In 2005, a group of graduate students at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) participated in the school’s annual diplomatic simulation. The high-pressure scenario required the students to negotiate a resolution to a standoff with a nuclear-armed Republic of Pakistan. Mara Karlin, a student known for her hawkish politics on Israel and the Middle East, played President of the United States.
Though most of the participants were confident they could head off a military conflict with diplomatic measures, Karlin jumped the gun. According to a former SAIS student, not only did Karlin order a nuclear strike on Pakistan, she also took the opportunity to nuke Iran. Her classmates were shocked. It was the first time in 45 years that a simulation concluded with the deployment of a nuclear weapon.
That year, Karlin received a plum job in the Bush administration’s Department of Defense where, according to her bio she was “intimately involved in formulating U.S. policy on Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestinian affairs.” Lebanon was a special area of focus for Karlin. She claims to have helped structure the Lebanese Armed Forces and coordinated relations between the US and Lebanese militaries.
According to the former SAIS student, Karlin was a favorite of Eliot Cohen, an ultra-hawkish professor of strategic studies at SAIS, which is regarded in American foreign policy circles as a training ground for the neoconservative movement. Through Cohen’s connections among the neocons occupying key civilian posts in Bush’s Defense Department, the former student claims Cohen was able to arrange an attractive sinecure for Karlin. Besides Karlin, the ex-SAIS student told me Cohen has promoted the career ambitions of many former pupils, including Kelly Magsamen, who worked under Cohen in the Bush administration and now oversees the Iran portfolio in the Obama administration’s State Department.
Today, Cohen is among Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney’s top campaign advisers. He is the primary author of Romney’s foreign policy white paper, which attacks Obama for “currying favor with [America’s] enemies” and “ostentatiously shunning Jerusalem.”
The paper urges a policy of regime change in Iran including possible coordination with Israel on military strikes to prevent the Iranian regime from developing a nuclear weapon. It is an aggressive Republican election season document presenting a concoction of post-9/11 unilateralism and unvarnished neo-imperialism as the antidote to a sitting president Cohen accused of “unilateral disarmament in the diplomatic and moral sphere.” More importantly, it suggests that a Romney administration’s foreign policy might look remarkably similar to – and perhaps more extreme than – that of the Bush administration.
Cohen rose through the ranks of the Republican foreign policy elite as a protégé of Paul Wolfowitz.Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s School of Government who has been on the receiving end of aggressive attacks by Cohen, called Cohen “a classic neoconservative.” Walt said, “He is constantly fretting about alleged U.S. vulnerabilities, consistently supportive of increased defense spending, and generally inclined to favor U.S. intervention in other countries. Second, like virtually all neoconservatives, he is also deeply attached to Israel, as well as to the United States. I do not question his patriotism, but I think he tends to see U.S. and Israeli interests as more-or-less identical and doesn’t see a trade-off between support for one and support for the other.”
Cohen rose through the ranks of the Republican foreign policy elite as a protégé of Paul Wolfowitz, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense who is credited with playing a central role in the push for invading Iraq. In 1990, Wolfowitz secured a position for Cohen working beside him on the policy planning staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Three years later, when Wolfowitz was appointed dean of SAIS, he began using his influence to propel Cohen’s career. According to a former State Department official who graduated from SAIS, it was through the beneficence of Wolfowitz that Cohen earned an endowed teaching position at SAIS as the Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies.
In 1997, Wolfowitz and Cohen joined forces to form the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative umbrella group that served as the key non-governmental vehicle for promoting the case for invading Iraq after 9/11. In the immediate wake of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Cohen took to the media to map out the next phase of a grand global military venture that he coined, “World War IV.”
Describing Iraq as “the big prize,” Cohen urged a unilateral invasion of Iraq that would advance the ambitions of the now-discredited political charlatan Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. Like so many of his neoconservative peers, Cohen claimed Saddam Hussein’s regime maintained “a connection with the 9/11 terrorists.” With the war deteriorating into a chaotic bloodbath and as his own son was called up for duty, Cohen criticized the Bush administration for “happy talk and denials of error.” However, he refused to admit fault for his role in selling Americans on the invasion.
Despite mildly dissenting from the White House line, Cohen continued his ascent, replacing Philip Zelikow as counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2007. According to the former State Department official, Rice had almost no role in Cohen’s appointment. Instead, Cohen was recommended for the position by Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz. Cheney’s daughter headed the Iran Syrian Operations Group, a newly created, neoconservative-inspired initiative burrowed within the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. At the time of Cohen’s appointment, Rice was attempting to open diplomatic lines to Iran, North Korea, and Syria – a move Cohen and the Cheneys fiercely opposed.
A few months after Bush left office, the former State Department official said Cohen and Wolfowitz rewarded their neoconservative fellow traveler Eric Edelman – a former Defense Department official during the later Bush years – with a visiting scholarship at SAIS. In private, Johns Hopkins alumni expressed outrage at the installment of Edelman, a career diplomat with no academic background, accusing the neoconservatives of exploiting SAIS to create a system of political patronage.
Cohen advised that the “US actively seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic…through every instrument of U.S. power, soft more than hard.”Cohen’s extensive web of foreign policy and military connections forms a seamless line to Tel Aviv. There, on the top floor of one of the office buildings known as “HaKirya,” is the office of one of Cohen’s former pupils, Aviv Kochavi. Kochavi is now the director of Israeli military intelligence, making him one of the most quietly influential figures in the country. In 2006, Kochavi, who also holds a philosophy degree, boasted to the Israeli architect and anti-occupation activist Eyal Weizmann about how he and his troops crushed Palestinian resistance cells in Nablus through the use of “inverse geometry” and “micro-tactical actions” inspired by the theories of post-structuralist philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari. On February 2, Kochavi appeared at the annual Herzliya Conference to issue grave warnings about the rapid progress of Iran’s nuclear program, suggesting that sanctions and diplomacy have failed, and that more aggressive action might be required.
Despite Cohen’s deep Israeli ties, he has proven extremely sensitive to critiques of the connection. When Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the latter a professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago, published their widely debated paper on the Israel lobby in 2006, Cohen authored one of the first attempts to discredit their thesis about a loose coalition of individuals and organizations creating political pressure to move US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Cohen accused the authors of “kooky academic work” and “obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews.”
“Cohen’s rather hysterical reaction to our work was both typical and easy to explain,” Walt remarked. “Given that he and other neoconservatives had played a key role in convincing George Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, he was understandably upset when we pointed this out and provided extensive documentation of their role in the run-up to this disastrous war. He could not refute our logic or our evidence, however, so he chose to misrepresent our views and smear us falsely as anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists.”
With the last battalions of US troops preparing to redeploy from Iraq to other conflict zones, Cohen is homing in on Iran. In a September 2009 editorial for the Wall Street Journal, he dismissed diplomacy and sanctions as feasible means of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Pressure, be it gentle or severe, will not erase that nuclear program,” he wrote. “The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time.” While not ruling out the necessity of an American strike on Iranian facilities, Cohen advised that the “US actively seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic…through every instrument of U.S. power, soft more than hard.”
As tensions between Israel and Iran rise to unprecedented levels, and Israel’s leadership beseeches the US to join a military strike on Iran, Cohen’s visions of regime change seem closer to realization than ever before. For him and the neoconservative policy elite, a Romney victory in November might deliver the next “big prize.”