March 2, 2007

An Infusion Of Backbone At State?

The administration has had to fight for its policies on the war for the last several months, if not longer, a task that got tougher after the announcement of the surge in Baghdad and Anbar. The Republicans in the Senate, and to a lesser extent in the House, have had to battle the Democrats on a series of efforts to cripple the surge and defund the war, with varying degrees of unity. On that score, the White House seems determined to make itself clear on its direction:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has tapped Eliot A. Cohen, a prominent writer on national security strategy and an outspoken critic of the administration's postwar occupation of Iraq, as her counselor, State Department officials said yesterday.

Cohen would replace Philip D. Zelikow, a longtime Rice associate who left the administration earlier this year to return to teaching history at the University of Virginia. Despite Cohen's sometimes caustic views on administration policies, officials said he has impressed both Rice and President Bush with his writings, especially "Supreme Command," a study of the relationship between civilian commanders in chief and their military leaders.

In hiring Cohen, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies whose son served a tour of duty as an Army officer in Iraq, Rice has lured a leading figure of the neoconservative movement as her policies toward North Korea and Iran draw fierce attack from the Republican Party's right wing. Cohen has connections in that circle and deep roots in the military establishment, and he is likely to concentrate initially on Iraq and Afghanistan and on reshaping the State Department to better handle post-conflict environments.

The press will likely focus on the dissenting opinions of the new counselor over the past two years. He has at times called the White House "incompetent", using "cockamamie schemes" in rebuilding Iraq. As one of the more influential neoconservative thinkers, he has been a gadfly from the right for an administration beset by gadflies in all directions.

Cohen's hiring may mark a shift at State. Rice has received condemnation from the administration's base for her work on the crises in North Korea and Iran, especially the former. Former Rice supporters worry that she has drifted into the Colin Powell/Brett Scowcroft mode of realpolitik rather than emphasize a strong response to nuclear proliferators and terror-supporting states.

Cohen scolded the White House for an unrealistic approach to certain foreign-policy goals, and worse, for allowing itself to fall into a policy cocoon that punishes dissent. His hiring shows that the administration has listened to his criticism and wants to fix the problem. His arrival could signal a strengthening at State after a season of flirting with appeasement.


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