the way going through Waterloo. So a tremendous range of military experience.
LAMB: What years?
COHEN: So this would have been starting in the 1790s and ending in 1815. I think starting in, if I'm not mistaken, 1793.
LAMB: When did he write his book?
COHEN: He wrote his book, which it was not finished, afterwards, really, almost towards the end of his life. He died, I think, in the 1830s. And it was the sum of his reflections on war. And of course, what Clausewitz is famous for is this statement that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He's also the author of very other quite famous phrases, like, "friction," which is just Murphy's law applied to military matters, things go wrong, "the fog of war," the way in which we don't know what's going on in the course of a conflict.

But he's an extraordinarily deep philosopher of war. He was rediscovered by the American military after Vietnam, as part of a very interesting period of professional reflection. There was a new translation which came out of the Princeton University Press in the '80s by Peter Paret, Michael Howard, Bernard Brodie, three just fabulous scholars, which I use, although I also have German. So I've looked at in German, too.

And it is, I think, the kind of the lodestone of the book.
LAMB: Do you speak German?
COHEN: Yes, I can read it, and I can stumble along.
LAMB: And Hebrew.
LAMB: What year did you start studying Hebrew?
COHEN: Well, I am Jewish, so you know, as soon as you begin going to synagogue. But I also went to an orthodox Hebrew day school, so we had pretty good Hebrew then.
LAMB: Other languages?
COHEN: French. My spoken French is pretty feeble, but my reading French is actually pretty good.
LAMB: Back to the connections for a moment. Paul Wolfowitz...
LAMB: ... was one of your bosses once. Where?
COHEN: Well, Paul Wolfowitz was ultimately my boss for the -- I think a total of five months that I worked in the Pentagon on the policy planning staff. I was then on the search committee that lured him to SAIS, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, to be our dean. And he was the dean for six-and-a-half years. Now, as he would tell you, the organization chart of any school looks something like this. You've got a box that says "faculty," a line, then a box that says, "dean," then a line and a box that says "faculty." So I don't know whether I was working for him or he was working for me.
LAMB: Did he have any impact on you in this? Because, I mean, he's playing a large role right now, according to what you read every day.
COHEN: Yes. Well, the first thing to say is I've got enormous admiration for him. This is an extraordinarily talented and dedicated public servant. And he was also just a brilliant man. We had a lot of talks about the Gulf war. It was interesting for me to see how his thinking evolved on that subject. I wouldn't speak for him on it. He has to do that himself.

I've always found it interesting observing these powerful people who've risen to the top of government and seeing how they interact with one another, with military people. It's one of the privileges I think I've had, being at a place like SAIS. You know, I once described it to somebody as being like Margaret Mead having tenure at the University of Samoa, you know? The subjects of your study are doing their thing right outside your window, but you don't have to participate if you don't want to.
LAMB: How long have you been at Johns Hopkins?
COHEN: I came there in 1990, in the summer of 1990, in fact. And it was interesting. My colleagues have told me that at the time, they weren't quite sure whether they wanted to have a national security person because it didn't really seem that war was going to be a big issue in the future. They kind of changed their mind when Saddam invaded Kuwait.
LAMB: Going back to your book -- one of the last things I wrote down about the four people that you wrote about -- Clemenceau, Lincoln, Churchill and Ben-Gurion -- "Each were ruthless, and each had a deep, dark streak of willingness to do terrible things." Explain the ruthless and the terrible things.
COHEN: Well, I think they come together. Let's just take Lincoln, who was in many ways the most interesting of the group because he was, in many ways, a very gentle man, and you know, he stayed up late at night trying to figure ways to commute sentences of sentries who had fallen asleep on guard duty and are being sentenced to be shot. He wrote these extraordinary letters of condolence – there's one to a daughter of a friend of his who fell in battle, women who are paying a price.

But after the Battle of Fredericksburg, in which Ambrose Burnside, he was one of his less-able generals, had hurled the Union army numerous times at a completely open slope, Marye's Heights. The Union suffered - I don't know, 10, 12,000 casualties. And what he said to somebody in his office is, he says you know, if we just had a general who was willing to do this every day for a week of days, at the end of this the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the rebel army would be shattered, the insurrection would be over, and the Union restored. The war won't be over until we find a general who understands that arithmetic.

Now that, to me, is a pretty cold-blooded statement. And, you know, this tremendously humane man was willing to support Grant, you know when they're taking these awful casualties in 1864, 1865, he's willing to do it.

Take a different example of ruthlessness and doing terrible things, Winston Churchill, who again, had a very tender streak in him. But one of his, I think, his most brutal decisions that he made, and certainly one of the most brutal decisions that he felt he made, was in June of 1940 after French have been this - practically knocked out of the war by the Germans, in order to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands, he orders the Royal Navy to attack it, and it's harbors in Algeria. And I think they killed something like 1,300 French sailors. Now these are people that have been fighting side by side with them a few weeks earlier. And Churchill's description of that is extremely eloquent. He says, yes, this was the hardest decision he ever made. He said there was great tragedy, but it was absolutely necessary. Then he kind of lays out why he thinks that was the case.

I think one of the lessons you have to take away is if you're going to be a war time president, you have to have - you believe to be very very hard.
LAMB: What about Clemenceau and ruthlessness and the dark side?
COHEN: Well, there was a lot of dark side to Clemenceau. He was actually much more up front about it. I think he once said something like this, I had children, they turned against me. I had a wife, she left me.
LAMB: American wife.
COHEN: Yes. I had friends, they betrayed me. I have only my claws and I will use them. So he was a guy who was not terribly bashful without saying what a tough fellow he was.
LAMB: How long was he Premier of France?
COHEN: Well, during the war, it's only for a year, and then he's turned out, I think, 1920. So he's there for of course, for Versailles, but he was pretty willing to have people arrested. He was willing to have people shot. He was ruthless in terms of firing generals, which doesn't sound very hard. But one of the arguments I make in the book is people are always, very substantially, underestimate how difficult it is to fire a general in the wartime. There's so much pressure, so much uncertainty, so many potential political repercussions. And he was - all four of these people, completely willing to cashier, general officers - and as I said, it sounds easy, but in truth, it's an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.
LAMB: Who did Ben-Gurion fire?
COHEN: Ben-Gurion really cleaned out the complete high command of the Haganah.
LAMB: What was the Haganah?
COHEN: The Haganah was the underground Jewish army before the creation of the Israeli state. But it was really quite elaborate. And so it had a regular general staff. And he was moving people around. He also got rid of the guy who had effectively been the civilian head of the Haganah. First he marginalized him, and then he eventually simply pushed him aside.
LAMB: And this is off the subject, I don't remember, I don't know if they can find it that quickly, but I don't know that I've ever read before the vote in the U.N. to make Israel a country.
LAMB: And there's 30-something to 15 or something like that?
COHEN: Yes. It was a very close vote. You know, there was tremendous uncertainty in the Jewish community in Palestine whether this was even going to be a good idea. The odds against them just seemed so terrible. This was already clear that the third world was mobilizing against them. But the decision is made, they go through with it. And for me, it was -- the poignant thing about that is after the vote, there's just this eruption of celebration in Tel Aviv, and in -- actually Jewish communities in places like New York. And there's a beautiful phrase in Hebrew, which I can't really translate, but it's -- Ben-Gurion says that I felt, you know, he looks at the dancing crowds and he says, you know, I felt like a mourner amongst those who rejoice. And it's because he knew what this was going to lead to.

And I think one of the things that all four of these leaders had, which I -- it seemed to me to be a tremendous requirement of good political leadership, is Charles Dana says about Abraham Lincoln, he had no illusions. And that's one of the reasons why I think all four of these people were also melancholic. They were men without illusions.
LAMB: Who did Abraham Lincoln fire?
COHEN: The question is, who didn't he fire? He just went through a long series of generals. He begins with Irvin McDowell, he fires him. George McClellan, they keep him a little bit longer. They actually -- McClellan was in for a year, fired, brought back, fired again after a month. Burnside, I think, a couple of months. Joseph Hooker lasted about five months. Meade is in for about -- in theory he's in to the end of the year, but really he's only -- in to the end of the war. But in reality, he's there for about nine months.

Lincoln could be brutal about it and in the book I talk about a little known episode, actually which he fired not just generals, but there's a major who was reported to have said, well, you know, we didn't pursue after the battle of Antietam in September of 1862 because we actually wanted them to get away, and it was part of a big deal. And Lincoln called him into the office and said, did you say this? The guy said, yes. And he said - and the person who had overhead it said well, but you have to understand that Lincoln says, OK, that's - you're out.

And, again, there's a poignant part of it which brings out Lincoln's ruthlessness. This fellow later appeals and he's got these generals making the case for him. And this comes to Lincoln just after this poor major, who's desperate to get back into war because he's basically a patriotic man, had just made the ultimate sacrifice - his son. I mean, the captain I think of the Ohio infantry had just been killed. OK, so what further patriotic testimony can you ask for? And Lincoln says, I'm terribly sorry. I've got to make an example of you.
LAMB: Let me go back again to the current situation, because in the back of the book, you talk about both Vietnam and '91, the Desert Storm, and Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell. What is your position on what happened in '91?
COHEN: Well, a whole bunch of things happened in 1991. I think many of the decision-makers were haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam. For me, the most revealing statement of the first President Bush, is when he says, 'We've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all after the war" which to me was just the most eloquent possible testimony that, in fact, was hanging over him this whole time.

The story of the Gulf War is, I think, somewhat different than the participants themselves tell, because the truth is there was some serious civil military friction during the war. I think the civilians did not feel they had complete control over Colin Powell. And in fact, they really didn't. I mean, we have to remember - Dick Cheney is of course a tremendously formidable politician and Vice President. We have to remember that back then, he was the Secretary of Defense who had been put in after the previous Secretary of Defense, John Tower, the previous nominee to be Secretary of Defense had just cratered. He was in a weak position. Powell was the tremendously popular figure and, of course, even more so afterwards. And Cheney, I think was struggling to really keep control of the whole thing.

Also, Powell was just tremendously a great political operator - bureaucratic operator. And on top of all that, he just had a very substantial reform of our high command, which put an enormous amount of power and influence in the hands of the Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff.

So I think the upshot was the civilians were in charge, they were able to give the military everything it wanted because, you know, we a completely isolated opponent, we have this huge Cold War military, we had all the time in the world. The other guy gave us six months to get ready. And so it was a very peculiar war in that, you know, when Powell comes in and asks to double the force, President Bush says ok, is there anything else you would want? And a very peculiar war, I think. Not the kinds of circumstances likely to be repeated.
LAMB: Explain this, under the current circumstances you have Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice over here on this side very close to what - I mean, we don't know, as outsiders, what the President wants or what they want or whatever. But they're all on one side. Then you have going back to the '91 situation, you have Brent Scowcroft, a little bit of Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Jim Baker, Henry Kissinger somewhat on the other side in various degrees.
COHEN: I would not put Kissinger in there.
LAMB: I know - I mean, I've heard...
COHEN: I think it's really a pretty inaccurate kind of...
LAMB: The whole -- the way The New York Times characterized...
COHEN: Yes, I think so.
LAMB: But what is it about Dick Cheney and this mix. I mean, did he -- going back to the experience in '91 -- in '91 what do you know that he really wanted to do over there verses does he really believe in what he's saying now?
COHEN: I can't speak for Cheney, I can't speak for any of these people. And I also think that -- in some ways, we never know what's really going through people's minds as they make their judgments.

Let me put it this way, though, I think if we go to war with Iraq, it will be a certain kind of verdict on the end of the first Gulf War. If you think about it, seems to be it will be a more definitive and probably a more negative kind of verdict than anything any historian can ever write, because it'll be written in action rather than in words. I think anybody who is a participant in the current debate was there in '91 is aware of that. How much it colors they're thinking, I simply don't know.

I also think that there are three possible positions you can imagine people having about the end of the first war. One is, to have said at the time, this was a mistake, we didn't end this thing right, and we've been paying for it. The second position, which I think is, I think is fair to say, is the Scowcroft position, we made the right decision, and we have no apologies to make for anything that we did in '91. That was right.

And the third position, which I - and I don't want to read things into what that Vice President said, but it seems to me to be a kind of plausible understanding of him is, well, at the time, it looked like the right decision. And at the time, it was understandable. In retrospect, it would've been better if we had done something different. If I had to guess, and it's only an inference, no more, I would say that's probably where Cheney is.
LAMB: How do you personally feel about the situation?
COHEN: If I can again say, the book is not about Iraq.
LAMB: But if you are going to any war, this book would be...
COHEN: It'd be, yes - absolutely.
LAMB: And our president is reading this book.
COHEN: Absolutely. No, I understand all that. It's just I've had, you know, I've gotten - one thing's been interesting about the book is, particularly, since the word came out the president's being reading it - the foreign press, in particular, has been all over it. And unlike American journalists who usually at least take some kind of look at the dust jacket and maybe even flip through a few pages, a lot of the international coverages, they --people haven't even bothered to do that. And so people are saying things about the book, which aren't just true.
LAMB: Like what?
COHEN: Well, there's one story that this is the case for invading Iraq. Pretty ludicrous. But when a book, I guess, attracts publicity in this context, people feel free to say all kinds of things.

But, I mean, you asked me about Iraq. And I guess my feeling is with some trepidations, because any use of force is a leap in the dark. I'm in favor of it for a number of reasons. One of the things I would say is, you know, you never quite measure war as just by what you achieve, but it's also by what you ward off and what you prevent. And the way I think about the current situation is this, the sanctions regime is dead. The inspections regime is dead. The Iraqis are pumping as much oil as they were before the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein is really a uniquely bad actor, an extraordinarily cruel, vindictive, risk-taking dangerous leader. I think more than your usual run of unsavory thug. And I think after September 11th - before September 11th, we had kind of theoretical understanding that you can have a bad thing happen in an American city. After September 11th, you know, we know what it smells like.

And I know that hit me when I was in the Pentagon shortly after September 11th, and I could smell the burning, and it was just huge - emotional impact from that. But a lot of people overseas don't fully grasp that.
LAMB: Put each one of these four men in the White House now based on what you know about them then, what would they do? Winston Churchill.
COHEN: Can I dodge that question? Because I don't think we can ever pull these people...
LAMB: I'm not talking about whether they would go in or not go in. I'm talking about what would they apply that you would hope any...
LAMB: ... president would apply of their own theory of how to lead us into a situation?
COHEN: Let me - if I could just kind of re-characterize...
LAMB: Sure - yes.
COHEN: ... is what it is that I would like a president to take away from each of these characters, and perhaps apply...
LAMB: That, and also put yourself in George W. Bush's position. He has read this book, and by the way, at the back, and I'm jumping around here, you say all four deeply read in history, politics, literature and mastered the art of speech and writing. Do you think this president has done any of that?
COHEN: Those are two different questions. Let me go...
LAMB: I know. They are connected.
COHEN: Oh, they're certainly connected. The first thing I think if Lincoln it would be the importance of judging - correctly judging the character of your subordinates, particularly your military subordinates. And Lincoln, I think, was quite a good - ultimately quite a good judge of character.
LAMB: You say when it comes to Abraham Lincoln, he kept saying, stop worrying about the capital of Richmond and worry about the generals, and the troops in the middle. Is there anything applies here with this?
COHEN: Well, I think, you know, it means that you don't just accept what the military seniority and promotion system coughs up. That you may have to reach down and find some rather unprepossessing soul who kind of looks like Ulysses S. Grant did. And very early on in the war, Lincoln kept an eye on Grant about who he had heard both good things and bad things. And he tried to figure out, is this the kind of person who's right for the job. So I'd say, yes, that in this sense, I think the traditional story of Lincoln finds a general's variety -- devoted an enormous amount of effort to try to figure out what somebody's character was and far he could push them.

Clemenceau, I think, first hand knowledge. I mean, Clemenceau was out there one day a week on the front lines. I think it's tremendously important to get out there and get a feel for the troops, get a feel for the leaders.
LAMB: So where should George Bush go then?
COHEN: I would spend some time with the - down at Fort Bragg, at the Joint Special Operations Command. I know going to Afghanistan might be a little bit dicey, but certainly getting out to the field where any of the units that you think you might be sending into battle or going to be getting to know not just the most senior commander, but getting to know the divisional commanders, the two-stars - the major generals.
LAMB: Do you have any...
COHEN: ... forming a judgment of them.
LAMB: When you speak of the generals, do you have any sense of what his relationship is say with Tommy Franks or with Richard Meyers?
COHEN: No. I know General Meyers reasonably well, and I think he's actually quite a wonderful man. I think we're - he's been very much in the background. Actually, he was interested in the book and he had me give a lecture to the Joint Staff on the topic of supreme command before it came out.
LAMB: Don't go beyond that for a second. The Joint Staff means what?
COHEN: The Joint Staff is basically our military high command here in Washington.
LAMB: How many people were in the room when you talked to them?
COHEN: Golly, I don't know - a hundred plus, something like that.
LAMB: Now, going back to your naval or college experience, then you were 29 and they were in the 40's. This time how old are you?
COHEN: Forty-six.
LAMB: And they are how old?
COHEN: About that age, probably a little bit older. But I've spent a lot of times with generals. I guess one of the other things that I found, you know, that doesn't get out is I am sure I'm on very friendly terms with many more generals than the rest of the people who criticize the book for being unkind of the military.

I've taught at Newport. I go to lecture at the war colleges all the time. I run executive education programs for like 25 general officers twice a year. I actually know quite a few generals and have some idea of what they're like.
LAMB: So when you talk to the Joint Staff, what kind of things do you tell them?
COHEN: I basically summarize the argument of the book. And one of the things that I think is very important for the military audience to understand is - to prepare them for what I think is bound to be a stressful relationship. And to say that of course this has happened before. It's OK. It's not only just OK, it's not just the price you pay for being - living in a democratic country who's values you accept as the American military, of course, does. But this is actually better for how you conduct a war. But just be prepared. This may be uncomfortable and unpleasant. Anybody think that you're being nagged and hounded, and harassed, and that's not only the way it is, it's the way it ought to be.
LAMB: How many people, by the way, at the top right now of the Joint Command have had military combat experience before? Just basically?
COHEN: I think you'd have to say probably almost all the four-stars would've had. If you go beyond that, I mean, the Vietnam generation is almost washed out of the system altogether. On the other hand, we've been doing a lot of things all over the place. And so, between the Gulf War and you know, all the other little operations different kinds of combat experience. Of course, combat experience at different levels can be very different things. It's one thing to be a - I know a battalion commander's a lieutenant colonel and then, you know, to be a corps commander as a three star. They're very different. And there's some very senior military people who have not been in effective intense combat include the Gulf War. The military was very sensible, I think, in not allowing Gulf War experience to be the determinant of promotion. And they kept some very very good people as a result of that.
LAMB: Let's go back to the original question about in the Oval Office, you've got...
COHEN: OK, what did they learn? Churchill, questioning. The importance of asking lots and lots of questions. And not being cowed by anybody saying, you know, do you really want to get into that level of detail? And I think Ben-Gurion really making sure you've the first order of questions right. What is this all about? What are we trying to achieve? Who is our enemy? The get to your question about speaking and about the current president...
LAMB: And writing and reading.
COHEN: I don't know what his reading habits are. But I would say, yes, I think any great political reader has to also be a veracious reader. In terms of speaking, I think it's very important that political leaders have their own idiom. And this president's idiom is Texas, that's authentic, that's what he is. So he shouldn't try to imitate Winston Churchill. It would be a terrible mistake to do so in a way. Or if you take some of those ideas, they have to be put in a way that is comfortable for him.

I thought he did a very good job right after September 11, in the speech to Congress, and then the speech in the National Cathedral. I think we're coming to a time when he absolutely has to be heard from. He has to be making the case. It has to be a subtle case. It cannot just be a case of, you know, dead or alive, that kind of thing.

In a way, it has to be the kinds of speeches the vice president has been giving. But if he does intend to take us into a new campaign against Iraq, he has to be giving the speeches, and they have to be good speeches.
LAMB: I know this is a bad question because you can't put everybody in one spot, but what's your sense of where the media is on this situation in Iraq? And I'm talking about "The New York Times", "The Washington Post", ABC, NBC, CNN Group?
COHEN: The media is very varied. Just talking about the big newspapers, I think "The Wall Street Journal" and "The Washington Post" are basically just playing it straight. "Washington Post," well, in terms of news coverage. The editorial column in "The Journal" side is probably more hawkish. "The Post," very mildly hawkish. "The New York Times" is, of course, I suppose, "dovish" is the right word, on the editorial page. And the thing that's been troubling is it's been on the front page of what's supposed to be the news page, too.
LAMB: Do you really think they have been manipulating the news?
COHEN: Oh, yes - well, I don't know if - manipulate is a hard word, but I think it's been tenacious. And I thought that a particularly abysmal piece of reporting about Kissinger. But they really did, I think, mischaracterize his position on Iraq, because I've heard him talk about it. I don't think - I think there was something problematic there.

In terms of the rest of the press, you know, with a lot of the television media, they're just so attuned to buzz and kind of instant response that I'm not sure that they have a real position. Let's say the foreign media is quite hostile. I mean, if you listen to BBC, the editorial presumption is first, this is a dreadful idea and secondly, George Bush is a war leader that they find laughable.
LAMB: If the foreign media and the BBC is so hostile, why have people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice spent so much time being interviewed and talking to that group?
COHEN: I think they probably haven't spent enough time. I think they need to spend a lot more time. I'm not sure whether that's Condoleezza Rice's job. I think that it's very much the State Department's job, and I think it's if - again, if the decision is taking into going to war against Iraq, I mean, by the way, it's a decision about which reasonable people came to disagree, then it's absolutely critical that the state department be in the forefront. And that's not just the secretary, it's, you know, the deputy secretary, the under secretary, the assistant secretaries, and all the ambassadors.
LAMB: Earlier in the discussion, you talked about the Naval War Colleges, you said there were five war colleges?
COHEN: Right. There's the Naval War College, Air War College, Army War College, there's the National War College and then a rather interesting institution called the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, which is really more of kind of economics and technology operation. These are officers, these are the most promising officers. These are the ones who will be the generals and admirals. They come when they're in their early 40's say, and they come for a whole year. And I have to say, teaching at Newport was one of the most wonderful professional experiences in my life. And in fact, the book is dedicated to my boss there, Al Bernstein, who brought me there and who was a remarkable teacher.
LAMB: From teaching the folks that are in the military, where would you put them on the scale? You taught at Harvard, you taught at SAIS at Johns Hopkins. How good are they as students?
COHEN: The best are just mind-numbingly good, they're just terrific. Because they...
LAMB: Military people.
COHEN: Oh, yes. The best are fabulous. They're - not only are they smart, but there's maturity, there's seriousness, there's dedication. You know, then you have the normal distribution. They're very few who you just say, "Dear me, how did this person ever get here?" But there is a normal distribution.

In general, I think, teaching adults is a real challenge because it's easier to be playful when you're in your 20's or to some extent, even your 30's than in your 40's. And particularly, in a military career. You're not rewarded for being playful nor should you be. There's lives at stake. And yet, it was my view of education is, you know, for people to really develop, the teacher has to be somewhat playful and the students have to be somewhat playful as well.
LAMB: Do you have kids?
COHEN: Four of them.
LAMB: How old?
COHEN: The oldest is 20, 18, 16, and 13.
LAMB: Let me ask you the question that a lot of people who are for going into Iraq have been asked, would you want to send your kids over there in a war?
COHEN: You never want to send your kids into war. My son's an Army ROTC cadet. So he's going to be going into the army. And he's a serious young man who's going to be a soldier and will be a good soldier and a leader. And I assure you it's a sobering thought.
LAMB: Is it this important enough to accomplish that your own son would be sent over there?
COHEN: I wouldn't be in favor of it if I didn't think it was an important thing to do. I don't think you could ever ask a father or mother that question and get a really adequate answer.
LAMB: And if we go in there, what's your expectation as to what will happen?
COHEN: Well, again, I think I know enough military history to know that things are tremendously unpredictable. But I would say the chances are better than even that it will go a lot better than certainly the pessimists think. I think there is plenty of reason to think that this is an utterly unpopular regime that will, you know, are most irregular, I mean, will fall apart very quickly. And even a lot of the people around him is held together by fear. There's nobody who will be fighting for Saddam because they love Saddam. You have to remember how that army just disintegrated in 1991. I also think - and this is an important point that's sometimes lost, the American military is really very good, and it's very large, and it gets better after each conflict. You know, what we did in 1991, you compare that with Yugoslavia, we're a lot better then than we were in '91. We're better in Afghanistan than we were in Yugoslavia, and we would be better in Iraq the second time around than we were in Afghanistan.
LAMB: Our guest has been Eliot Cohen, and the book is called "Supreme Command." We started out this program by acknowledging that President Bush told the Associated Press this summer that he has read this book. Thank you for joining us.
COHEN: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.