Eliot A. Cohen is leading the neoconservative charge against Trump

Historians in the News
tags: Trump, Eliot A. Cohen



Jessica T. Mathews was President of the Carnegie ­Endowment for International Peace from 1997 until 2015 and is now a Distinguished Fellow there. She has served in the State ­Department and on the National Security Council staff in the White House.
 (February 2017)

Though most are Republicans, neoconservatives have been among Trump’s most outspoken opponents. The Johns Hopkins military historian Eliot Cohen has led that opposition. While they have obvious points of overlap with Trump’s belligerence, neocons believe in constant, active global engagement by the US to advance both American power and values. They object to Trump as a leader who would pull back from the world, who does not understand the critical elements of power, and who is uninterested in promoting freedom and democracy.

Whenever there is a pause between military engagements, neocons tend to worry that America’s credibility—and therefore its security—is at immediate risk. Michael Ledeen (Flynn’s coauthor) is known for the “Ledeen Doctrine” (a term coined by Jonah Goldberg):

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.


In exactly this vein, in The Big Stick Cohen posits that the invasion of tiny Grenada in 1983 helped restore American credibility after Vietnam. Recovery of American credibility today “will probably occur only when the United States actually does something to someone—wiping out a flotilla of Iranian gunboats,” for example.

An obsession with regime change in the Middle East—especially Iran—is another constant for neocons. Cohen was among the first to advocate invading Iraq and Iran and overthrowing other governments in the region as well—dubbing the effort “World War IV.” In his current book he offers a tepid defense of the US invasion but in the end admits that “the Iraq war was a mistake. The publicly articulated premise of an active and dangerous Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program was false.”

Unfortunately, his intellectual honesty does not extend to Iran. Throughout, he refers to Iran as a state in which nuclear weapons are impending. “The heart of Iran’s emerging military potential lies in its nuclear program,” he writes, without acknowledging that the elements of that program have been almost entirely removed, shut down, or subjected to around-the-clock inspection for at least fifteen years. “Once Iran does have nuclear weapons”—not “if,” but “when.” And again, “a nuclear- armed Iran will, eventually, pose a direct threat” to the US—not “would,” but “will.” This is not a matter of semantics. It will be a tragedy for the United States and the world if the conviction that Iran will always outsmart us leads to a failure to enforce the international nuclear deal or to an active American effort to undermine it.

Except for his failure to deal with the threat to the planet from climate change, one cannot quarrel with Cohen’s list of the principal dangers that immediately confront the US: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Islamist terrorism, and the ungoverned threats from uses of cyberspace and from nations in chaos. These dangers, however, vary disconcertingly in urgency from chapter to chapter. In the chapter on China, which Cohen believes is America’s greatest threat, Russia is “doom[ed] to long-term decline.” In the chapter on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, these three pose a greater threat than the possibility of major interstate war in Asia.




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