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Laramie Movie Scope:
Cohen and Hart Talk War

William S. Cohen and Gary Hart on the war on terrorism, an essay

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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April 13, 2004 -- During the past week I heard lectures by both former U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, and former Senator and Presidential Candidate Gary Hart. Both talked about the security challenges of the 21st Century. Both men have major security credentials. Hart was co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century and a former member of the Defense Policy Board. His commission on national security predicted major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and proposed an office of homeland security prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The commission's recommendations were largely ignored until the attacks of 9/11. Both lectures were held at the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie and were well-attended.

Cohen, being a Republican (even though he served in the Clinton Administration), carefully skirted the major issue of the current presidential campaign: Did the U.S. attack on Iraq increase or decrease U.S. security? He sidestepped the issue by saying that American troops are in Iraq now and they have to stay there for the foreseeable future. A pullout now would damage American foreign policy. It doesn't matter if the decision to attack Iraq was good or bad, but we are definitely stuck in Iraq now. I guess it really doesn't matter if you don't plan to vote in November. I do plan to vote, and I would like to hear from Cohen whether or not he thinks the decision to attack Iraq makes sense from a security point of view. It was amazing how he was able to tiptoe around the issue without saying much of anything.

Cohen did give some interesting hints, though. He said democracy can't succeed in a nation without a strong middle class. I don't think Iraq has much of a middle class, at least not in the usual sense of the term. That is a serious problem for the Bush Administration's plans for making Iraq into a democracy, a shining example for the whole Islamic world (except Turkey, which does have a democracy). He also said that the attack on Iraq may have strengthened America's bargaining position with North Korea. That seems quite a stretch. Cohen also talked about the impact of technology, particularly the Internet, on the issue of security. The Internet allows terrorist groups to communicate with each other easily and cheaply. It allows command and control without the need for any real headquarters. It allows a guy sitting in a cave in Afghanistan to order attacks on the other side of the world. It also makes the strategy of blowing up terrorist camps less effective. He predicted there will be another major terrorist attack in the U.S.

Hart, speaking a few days after Cohen, made the same point about technology's role in terrorism. He also talked about the historical context of terrorism. It is the new threat that unites the country after the fall of communism 10 years earlier. Without a threat, the country was adrift (meaning fear is the best way to galvanize voters). Many experts predicted terrorist threats, yet, remarkably, nobody took these threats seriously, even after the bombings in Oklahoma City and New York. It wasn't until 9/11 that the country woke up to the fact that terrorists can cause serious damage to the country. It wasn't until 9/11 that President Bush reversed his opposition to a proposed office of homeland security and came to support the idea. In a very clever spin, he even managed to force provisions in the legislation to strip away civil service protections for homeland security employees by labeling Democrats as being soft on terrorism. This is very similar to the old “soft on communism” ploy used by Republicans during the Cold War, the same ploy that got us bogged down in Vietnam for years. What union-busting has to do with patriotism or terrorism is beyond me, but the ploy worked.

Hart went on to say that hand in hand with the information revolution, there is also the economic revolution of globalization. Both the information and economic revolutions have political consequences which collectively serve to weaken the sovereignty of nations. These revolutions combined to make nations more vulnerable to terrorism. We live in a world in which nations are increasingly interdependent on each other. This helps explain the emergence of the European Union, an entity that was unthinkable only a few years ago. Obviously, in this new political-economic system, it is more imperative than ever to get a consensus and cooperate with other nations in wars like the one in Iraq. This was done in the first Persian Gulf war and in the Afghanistan war. It was not done, however, in the second Iraq war. In this war, the U.S. tried to go it alone, well not entirely alone, but mostly alone. The result was easily predictable. It has become a costly, deadly and ultimately futile exercise in early 20th century-type muscle flexing. It might have worked 30 or 40 years ago. Not now. Times have changed.

A good example of how the Bush Administration has not responded to this change was the recent wrong-headed decision by the Americans to shut down an Iraqi newspaper that was critical of the Americans. This move backfired immediately and led to deadly rioting and more opposition to the Americans. What's next? Shutting down the Internet, jamming Al Jazeera's signal, shutting down the phone system, jamming cell phones? It is impossible to control the flow of information these days. It is another example of the mistakes made by the administration in Iraq. What about the decision to invade Iraq? Did it make America more secure or less secure? I asked Hart this question. He looked very uncomfortable, like someone had just punched him in the gut, but, to his credit, he answered the question. His answer was that the invasion of Iraq has made America less secure. The war serves as a means for terrorists to recruit more warriors and more financial support for their cause. It has also served to isolate America from the allies it needs in order to pursue the real war on terrorism. It remains an open question how much of this policy failure is due to the war itself, as opposed to the handling of post-war Iraq. It is hard to separate the two.

My guess is that Cohen also feels the nation's security has suffered because of the Iraq war, but he won't admit it publicly because he is, after all, a Republican, and would rather see Bush re-elected, than see John Kerry in the White House. My guess is that Cohen is hoping that Bush has learned his lesson from the bloody nose he's getting in Iraq and that he won't repeat this colossal mistake again. Former Senator Alan Simpson, another Republican, made statements in favor of the Iraq invasion after Hart's talk. Simpson, who lives in Wyoming, served in the Senate with Hart. He shared the stage with Hart and was generally a congenial host. Simpson is a charming and funny fellow and he's well-known nationally. In fact, he appeared in the movie “Dave” as himself, and also appeared in several TV shows, including “Murphy Brown.” He has also appeared on numerous TV and radio talk shows and news shows. His brother, Pete Simpson, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

Simpson quoted some polls which indicate that a majority of Iraqis support the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Sadam Hussain's murderous, corrupt, government. He argued that the Iraqi people are better off without Hussain. These are the standard arguments by those who support the war. Even if these arguments are true, they are irrelevant to the issue at hand. The issue is whether or not the United States is more secure after the Iraq war than it was before the war. There is ample evidence, as Hart said, that America is less secure because of the war. The purpose of America's military is to protect the people of the United States, not to fight a revolutionary war on behalf of the Iraqi people. If the war with Iraq makes us less secure, then it was the wrong decision to make, regardless of the benefits to the Iraqis. We, as Americans would be better off not re-electing the administration that made such a huge policy mistake. It may make other mistakes of this magnitude again, if given the chance. For more on this, see my other essay on this subject Iraq: The Nonsensical War. By the way, pretty much everybody, me, Hart, Simpson, Cohen, Bush and Kerry, agrees that we can't pull out of Iraq right now. It is a tar baby. We're stuck with it, both morally and politically. The only dispute among us is how stupid was it to hit the tar baby in the first place. Some claim it was a smart move, but they're not having any luck proving it.

The talk by Cohen, titled “The Perils and Promises of the Future,” was sponsored by the Milward L. Simpson fund in the political science department at the University of Wyoming. The late Milward L. Simpson, former governor of Wyoming, is the father of Al and Pete Simpson. Pete Simpson hosted the talk by Cohen. The Hart talk, “Security in the New Age of the 21st Century,” was sponsored by the University of Wyoming Graduate School, UW Outreach School, and the Office of Wyoming Homeland Security. Cohen's talk was held on April 8, Hart's on April 12.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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