Scholars, Statesmen and Soldiers: The Skidmore News sits down with Eliot A. Cohen, former counselor to Secretary of State

Posted by Brendan James

At first glance only one aspect of Eliot A. Cohen's career is detectable: lecturing to an audience in Davis Auditorium on Feb. 9, on the history of America's national guard, his bow tie and sport coat were pure academia.  

Cohen, distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University and Director of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), addressed the crowd with both the confidence and the humor that usually marks a seasoned lecturer and scholar.

But the next morning, after the lecture, Cohen sat down with the Skidmore News and spoke of a very different career path. Beyond his professorial chic lies a man who has occupied the upper echelons of the U.S. Department of State during times of war and disarray. Cohen has distinguished himself from his colleagues, having lived both the quiet and reflective life of a scholar and the hardnosed and fast-paced world of a government advisor.

When asked how he found himself in such an influential position, even for a popular academic, he replied, "Like most careers, you simply stumble into it."

Cohen grew up in Boston; history was his first love, but once in college he transitioned into political science and pursued it further in graduate school. After joining the Army Reserve he established career studying military and foreign policy, teaching at the Naval War College and conducting studies for the Air Force.

Having served at SAIS in Washington since 1990, it was not long before Cohen became a prominent voice on the War on Terror. His opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal advocating the Iraq War were some of the first arguments advanced in favor of the policy from academia – his pieces continued into 2005, when Cohen began to criticize the execution of the war while remaining supportive of the overriding policy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave Cohen a call in early 2007 – "right out of the blue," he says – asking him to join the Bush administration in the State Department. His position in the department's framework was no small thing, "essentially the equivalent of an Undersecretary of State."

Bridging the chasm from academics to government was something Cohen had to learn to do on his own. The first distinction he makes between the two tracks is their respective purposes. "Scholarship is, roughly, the pursuit the truth. Government is not about pursuit of truth. It's about getting things done," he says.

As Counselor to Rice from 2007 to 2009, Cohen was charged with advising the U.S. government on matters of foreign policy – how to get things done in the War on Terror. Whether advising Rice on Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, Cohen has lived through moments of his career that surpass the demands confronting most American academics.

"There is the real prospect that your advice will be followed, in matters of national and global security," he says.

To name only one case of this newfound and grave responsibility: In the summer of 2007, a silent but severe crisis simmered in the Middle East as the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad developed a secret nuclear facility, likely under North Korean supervision. Cohen was one of the few people in the world who knew about this potential threat to U.S. interests in the region.

"In that [Syrian] case, as in so many others, I had to keep everything to myself," Cohen says. "I spent that entire summer worried that war was about to break out across the region. But I couldn't tell my wife or family — I couldn't tell anyone." The immense pressure combined with unbreakable silence took its toll as the months rolled on.

The internal culture of the State Department also posed its own challenges for someone who had spent most of his life in the scholarly world. "Most people in government have low opinion of academics – they hear them speaking jargon, see them as loners, people who don't play well with others. And government is very much a cooperative effort."

On the other hand, the skills that scholars bring into the realm of government can be quite valuable. "Besides your expertise, you know how to write, so you have a leg up there," Cohen said.

According to Cohen, the most important thing that an academic can do for government is to confront a policy with two questions: "Why do we think that is true?" and "Why do we think that will work?" Strange as it sounds, he says, in the day to day operations of government – "getting things done" – these types of questions are sometimes dangerously neglected. The momentum of these weighty affairs occasionally requires the detached and analytic eye of a scholar.

At the same time, Cohen notes that his fellow professors are missing something in their perspective on politics, which his experience has made clear to him."Academics don't realize how fraught decision making is within government. One decision is really a manifold of decisions, many of which you struggle to account for. It's maddening."

So would Cohen ever return to government? His answer is similar to Dustin Hoffman's character Stanley Motss, another Washington outsider, in "Wag the Dog": "If I was asked." 

But in his heart, Cohen says, he is not made for politics. "It's important to know who you are," he says. "Fundamentally what I am is an academic."

He now resides comfortably back at SAIS, delving deeper into 19th century American history, something he has been eager to study for a long time. All the same, Cohen currently serves as one of Mitt Romney's foreign policy advisors as the former Governor pursues the presidency. The likelihood of Cohen's return to the "inside" increases with every advance of Romney's campaign.

The academic insider, then, plays a curious role. His or her sole duty is to give advice, something that first appears removed and distant, but that may ultimately decide the fate of a nation or the outcome of a global struggle.

For his own guidance – for advice on giving his advice – Cohen cites an unexpected source. "My guide in all this is Gildor the Elf," he says. In the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, Frodo the hobbit approaches the wise Gildor despite what he has heard about the caginess of elves when giving counsel. 

Cohen holds the words of the character to be deadly true, and always worth considering: "Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill."

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