William S. Cohen

William Clinton Administration

January 24, 1997 – January 20, 2001

On 5 December 1996 President Clinton announced his selection of William S. Cohen as secretary of defense. Cohen, a Republican about to retire from the United States Senate, was the "right person," Clinton said, to build on Secretary Perry's achievements, "to secure the bipartisan support America's armed forces must have and clearly deserve." In responding to his nomination, Cohen said that during his congressional career he had supported a nonpartisan national security policy and commended the president for appointing a Republican to his cabinet.

Cohen was born in Bangor, Maine, on 28 August 1940. He received a B.A. in Latin from Bowdoin College (1962) and a law degree from Boston University Law School (1965). While practicing law, he served on the Bangor City Council beginning in 1969, and was mayor of Bangor, 1971-1972. Elected to Congress in 1972, he served three terms in the House of Representatives and won election to the Senate in 1978, and reelection in 1984 and 1990. A moderate Republican, he served on both the Senate Armed Services and Governmental Affairs Committees from 1979 to 1997 and was a member of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, 1983-91 and 1995-97. He participated in the drafting of several important laws related to defense matters, including the Competition in Contracting Act (1984), the GI Bill (1984), the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act (1986), the Intelligence Oversight Reform Act (1991), and the Federal Acquisition Reform Act (1996). During his years in Congress, he found time to write or co-author eight books–three non-fiction works, three novels, and two books of poetry.

During his confirmation hearings, Cohen said he thought on occasion he might differ with Clinton on specific national security issues. He implicitly criticized the Clinton administration for lacking a clear strategy for leaving Bosnia and stated that he thought U.S. troops should definitely be out by mid-1998. He also asserted that he would resist further budget cuts, retain the two regional conflicts strategy, and support spending increases for advanced weapons, even if it necessitated further cuts in military personnel. Cohen questioned whether savings from base closings and acquisition reform could provide enough money for procurement of new weapons and equipment that the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought necessary in the next few years. He supported the expansion of NATO and looked on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the most serious problem the United States faced.

After confirmation by a unanimous Senate vote, Cohen was sworn in as the twentieth secretary of defense on 24 January 1997. He then settled into a schedule much fuller than he had followed in the Senate. Routinely he arrived at the Pentagon before 7:00 a.m., received an intelligence briefing, and then met with the deputy secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The rest of the day he devoted to policy and budget briefings, visits with foreign and other dignitaries, and to what he termed "ABC" meetings at the White House with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Samuel Berger. He also traveled abroad several times during his first months in office.

One of Cohen's first major duties was to present to Congress the FY 1998 Defense budget, which actually had been prepared under Secretary Perry's leadership. Cohen requested a budget of $250.7 billion, which represented 3 percent of the nation's estimated gross domestic product for FY 1998. He stressed three top budget priorities–people, readiness, and modernization. To preserve U.S. military superiority DoD needed to recruit and retain high quality people. This required regular military pay raises, new construction or modernization of barracks, and programs for child care, family support, morale, welfare, and recreation. To enable the U.S. military to respond to crises, the budget would have to provide strong support for force readiness, training, exercises, maintenance, supplies, and other essential needs. As for modernization, Cohen stressed the need to develop and upgrade weapon and supporting systems to guarantee the combat superiority of U.S. forces. This meant increasing the funds available for procurement of new systems, with the target set at $60 billion by FY 2001.

When he presented the FY 1998 budget, Cohen noted that he would involve himself with the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which would focus on the challenges to U.S. security and the nation's military needs over the next decade or more. When the QDR became public in May 1997, it did not fundamentally alter the budget, structure, and doctrine of the military. Some defense experts thought it gave insufficient attention to new forms of warfare, such as terrorist attacks, electronic sabotage, and the use of chemical and biological agents. In commenting on the QDR, Cohen stated that the Pentagon would retain the two regional wars scenario adopted after the end of the Cold War. He decided to scale back purchases of jet fighters, including the Air Force's F-22 and the Navy's F/A-18E/F, as well as Navy surface ships. The review included cutting another 61,700 active duty service members–15,000 in the Army, 26,900 in the Air Force, 18,000 in the Navy, and 1,800 in the Marine Corps, as well as 54,000 reserve forces, mainly in the Army National Guard, and some 80,000 civilians department-wide. Cohen also decided to recommend two more rounds of base closings–in 1999 and 2001. The Pentagon hoped to save $15 billion annually over the next few years to make possible the purchase of new equipment and weapon systems without a substantial budget increase above the current level of $250 billion.

As he settled into office, Cohen knew that unforeseen problems would undoubtedly arise and that he would have to face several that had occupied his immediate predecessors in the Pentagon, among them the question of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he supported, and its relationship to Russia. At a summit meeting between President Clinton and Russian President Yeltsin in Helsinki, Finland, in March 1997, Yeltsin acknowledged the inevitability of broader NATO membership. Two months later he agreed, after negotiations with NATO officials, to sign an accord providing for a new permanent council, to include Russia, the NATO secretary general, and a representative of the other NATO nations, to function as a forum in which Russia could air a wide range of security issues that concerned that country. Formal signing of this agreement would pave the way for a July 1997 invitation from NATO to several nations, probably including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, to join the organization.

The proposed U.S. missile defense system received attention at the Helsinki summit, where Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to an interpretation of the 1972 ABM Treaty allowing the United States to proceed with a limited missile defense system currently under development. Specifically, Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to distinguish between a national missile defense system, aimed against strategic weapons, not allowed by the ABM Treaty, and a theater missile defense system to guard against shorter range missile attacks. Some critics thought that any agreement of this kind would place undesirable limits on the development of both theater and strategic missile defenses. The Helsinki meeting also saw progress in arms control negotiations between the United States and Russia, a matter high on Cohen's agenda. Yeltsin and Clinton agreed on the need for early Russian ratification of the START II Treaty and negotiation of a START III Treaty to make further significant cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenals of both nations.

The continuation, at least until mid-1998, of the existing peacekeeping mission involving U.S. forces in Bosnia and the possibility that other such missions would arise worried Cohen, who earlier had expressed reservations about such operations. Humanitarian efforts that did not involve peacekeeping, such as in Rwanda in the recent past, also seemed likely. Other persistent national security problems, including tension with Iraq in the Persian Gulf area, Libya in North Africa, and North Korea in East Asia, could flare up again, as could conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians.

In preparing future budgets, the challenge would be to find the right mix between money for operation and maintenance accounts on the one hand and modernization procurement funds on the other, while facing the prospect of a flat DoD budget of about $250 billion annually for the next decade or so. A relatively new problem that could affect the DoD budget was "vertical integration" in the defense industry. It occurred on a large scale in the 1990s as mergers of major defense contractors created a few huge dominant companies, particularly in the aerospace industry. They were called vertical because they incorporated most of the elements of the production process, including parts and subcomponents. Cohen and other Pentagon leaders began to worry that vertical integration could reduce competition and in the long run increase the costs of what the Department of Defense had to buy.

Finally, Cohen would have to address social issues that engaged the widest public interest. The status and treatment of homosexuals in the military, the role of women in combat as well as in other jobs in the services, racism, and sexual harassment were serious problems, inevitably requiring strong leadership from Cohen and other top civilian and military leaders in the Department of Defense.