For Defense Secretary, It's All in the Details
By Bradley Graham
No sooner had William S. Cohen made the transition from senator to secretary of defense several weeks ago than he advised former Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill that a report they had requested on the readiness of U.S. forces would be late.
Cohen, the only Republican in a Cabinet of Democrats, was not happy about the delay. It was no way to treat Congress, and he made clear to Pentagon staff that further tardiness in responding to Capitol Hill would not be tolerated.
Besides, as Pentagon officials are quickly discovering, Cohen is a stickler for timeliness. Driving home the point, the secretary called off an introductory Air Force briefing during his first days in office after service officials were slow to provide some advance paperwork.
"He has certain rules," said one senior official. "He's laid down some very exacting standards about how he'd like us to respond, which around this procrastinating bureaucracy isn't such a bad thing."
After spending the majority of his working life in Congress, the 56-year-old Cohen has made the shift to running one of the world's largest organizations rather smoothly so far, according to people inside and outside the Pentagon. Cohen has displayed a penchant for firm management, clear directives and structured briefings that suits his new military environment. He also has exhibited a politician's flair for affability that has gone over well with many of the troops, foreign dignitaries and defense reporters who have met him.
At the same time, the secretary has revealed little publicly about where he intends to lead the department, particularly on critical questions of future troop levels and weapons programs now under review. He has ordered the military services to provide what one aide called "realistic options," extensive lists of the potential savings or costs associated with cutting or expanding various programs. But which options he will select remains the Pentagon's biggest guessing game.
In contrast to his predecessor, William J. Perry, who had a tendency to jump out in front of the administration in articulating foreign policy as well as defense policy, Cohen has studiously avoided preemptive pronouncements. Instead, he has appeared content to let Madeleine K. Albright, the new secretary of state, take the national security spotlight. Still, there was some grumbling at the Pentagon when, during a European visit last month, Albright floated the notion of a NATO-Russian brigade a proposal that caught defense officials by surprise and was quickly dismissed by them as unworkable and unwise.
"He seemed well-informed, confident, on top of the material," said one European diplomat who attended a meeting with Cohen last week. "But he stuck closely to his official briefs. My impression was, he's still taking things in."
Where Cohen has made the most headlines, and raised some eyebrows among NATO allies, is on the question of withdrawing international military forces from Bosnia. Since his confirmation hearings in January, Cohen repeatedly has declared his intention to see U.S. forces out of Bosnia by the end of the current NATO mission in mid-1998. The secretary's emphatic pronouncements have effectively transformed what had been an administration goal for withdrawal into a firm commitment.
But Cohen has sounded less certain about whether Western European military forces ought to consider staying to help keep the peace after U.S. forces leave. Before a trip to Europe last week, Cohen told former colleagues in Congress who have advocated a European-led follow-on force that he would raise the idea with his NATO counterparts.
"I would agree with you that following our departure in June of 1998, I believe there has to be some sort of force in Bosnia," Cohen told Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), in testimony Feb. 12 before the Armed Services Committee. "I don't think there's any possibility of ending so many decades, if not centuries, of ethnic hatred and conflict in a matter of two or three years. And so I think some international type of a force will be necessary."
But Cohen dropped any discussion of a possible successor force after sessions with the defense ministers of Britain, Germany and Italy, who stressed their intention to withdraw troops if U.S. troops depart. According to several of his aides, Cohen never really planned to press the Europeans to consider a follow-on force. By the end of last week's European trip, Cohen was singing the standard refrain of NATO troops "in together, out together" and attempting to shift public attention to the measures needed between now and mid-1998 to strengthen Bosnia's tenuous peace.
"What we are doing is saying [to the Bosnians] . . . you will have had three springs of peace, and that should be time enough for you to make the determination as to whether you wish to proceed along the path of peace or return to the agonies of war," Cohen said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
As a recruit to President Clinton's team, Cohen has dutifully defended the president's defense budget against continued Republican charges of inadequacy. But he has made clear his sympathies with Republican concerns about an overcommitment of U.S. forces in foreign operations and an undercommitment of funds for modernizing military weapons and equipment. And while willing to carry water for the administration on national security policy, Cohen also indicated Sunday that he has no intention of doing so on such domestic controversies as campaign financing.
Given several opportunities in the NBC interview to defend the justifications offered by Clinton and Vice President Gore for the questionable fund-raising practices of the past two years, Cohen ducked, noting simply that as a member of Congress for 24 years, he never made a fund-raising call from his Capitol Hill offices because he believed doing so would have been wrong.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company