William Sebastian Cohen was born fifty-seven years ago in Bangor, Maine, the first son of a mixed marriage. Cohen's mother, Clara Hartley, was an Irish Protestant from Aroostook County, one of the poor state's poorest rural backwaters, and she was notable both for her beauty and her independence. "She does not care about public opinion," Cohen once told Yankee magazine. "She dismisses it. Absolutely serene, no matter what people might say." In his memoir, Cohen writes, "any measure of independence that I have today, I attribute to her example of self-esteem and self-confidence." Clara Hartley's strength must have been tested in Cohen's childhood. She had married Reuben "Ruby" Cohen, a Jew who migrated to Maine from the Lower East Side and first impressed his future wife by the way he played saxophone at a local dance hall. Ruby Cohen, his son has said, was "like a Fiddler on the Roof character"--a man who could handle himself in a fistfight or a billiard game, and who sweated out a living in his bakery, the Bangor Rye Bread Co., eighteen hours a day, six days a week, from 1929 until 1995, when, at the age of 86, he collapsed on the job and died.
Ruby Cohen, it seems, did care about public opinion; he liked people and wanted to be liked. His livelihood depended on keeping the customers satisfied, which is why he not only personally baked the bread, but personally delivered it. When his son Billy heard anti-Semitic taunts, as he often did, Ruby counseled him not to show anger or fight back. "Kill 'em with kindness," he would say. This was not easy. Two Saturdays a month, Billy Cohen went to Hebrew school, as his father wished. On the other Saturdays, he played ball at the Young Men's Christian Association, as he himself preferred. But he never felt accepted on either side of what he has called his "split heritage." His Hebrew school classmates resented him, because his absences cost their group the perfect attendance prize. Cohen felt even more hostility from the other side. Once, when he was pitching in a youth baseball game, an adult spectator threw cans at him, shouting, "Send the Jew boy home!" Cohen has said that he has never forgotten how helpless he felt, standing on that mound, muttering, "But don't you understand: I'm not...."
As Cohen was approaching his thirteenth birthday, and the Bar Mitzvah for which he had been studying, the disjunction between his two worlds became a crisis. The rabbi in Bangor informed him he had a problem. Only the children of mothers who are born Jewish or convert are considered Jewish. Since Clara Hartley had not converted, her son would have to do so himself before he could be confirmed in the faith. He would be immersed in the mikvah, or ritual bath, and would then undergo hatafat dam brit, or drawing the blood of the covenant. In lieu of a religious circumcision, the rabbi would extract a symbolic drop of blood from the boy's penis.
Twelve-year-old Billy Cohen was understandably angry and frightened. He ran to his mother, weeping, and begged her to stop it. She intervened with his father, and the boy was spared hatafat dam brit. Instead, Billy Cohen staged a conversion ritual of his own. He walked to the banks of the Penobscot River, behind his father's bakery. He snapped off the mezuzah he wore on a chain around his neck and hurled it into the brown water. "Now I don't have to be a part of that ever again," he told himself. "I'm through pretending."
Cohen would later call this moment of truth on the Penobscot the "turning point" in his life; his break with Jewish orthodoxy was, he said, a liberation: "When I was finally able to say, and to know, that I was alone, it was really the beginning for me."
From then on, his home became the basketball court at the YMCA. When the Y was closed, he would practice outdoors in the bitter Maine winter until his ears ached and his hands bled. He whipped himself into one of the best high-school players the state had ever seen. At Bowdoin College, Cohen excelled both at basketball and in the study of the classics. After Bowdoin, he resisted his father's advice to become an orthodontist and his own notion to try out for pro basketball. He "gravitated," as he put it, to Boston University Law School and, after a fairly brief passage through the practice of law, made an "escape" from the law into what would be his life's work, politics.
WITH HIS SPORTS STAR past and his natural appeal, Cohen rose quickly, winning a seat in Congress by the age of 32. He served three terms as the representative of Maine's Second District and then ran for the Senate in 1978. He won that race and two more after it, staying in the Senate until 1996, when he passed up an easy bid for a fourth term and quit. Shortly after the November 1996 election, President Clinton nominated him for Secretary of Defense, an appointment quickly confirmed by his former colleagues.
Over the course of his political career, Cohen confronted many divisive issues, from Watergate to Bosnia. His approach was always the same. He stood alone, impartial and judgmental, and he wrestled, not so much with questions of policy or politics as with his own doubts. The real issues for him were always the same ones first dramatically limned back in Bangor: doctrinal purity vs. individual conscience; group loyalty vs. personal integrity.
HE WAS, OF COURSE, above mere politics. His role model as a Maine Republican was Margaret Chase Smith, the woman senator who opposed Joe McCarthy and drew votes from both independents and Democrats. End-running the Republican organization based in the state legislature, Cohen sold himself as a fellow outsider to Maine's traditionally Democratic minority group, ethnic French Canadians. His first big act on the national stage was both an act of high principle and one of partisan betrayal: in 1974, he was the lone Republican on the House Judiciary Committee who voted to demand that Richard Nixon turn over the White House tapes, a move that set the stage for the committee's vote to impeach.
Cohen won much praise for this act of conscience, but, over the years, some colleagues suspected him not of love of principle but of a species of love of self. He was, it seemed, not a rebel without a cause but a rebel on every cause, a man for whom the iconoclasm of the cool and independent overview trumped considerations of loyalty and purpose. In 1979, Cohen spoke out against Jimmy Carter's weak Salt II deal with the Soviet Union. But, when Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter, Cohen chided him for proposing to exceed the weapons limits imposed by that still-unratified treaty. Like a Republican, he fought fraud in the Social Security disability program, bashed the Department of Education and advocated "the stern virtues of self-discipline and fiscal prudence." But, like a Democrat, he was pro-choice, favored tax increases and supported affirmative action.
Indeed, Cohen's own deepest puzzlement and his strongest disdain were reserved for moral absolutism itself. He was a "no easy answers" man, the sort of senator who would hail "the art of moderation." He embraced doubt, reveled in relativism, wallowed in ambivalence and ambiguity. He did not seem to particularly enjoy or respect the actual slog-work of legislating. In twenty-four years in Congress, he wrote dozens of op-eds, gave countless speeches at the Brookings Institution. He never chaired a committee. In his memoir, Roll Call, he quoted, earnestly, from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be `here.'" The citizenry itself, with its "loss of faith," "cynicism" and "soft vices of mindless consumption and selfish gratification," could exasperate him. When he retired, decrying "the absence of political accord and the increase in personal hostilities that now permeate our system and our society," it was a complaint he had voiced many, many times before.
The pure expression of the mind, in the form of writing, was what Cohen esteemed most, and he even made the time to publish a few prolix novels and verse. Of these, the most nearly successful was The Double Man, a spy tale cowritten with Gary Hart, one of Cohen's closest Senate friends. The title is borrowed from a 1,700-line poem written by W.H. Auden in 1940, in which Auden pondered both the crisis in Europe and his own crisis of Christian faith. Auden's poem, in turn, was inspired by a line from Montaigne: "We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that we believe what we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn." That is Bill Cohen in a nutshell.
It is easy to mock this poet-pol. But it is a mistake to do so. He postures completely in earnest, and his chronic doubts give him an ironic power: the power to disrupt. So the question people are asking about Secretary of Defense Cohen, says one of Clinton's former Cabinet officers, is whether "the president has bitten off more independence than he can chew." In this widely held view, Cohen's resignation on principle someday is all but inevitable. Already, Cohen has taken the occasion of a high-level meeting to remind the president: "I voted against your Bosnia policy." A more pressing issue, though, is whether Cohen's flaming moderation is really the style of civilian control that America's huge, efficient, but rather directionless military establishment really needs. Cohen and the armed forces face issues of money, strategy and technology that cannot necessarily be split down the middle. And when it comes time for the wrenching decisions over why and how to use force, in Bosnia or elsewhere, do we want a Double Man to help make the call?
In many respects, the job Cohen began six months ago was made for him. As the sole Republican in Clinton's Cabinet, he has ratified the role of his life: the man above politics, the odd man out. But the job has not, so far, gone smoothly. Cohen's military strategy plan, the Quadrennial Defense Review, has been panned as too timid, while his boldest stand, his attempted defense of Air Force General John Ralston against an absurd adultery scandal, misfired. Having taken it upon himself to declare that if the sides in Bosnia resume "slaughtering" one another after U.S. troops leave next year, it will be "up to them," he became embroiled in a quasi-public debate with the administration's leading Bosnia moralist, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The reports of a dispute with the popular Albright do seem to have rattled Cohen. When I met with him at the Pentagon to discuss the matter recently, he was surrounded by notetakers and a highly visible tape-recording device, and even then he replied to questions about Bosnia in only the most cautious terms. "I've gone back and asked Ken Bacon"--the Pentagon's press spokesman--"to go back and get the exact language that Secretary Albright has used, that President Clinton has used and that I've used," he told me. "And they are virtually identical." Everyone says troops out of Bosnia at the end of June 1998, as previously agreed, but meantime we'll redouble our efforts for peace. And Cohen is prepared to be a team player, whatever happens. "The president decides," Cohen adds. "He is the commander-in-chief, and I expect to follow his policies, after making my best arguments."
In one sense, Cohen's spin is correct. Too much has been made of minor differences of emphasis in statements by him, Albright and Clinton. As Cohen says, the president is supposed to decide what to do about Bosnia. And, so far, he really hasn't. But, in another sense, the coverage of Cohen's tiff with Albright has understated the depth of their differences. On the use of force, Albright is an unreserved moralist, confident (at least since the Gulf war) in the capacity of American troops to impose both peace and justice in world trouble spots. Cohen holds quite a different view. America "should neither be the policeman of the world, nor a prisoner of events," is one of his stock phrases. Cohen is not unaware of the lessons of Munich, which is part of the reason he finally decided to vote for the Gulf war, after first thinking that sanctions should be given a try. After all, as Auden wrote in The Double Man: "When statesmen grave say `we must be realistic'/the chances are they're weak, and therefore pacifistic." Especially lately, though, in the context of the Clinton administration's post-cold war deployments, Cohen has seemed to place more emphasis on the second half of Auden's formulation: "But when they speak of principles, look out: perhaps/their generals are already poring over maps."
COHEN'S STRONG AMBIVALENCE toward the use of force is long-held. When he was a senator, nothing caused him more decisional agony than the idea that young people might be sent to fight and die in some foreign quagmire because of his vote. As he once declared on the Senate floor: "And the hearts that beat so loudly and enthusiastically to do something, to intervene in areas where there is not an immediate threat to our vital interests, when those hearts that had beaten so loudly see the coffins, then they switch, and they say: `What are we doing there?'" In 1979, when Jimmy Carter proposed registering American men for the draft in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan--a decision that happened to coincide with Cohen's own son's sixteenth birthday--Cohen felt, he wrote, a "loneliness ... darker and colder than the distance to the nearest star."
Cohen could see every facet to any question involving force. On nato expansion, he wrote in 1993, "The West should make haste to extend the benefits of its security institutions to its former adversaries. But the political paranoia and instability that abound in the East dictate that we must do so slowly." Even when one side in a conflict seemed to have a clear moral advantage over the other, Cohen could see the other side's point, too. In July 1993, as the Serbs rolled through Bosnia and the body count rose, Cohen wrote that "none of the Bosnian parties is without sin. The interests of all three must be accommodated." And even when Cohen supported force, he did so with the greatest public reservations. "Doubt," he declared just before casting his 1991 vote for the Gulf war, "sits like a raven on our shoulders and taunts us."
Today, as Secretary of Defense, Cohen still keeps fresh in his mind what he has called "the specter of the rubble in Beirut and that of our exit from the rooftops of Saigon." In this, he is welcome at the Pentagon, a civilian defense chief who shares the generals' conventional wisdom about what sorts of American interests can justify the use of force: basically nothing, except the oil-rich Gulf and the Korean peninsula. But one of the functions of a Secretary of Defense is, as the president's point man in the constitutional scheme of civilian control over the armed forces, to counter the natural reluctance of generals to fight. And in the most important question of force since the Gulf, Cohen's analysis of the situation was exactly like that of the generals, and exactly wrong.
Cohen explained his views on Bosnia in a 1993 Washington Post piece titled "in the balkans: get real." At the time, some did think the Munich analogy applied to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, seeing it as cross-border aggression from Serbia, and hence a threat to the rules that preserve stability in Europe. But the senator from Maine was not among them. The Vietnam and Lebanon analogies, he wrote, "should counsel us to seek to do what we can and not what we might prefer." The heart of his plan to stop the civil war was an "internationally supervised population relocation to provide each of the three major factions with a contiguous entity under its control." There would be a U.S.-armed Muslim state, bordered by Serb and Croat entities that could associate with their mother nations if they guaranteed minority rights and assured the "departure from power of individuals deemed responsible for war crimes." More ambitious objectives were not achievable.
OF COURSE, Cohen's proposal actually sounds a lot like what came out of Dayton two years later. But the Dayton accord, shaky though it is, was only possible because the Serbs had been made to yield large amounts of territory by the use, finally, of force: the one-two punch in the summer of 1995 of nato air strikes and a U.S.-supported Croat-Muslim ground offensive. This action, which made even a limited peace possible in Bosnia, was precisely what Cohen and his fellow realists were opposing at the time he wrote his op-ed. In other words, Cohen's "realistic" proposal was actually impractical, because it lacked the one element, U.S. force, that could make it happen.
Even after Dayton, Cohen shrank from deploying American forces on the ground, without which the peace accord was doomed to fail. When President Clinton made it clear he would send troops regardless of Congress's objections, Cohen joined the ranks of those seeking at least to "narrow the mission, and do the best we can to protect the young men and women who are going to be assigned there." "It is one thing to keep warring parties apart, to separate them," he told CNN's Charles Bierbauer in November 1995. "That would be one mission. If, on the other hand, we're also going to be helping to disarm or build down the armaments held by the Bosnian Serbs to build up the capability of the Bosnian Muslims, then we're starting to once again get into the area, a very dangerous area, of picking sides, as we did over in Somalia." He warned against "nation-building" and "mission creep." He suggested that a bid to arrest alleged war criminals--as opposed, presumably, to their "departure from power"--would undermine the peace.
Cohen's evolved position is still in firm accord with that of the military today, as Dayton slowly sinks, and the administration ponders the evident incongruity between the U.S.-led Stabilization Force's passivity on the one hand, and the need to force political change, especially in Radovan Karadzic's Republika Srpska, on the other. Purportedly the administration's lengthy review of Bosnia policy, featuring that ballyhooed Albright-Cohen tiff, produced agreement that sfor would cease its foot-dragging. If so, Cohen isn't advertising the fact. When I asked him if he would be comfortable with the partition of Bosnia, his reply left no doubt that he long ago wrote off the idea of a multiethnic state. "Our policy is to implement Dayton," he replied wearily. "There is some doubt as to whether and how that can be accomplished, that is, to have a unitary state that is multiethnic living in a peaceful relationship with each other. Nonetheless, that's the commitment of the administration; that is what we are trying to support."
TO BE SURE, Cohen's true forte as a senator was not foreign policy as such, but rather the design and budgetary nutrition of the defense establishment itself. To a large extent, this was a matter of home-state politics. The B-52 runways at Loring Air Force Base in the impoverished north of Maine, and the Bath Iron Works naval shipyard, builder of the Aegis cruiser, are the sources of jobs and income to thousands of potential Cohen voters. Their pork-barrel value dictated that Cohen would seek membership on the Armed Services Committee. But, for Cohen, defense policy was also a grim intellectual challenge. Exempt from Vietnam himself because of a college deferment, Cohen felt insecure about national security matters when he went from the House to the treaty-ratifying Senate in 1979. So he sought to master the issues the same way he had mastered basketball. He plunged into the arcana of covert operations and arms control, to the point where, in 1986, he was actually capable of writing a 5,000-word article for Armed Forces Journal International, advocating, in blinding detail, the creation of a Defense Special Operations Agency.
As a defense budgeteer and arms strategist, Cohen was, again, determinedly of no fixed address. He favored developing a costly ballistic missile defense, but railed against the $2-billion-a-copy B-2 bomber. His signature proposal, developed in tandem with centrist Democrat Sam Nunn, was the 1983 nuclear "build down." The U.S. and the Soviets could build new warheads, thus meeting their equal "need" to modernize, but would have to eliminate two old weapons each time they did, thus stabilizing deterrence. The idea, representing Cohen's difference-splitting impulse at its most ingenious, was intended to "temper the excesses" of both the nuclear freeze and the Reagan defense buildup, says Alton Frye, a longtime Cohen adviser. And, though it was never enacted, in a heuristic sense the build down did pave the way for the arms reduction ideas Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev pursued.
Thus, today, Cohen's efforts to minimize U.S. military involvement in Bosnia are influenced by another Pentagonal concern: the looming mismatch between the Pentagon's foreseeable budget and the Clinton administration's policy of global military superiority. The U.S. remains committed to preparing for two "major regional contingencies"--that is, wars, most likely in the Persian Gulf and North Korea--even as we shoulder occasional costly operations such as Bosnia, Haiti and the Iraq no-fly zones. But, to sustain its primacy, the U.S. must make simultaneous, and huge, investments in current readiness and in future high-tech weapons, such as the limited ballistic missile defense system Cohen favors. And it must do so within a slimmed-down budget of about $250 billion, in current dollars, each year. When Cohen took office, it appeared the military's current weaponsprocurement plans would cost about $15 billion more per year than it was likely to get from Congress.
How does Cohen deal with this aspect of his job? The recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review represented Cohen's first chance to make an impact on this problem, a credible solution to which has been deferred by all of his predecessors since the Bush administration. Basically, he had three options. The first was to leave the military's plans more or less as they are, and try to persuade Congress to supply more cash. A second, more radical approach, however, would try to take advantage of the low-threat "strategic pause" to sharply reduce forces, while pouring the savings into a restructured force built to capitalize on the high-tech "revolution in military affairs." Option Three, the so-called "Full Spectrum" approach, would try for a compromise between the first two: to keep the force structure intact, but trim it to produce savings that could be used to accelerate the gradual pace at which new weapons are currently being introduced.
Cohen tried for Option Three--characteristically, but not necessarily mistakenly. He was right to reject a risky great leap forward in military technology--critics tend to understate the degree to which the services are already incorporating cutting-edge hardware--nor could he simply defend the status quo. So Cohen called for modest trims in manpower, totaling 60,000 personnel from all four services, coupled with an array of procurement cuts that preserved but reduced all of the services' pet projects. The big savings in his plan are supposed to come from better management practices and two new rounds of base closings.
THE ARGUMENTS COHEN USED to justify some of his QDR show that the mind that brought us the nuclear build down is still a clever one--and still marked by an impulse to define the clever policy as the one that rests between two choices. Take fighter jets. To improve further the area of American defense that least needs improvement, the military is planning three very expensive new combat aircraft, the Navy's F-18A E/F, the Air Force's F-22 and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). I asked Cohen, who, as a senator, mocked the Air Force for its endless capacity to come up with new rationales for the B-2 bomber, why he had opted to keep these duplicative programs going, albeit at reduced levels. He conceded the still-unstarted JSF would have been relatively easy to cancel, and that the F-18A E/F, an update of an existing plane, was not justified on its own. But, he said, "There was a strategical and tactical motivation behind that decision." Cohen has decided to buy 548 F-18s (down from a Navy request of 1,000) as "leverage" to hold down the future costs of the JSF. Now, he says, if the JSF gets too expensive, the Pentagon can always buy more F-18s. Perhaps, through all the congressional and bureaucratic machinations in the years ahead, this strategem will unfold as Cohen plans. But the Secretary of Defense could have simply ordered half as many F-18s, which would have achieved the same purpose, and would have saved more money--but annoyed the Navy.
Cohen says his goal in the QDR was a "responsible," "realistic" plan, not a bold one that Congress would reject out of hand. But the QDR he eventually produced managed to be the most cautious possible version of the middle course, without being the most credible. Savings from better management of the Pentagon are notoriously easy to overstate. And it may have been even more quixotic to ask the Congress to fund his plan indirectly through politically painful base closings than it would have been to ask them for a bigger budget. This is especially true, says Michael O'Hanlon, who studied the QDR for the Brookings Institution, because Cohen himself "made no hard decisions that will make him unpopular within the Pentagon."
And, anyway, in Cohen's mind, the QDR isn't really a finished product. "It's going to be ... constantly in the process of evolving," he told me. "There'll be another QDR in another two and a half years. There will be additions to this proposal from the National Defense Panel ... so I think we'll see quite a few recommendations that the Hill will be impressed with." And maybe someday the country will have a clear sense of its government's defense priorities.
WHEN I SPOKE with Cohen, the one time he let down his guard and spoke with passion was when I mentioned Tom Lambert, a man whom he says has had a more "profound impact" on his life than anyone except his father. Cohen's first job after law school was as an assistant to Lambert, a professor of law at Boston University who edited the American Trial Lawyers Association newsletter. Even now, the mere mention of his old mentor's name seems to transform the circumspect Secretary of Defense into the legal novice of three decades ago. "Do you know who he is?" Cohen gaped--then launched into Lambert's resume from memory. "One of the most eloquent men to have walked the face of the earth. Former oratorical champion, West Coast debating champion, former prosecutor at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg. He was the dean of Stetson Law School at the age of 27. Taught at B.U. Law School, subject of torts, standing room only for all of his tenure. He has a photographic memory that can recite for two hours cases by page and paragraph number--and one of the most decent human beings on earth."
Like Cohen's mother, Lambert was an individual of uncompromising integrity and independence. Each month, big-name trial lawyers clamored to get their cases reported in Lambert's newsletter. But, according to Cohen, Lambert always chose cases strictly on their merits: "He would never bend to pressure, even from legal giants, no matter what they tried to do," he recalls. Once, Lambert took Cohen to a conference of state attorneys general at a country club in Delaware. Lambert chose this elite setting to deliver a ringing attack on racism in both the North and the South. The Arkansas delegation walked out, but Lambert spoke on for an hour, until his standing ovation. "I couldn't have been more proud of him that night," Cohen recalls.
BUT LAMBERT'S MORALITY was only part of the appeal; he also embodied the cool, above it all, intellectualism that Cohen sought to achieve himself. Frequently, master and adept would repair after work to Lambert's apartment overlooking the Charles River. As jazz played on the hi-fi and sailboats floated in the distance, they would sip martinis and discuss the great works of philosophy and poetry. Sometimes Lambert's wife chose an article for them from The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. "We would discuss the things more excellent, whatever they were," Lambert, now 82, wistfully recalls.
In their long chats, Lambert helped Cohen form the framework in which to regard the questions--and ambiguities--that life poses. "I said he should seek simplicity and distrust it," Lambert told me. "The lawyer has to be the cool-headed one who has the total view of an issue. He has to be the master of the telescope and the microscope." As a specialist in tort law, Lambert instructed Cohen in the fifty states' often mutually inconsistent doctrines on medical malpractice or product liability. "The common law is not frozen, in some Plantagenet mode," Lambert would say, "but, like the lawyer himself, forever becoming."
Today, the childless Lambert calls Cohen his "ideal son." Cohen speaks of Lambert as a "spiritual leader," a second father. Before that difficult vote on Nixon in 1974, it was Lambert that Cohen called to help him weigh the issues. When Cohen speaks about ravens of doubt, or "the soft vices of mindless consumption," it is Lambert's voice he is struggling to emulate. When he bores into the details of arms control or the QDR, he is trying to master both the telescope and the microscope.
Yet, as I listened to Cohen reminiscence so admiringly about his mentor, I couldn't help thinking that even Lambert at his most eloquent needed less courage than is routinely required of a good executive decision-maker in government, especially in the life-or-death area of national defense. Tom Lambert was an academic. If disgruntled trial lawyers succeeded in stripping him of his newsletter, he would still have tenure. He could use powerful words in part because there was no expectation they would be backed by powerful deeds. During two and a half decades of easy re-elections to that talking-shop called the U.S. Congress, it made a certain sense for Bill Cohen to try to be like Tom Lambert. He doesn't really have that option now.
This article originally ran in the July 28, 1997 issue of the magazine.