The Character of Wartime Statesmen: Eliot Cohen Discusses What Made Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion Effective Wartime Leaders and Analyzes How President George W. Bush Stacks Up

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Eliot Cohen is professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's prestigious School for Advanced International Studies, also known as SAIS. But Cohen's influence ranges far beyond the classroom. His most recent book, Supreme Command, reportedly was read by President George W. Bush during Bush's 2002 summer vacation. In the book the author takes up the theme articulated by the subtitle, Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime.

Cohen writes about four great wartime statesmen: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, French leader Georges Clemenceau and World War I, Winston Churchill as Britain's World War II prime minister and David Ben-Gurion establishing the state of Israel. Of interest to Cohen is what made these four men effective and successful wartime leaders. His answer is that each engaged in continuing and sometimes downright hostile dialogue with their military leaders--dialogue in which wartime strategy was thrashed out and settled.

When that vigorous dialogue between civilian and military leaders is absent, as Cohen shows it was during the long and disastrous Vietnam War, then strategy suffers and war fighting tends to be much less effective.

Cohen's background is both scholarly and practical. A Harvard Ph.D., he also was commissioned in 1982 in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is a member of the Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon and, among other achievements, directed and edited the official study of air power in the 1991 Persian Gulf War with Iraq.

INSIGHT interviewed Cohen in his office seven floors above Massachusetts Avenue near Washington's Dupont Circle on a bright spring day as the successful Gulf War II was winding down in Iraq.

INSIGHT: You write about what you call "the normal theory of civil-military relations." What is this theory?

ELIOT COHEN: It is the idea that when you go to war it is the civilians who make the decision. It is they who set the objectives, pick the top commander, provide the resources and give some very broad guidelines. They then are supposed to get out of the way. The problem is that in the most successful cases, about which I write in my book Supreme Command, it never works out this way.

I use the four case studies of great wartime leaders Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion to discuss an alternative notion to the normal theory of civil-military relations. I call that alternative "the unequal dialogue," which is when you have politicians engaged in very intense and sometimes unpleasant interaction with their senior military leaders. It is in the course of that unequal dialogue, it seems to me, that you get much better strategy than you do any other way.

Q: What qualities did these four political leaders have that led them to carry on such effective dialogue with the military?

A: It is striking that all four were able to listen to and absorb fresh ideas, and that they could be self-critical in serious ways. They had a deep self-confidence about who they were that allowed them to venture safely beyond cockiness. They studied hard, they worked hard, they mastered the details. In fact Ben-Gurion said of his wartime leadership, "It's really all a matter of details."

The four were also, I think, very good at both the written and the spoken word. They understood the importance of that in wartime. If there's one thing which we tend not to have much of today it is leaders who can give rattling good speeches week after week and month after month because they have mastered language. Tony Blair, who can be tremendously eloquent, is an exception.

Another quality they had is ruthlessness. These were men perfectly capable of firing people on the spot. Even Lincoln, probably the nicest human being among them, went through generals like they were candy bars.

Also, I think these four not only were strong but wanted to have strong people around them. There's a great saying an old boss of mine used to quote: "First-rate people hire first-rate people. …