US Secretary of Defence interview: William Cohen


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Former secretary of defence William Cohen is a strong supporter of a separate Palestinian state

Former secretary of defence William Cohen is a strong supporter of a separate Palestinian state

“By the way, I didn’t know him,” says William Cohen, leaning over conspiratorially. “We had a few handshakes before various events. He knew who I was, but when he offered me the position, it was quite a dramatic step on his part.”

In December 1996, then US president Bill Clinton chose Cohen as his third and final secretary of defence. The Maine senator took oversight of the world’s biggest military force and a department with a budget of $250bn, staying in the post up until 2000. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about his appointment was that a Democrat president had asked a Republican senator to take on one of the most high-profile jobs in his administration.

Bill Clinton’s policy was to co-opt areas in which his party was traditionally considered weak — so balancing the budget, amending welfare and so on. By appointing a Republican to the defence post, he also ingeniously ensured that perceived Democrat frailties with regard to national security were also removed.

These days, with Democrats and Republicans fighting tooth and nail over “the fiscal cliff”, that bipartisan spirit appears to have all but dissolved. America’s two parties have until the beginning of January to thrash out a deal that will prevent tax increases and spending cuts coming into force, a move that could hobble not only the world’s biggest economy, but markets around the world as well. As might be expected, Cohen is pretty glum about the prospects for a resolution.

“It [the lack of cross-party negotiations] bothered me when I was in the Senate, and it was one of the factors that helped me decide to leave after 24 years on the Hill,” he says, shaking his head. “I felt it was becoming too polarised. I saw that structure dissipate when I was in office, and I felt that perhaps new blood coming in would make a change. It did; it made it worse.”

One might assume, with the US staring down the barrel of a $16 trillion debt pile, plus as much as $1.3 trillion in annual deficits, that finding a compromise might be of paramount importance. However, Cohen points out that even the term ‘compromise’ has become tainted by association with weakness or a lack of character. Instead, the phrase being bandied around by Republican speaker John Boehner is “common ground”.

“If we go off the fiscal cliff, it impacts the Gulf, it impacts China, it impacts the world — because of the integration of the various economies; we’re globalised,” Cohen says. “And therefore what happens in the United States will have a major impact elsewhere. The price of oil, if that goes down, what does that do for revenues for the region?”

The oil price is, of course, a major concern for regional policymakers. Budgets in the Gulf have risen over the last year or so, as governments aim to use sky-high oil receipts to build out infrastructure and increase social spending packages for their citizens. But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently warned that such heavy spending may have to be reined in in the near future to hedge against the unpredictability of the oil price.

There is also the fear that new shale gas discoveries in North America may lead to the US putting less strategic significance on the Gulf, particularly as its military shifts its focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. While there are caveats to this theory — Saudi Arabia’s production power could still flood global markets, making the extraction of shale oil and gas less economically viable — Cohen doesn’t see a retreat from the Middle East any time soon.

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