The ex-Bush staffer whose ‘Jewish sensibility’ made him a leading Trump critic
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InterviewEarly on, I figured out: 'This is a different breed of cat'

The ex-Bush staffer whose ‘Jewish sensibility’ made him a leading Trump critic

Former counselor to the State Department Eliot Cohen argues it’s a mistake for ‘another highly identifiable American Jew’ to lead Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy for US

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies program, introduces US Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before remarks at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C., Oct. 27, 2016. (DoD Photo by US Army Sgt. James K. McCann)
Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies program, introduces US Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before remarks at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C., Oct. 27, 2016. (DoD Photo by US Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

WASHINGTON — Like most neocons, Eliot Cohen was an unabashed “Never Trumper” throughout the 2016 campaign. His was a signature found on two open letters from former GOP foreign policy officials warning against a Donald Trump presidency.

“We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office,” one of those missives said.

But when Trump shocked the world and won the election last November, Cohen’s initial reaction was to encourage young conservatives to serve in the administration.

“It was the basic instinct that anybody who served in government has, which is that if the president asks you to serve, you serve; it’s about the office, not the man; it’s that you do your bit; and then a natural belief, which is part of the freedom of self-deception, that you can ameliorate it, that you can modify it, that you can temper it — and the belief that he’ll learn, he’ll grow. People do adjust to the office. Its constraints will bind him in there,” he recently told The Times of Israel during a lengthy interview.

Within a week, however, he changed his mind. “Quite early on, I figured out, no. This is just a different breed of cat.”

Cohen, 61, then wrote a column for The Washington Post explaining the conclusion he had reached. Ever since, he’s remained one of Trump’s most piercing critics from the right, and has joined the The Atlantic as a contributing editor, where he’s churned out a fusillade of forceful denunciations of the White House.

In his first piece for the august publication, he said of Trump: “Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better.” To be associated with his presidency, he went on, will be for most “an exercise in moral self-destruction.”

Eliot Cohen, center, speaks at The Miller Center Ronald Reagan Centennial Conference on February 10, 2011, at the National Press Club in Washington DC (The Miller Center, University of Virginia)

Now the director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of International Studies, Cohen served in the George W. Bush administration, as a State Department counselor under Secretary Condoleezza Rice from April 2007 through January 2009.

From his current perch, he has been doing his academic work. Earlier this year, he published a book, The Big Stick, which argues that hard power and the use of military force remain necessary instruments for US foreign policy — positions that practically form the nucleus of neoconservative thinking.

Cohen’s ascension to Foggy Bottom came after he transformed himself from a strong proponent of the Bush-led 2003 Iraq invasion into a fierce detractor. For that, he gives the Bush administration credit. In his recent Atlantic cover story, he said it reflected “their awareness that expressing criticism or dissent was an act of patriotism, not personal betrayal.” He then added: “Trump lacks that spirit.”

Beyond his experience working in government, Cohen cites his “Jewish sensibility” as a lodestar for why he harbors such dire fears about the havoc Trump could wreak.

Growing up in Boston, his mother and father came from a secular Jewish background. But his father became more interested in observance as Eliot was an adolescent, and sent him to the Maimonides School, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in one of Boston’s bucolic suburbs.

Cohen’s elaborate Jewish education may be one of the reasons he’s able to extemporaneously delve into an impassioned exegesis of passages from Pirkei Avot, but according to him, it’s also one of the reasons he thinks Trump poses such a unique threat to the world.

Below is an edited and condensed version of our interview, in which he explains why he finds Trump so dangerous, why he’s unimpressed with his efforts to solve Mideast peace (with the help of his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner), and more.

The Times of Israel: What do you make, at this point, of the president’s attempts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Eliot Cohen: It’s ridiculous. It is simply absurd. I’ve always thought that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was — I mean, I’m all in favor of it, if I were an Israeli, I’d probably be some kind of dove — but I just don’t think the basic ingredients are there.

I mean, the rest of the Middle East is up in flames. The Israelis are not prepared to take serious risks to cut a deal with the Palestinians. And you just don’t have any Palestinian leadership in place willing to say, “Yeah, we’re willing to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state, we’re willing to divide Jerusalem, we’re willing to have a mini-state, which has limited sovereignty in a whole bunch of limited areas, that’s fine.”

If I were a Palestinian, I probably wouldn’t accept it. So I just don’t see any of the preconditions there.

And the idea that some 36-year-old kid with zero diplomatic experience — just because he’s the son-in-law of the president and happens to be Jewish — can pull this off is preposterous.

L-R: Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman meet in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Why do you think this is such priority for Trump? It’s not the most important issue in the Middle East, let alone the world, and it’s not as if solving this conflict would have the regional reverberations people once thought it would. 

It’s a recurring temptation for American politicians to think that they will be the ones to bring peace to the Middle East. This is not at all uncommon.

But you’re right. It is not the most important thing. The question is: Why is Trump interested in it? I think this is a very incurious man — if he reads the newspapers, it’s to read about himself — but he doesn’t actually have a real idea of international politics.

I think he’s vaguely known that this has been an issue for a long time. He conceives of everything in terms of deals, so he figures this is a really big deal to be had, and if there’s a really big deal to be had, well, who’s the obvious man to cut the really big deal?

Do you see any positive signs of the way they are managing this issue thus far?

No. There’s nothing. It’s just blather. But to be fair, most of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been blather all along, with the exception of some quiet security arrangements and the kind of quiet support for Salam Fayyad when he was still in play. But there’s nothing.

Since you bring up [former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, and since you served in the Bush administration, let me ask you about a criticism that has come from some foreign policy corners, including that of Dennis Ross. Did the US make a mistake in not doing enough to seize the opportunity presented with Fayyad, who specifically said the Palestinians should take a page out of the Zionist playbook and build their state institutionally — and that if they build their state institutionally, recognition will only be a formality? 

All I can tell you is that when I became counselor to the Department of State, in one of my many conversations with Secretary Rice, I said, “Madame Secretary, there’s only one issue I’d rather not deal with.”

“What’s that?” she said.

“The Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

“Really? Why?”

I said, “Well, first, it’s a black hole. You begin working on that, you have no time for anything else, because it’s all absorbent.”

She said, “Yeah, I get that.”

The second reason is that I don’t think it’s good for me personally or the United States government to have another highly identifiable American Jew deeply involved in this effort.

She said, “Okay, I understand that.”

And then I said, “Frankly, I don’t think this is going anywhere.”

And then she said, “Get out of my office.” [Laughs]

President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walk to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008, after spending the weekend at Camp David. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

No, I think we worked as closely with Salam Fayyad as we could. The problem with Salam Fayyad was not Salam Fayyad. It’s that a warm embrace from the United States and, even more so from the Israelis, was a kiss of death for him domestically.

Some say the PA was too corrupt for him and he couldn’t survive.

Well, he was able to make some changes in terms of paying police and stuff like that. But from where Palestinian society was and is in terms of being ready for what would fundamentally be an agreement that would leave them with a state, but with very little sovereignty and without a right of return for refugees and without the things that they think they should have in Jerusalem, I understand that. I understand the emotional side of that.

But I think that as long as they are not really willing to accept that, there’s no way that the Israelis will give what the Israelis have to give: moving settlements and a certain degree of physical insecurity and all the rest.

Neither of the sides are willing to do what they have to do. That seems pretty obvious.

No, and from the Israeli side, there’s a perfectly workable solution, it seems, which is defense. I mean, I don’t think this is all workable in the long run. In the long run, I think this is tragedy.

But I was just in Israel over the summer. Life is good. Restaurants are open, the wall works, the [Shin Bet] can even stop stabbings to some extent. For Palestinians, I know a lot less, but I suspect that some of it is, “Well, we don’t particularly like this, but on the other hand, what would we prefer? Raqqa? I don’t think so.”

A moment ago you said that if you were a Palestinian, you wouldn’t take the deal.

I would probably be bitterly unhappy about the deal.

Can you explain why?

Because if I were a Palestinian, I’d probably be aspiring to a truly sovereign state, which is not in the cards.

To go back to something else you said, why has it been such a trend that Jews are the leading US diplomats in Arab-Israeli peace efforts? And why do you think that’s been a problem?

There is a certain kind of American Jew who thinks of it as their mission to rescue the Israelis from themselves. There’s a certain kind of Israeli who thinks this is somebody we can play on to achieve our ends — and there are people both on the left and right in Israel who feel that way.

Then secretary of state John Kerry with former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 29, 2013, as he announces that Indyk will shepherd the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

I think from the point of view of the rest of the American government, it looked like, “Well, this way we know we’ll have somebody who will have instant credibility with the Israelis. Therefore, they can get the Israelis to make concessions that they might not otherwise make.”

It’s not good because it means that you’re going to immediately go in having somebody who’s going to be mistrusted by the Arab side, for perfectly good reasons; who will, whether you know it or not, in very short order end up having bitter conflicts on the Israeli side, because they are actually not Israeli agents. They’re actually acting on behalf of the United States government — and the United States government and the Israeli government don’t always agree.

And then, there is that danger that you think your job is to save Israel from itself  — and I don’t think it’s the job of any American government official, or any American Jew, to save Israel from itself. Israel has to save Israel from itself.

Your writings have been unceasingly critical of the Trump administration. One of the things you warn about in your recent Atlantic cover story is that surprises are what ultimately come to define international politics, and that one of the great dangers in Trump is how he will really manage a crisis and respond to a surprise. 

There are a whole bunch of places — the Korean Peninsula, China and the South China Sea, Russia and Eastern Europe — where something awful could happen and we could walk right into it.

This is particularly dangerous because I think a lot of foreign leaders have concluded that Trump is a bluffer and a blowhard. Therefore, they don’t think they have to take his threats seriously. Most of the time they’ll be right. But there will be a time when they’re wrong — for whatever reason.

I’m somebody who, over time, has come to have a great deal of faith in the power of accident and stupidity and miscalculation.

Where does that comes from? 

Partly from being a historian, partly actually from having a Jewish sensibility.

What do you mean by that?

Look, I had a very good Jewish education at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. I think to really be grounded in the history of the Jewish people, and also in a Jewish sensibility about the world, is to know that it’s a perilous place; to know that the worst can really happen; to know that the norm is frequently not people acting well and making terrible mistakes — even the good people.

If you think about it, who’s the heroic, monarchical figure of the Jewish tradition? It’s King David. Look what a hash he makes of his life. Look what a hash he makes, to some extent, of the politics, even though he expands the Kingdom of Israel. Look at the wreckage that he leaves behind. He’s a very fallible guy. That’s where you get the power and pathos of the psalms. That’s the world as it is.

How did serving in the Bush administration contribute to this view of the world? You were an early proponent of the Iraq invasion and then became a huge critic of the way it was conducted. 

I was a proponent of it. I was a critic of the conduct of it in the first few years. I’ve written a book called The Big Stick, which has a chapter that very much deals with the lessons of Iraq.

I guess my feeling about it is that the faulty intelligence is the faulty intelligence. There was an argument for doing it no matter what — given the threat that Sadam posed to the region. The execution of it in the first few years was, I think, quite poor for a variety of reasons. So there was needless blood and treasure expended.

My feeling was also that, in 2007 and 2008, we were on some sort of fragile trajectory to success. A lot of the mistakes had been redeemed to a certain point, but it was going to take an unremitting effort, and I don’t think the Obama administration did a particularly good job of handling that.

When we put up the tombstone for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, the top of that tombstone in capital letters will be the word: “Iraq.” But when they put up the tombstone for Barack Obama’s foreign policy, there will be only one word in capital letters at the top: “Syria.”

And that’s what comes from overlearning the lessons of Iraq.

Obama believed that the use of force in Syria would result in even worse consequences.

There’s sometimes the belief that that was the case. I don’t think that that was the case. In general, Obama was very hesitant about the use of force and hesitant about the Middle East, and about the uses of American power.

US President Barack Obama leaves after his final press conference at the White House, Washington, DC, January 18, 2017. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

To go back to our earlier theme, I don’t think anybody with a Jewish sensibility can possibly believe that the use of force is the worst possible thing.

I once had that argument in Germany, of all places, with somebody who was a middle-aged woman, saying that war is the worst possible thing. I said, “I had an aunt who passed through the Bergen-Belsen [concentration camp] and I’m going to tell you, ‘I don’t think war is the worst possible thing.'”

What do you make of the way Trump is acting toward Iran and signaling that he’s going to decertify the nuclear deal, which in itself isn’t backing out of it, but a step toward potentially doing that? (This interview took place before Trump, indeed, decertified the pact.)

I think it’s bluster. I thought it was a bad deal, and I do think it’s a bad deal. But you don’t just walk away from a deal that another American president has signed off on. That’s wrong.

The problem is this guy does not have an awareness of how important alliance relationships are. I think he doesn’t understand that the other countries involved in the deal will not be along with you for the ride after you do that.

Even the Unites States of America should try to avoid, whenever possible, being isolated in the world. It’s really not a healthy position for us to be in.

Okay, so if you were an adviser in the White House, what would you be advising the president to do on Iran? 

I always dodge that question. The reason why I dodge it is because there is no such thing as the platonic ideal of a policy. There’s only a policy that can be implemented by the people who are actually in charge at the moment.

In this case, I am so out of sympathy with the human being at the center of this. I have such a low opinion of his ability to make considered, prudent decisions, and then to implement them effectively, that I wouldn’t know what to say to him.

President Donald Trump has issued few apologies and asked for many in the past year. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/via JTA)

In your recent Atlantic piece, you say Trump will be president for either eight or four years, or he’ll be impeached, or he’ll be removed from office because the 25th Amendment is invoked. That last option depends on 14 members of his cabinet, including the vice president, to declare him unable to serve as president and then for Congress to approve it — and in the context being discussed now, because he’s mentally ill. So, A) Do you think he’s mentally ill? and B) Do you think that’s a viable option? 

I certainly don’t think he’s fit to be president. I tell people to read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for narcissistic personality disorder. There’s like 13 different indicators. You just go check, check, check, check, check, check …

This is a classical narcissist who cannot take responsibility for anything and whose world is entirely who he is. So there’s no way in which I think he’s fit to be president.

The question of how you remove him constitutionally, under what circumstances, that’s a very difficult question.

It’s very hard to unseat a president.

Yeah, it is. It is.

What do you make of the anti-Semitism we’ve seen emerge in the last year?

It’s always there. It always will be there. Trump is not an anti-Semite, I don’t think. But there are things that he’s said, and just the way that he’s behaved, that has empowered those people a bit and enabled them some.

Obviously, I hate it, and I always react against it, but I’ve encountered the anti-Semitism of the left, too, and it’s worse, at the moment. My feeling is you fight it. But I’m not particularly afraid of it and I don’t think it’s the most pressing issue we’ve got to deal with.

American Jews are not in danger.

No. I know plenty of Israelis who would like to believe that, but it’s not true.

Did you learn anything new about Trump from his reaction to the Charlottesville violence or do you view it as a reaffirmation of what you already thought about him? 

I’m sure that people are learning new things about him all the time, but I don’t think anybody has an excuse for being surprised by anything after his inauguration.

Who he was became perfectly clear during the campaign. There’s nothing surprising. And there are no excuses for people enabling him or making excuses for him. We know who and what he is.

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