Former US secretary of defence and Chair
Prakash Singh  /  AFP-Getty Images file
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen spoke with NBC News about the challenges facing President George W. Bush as the president approaches his State of the Union address.
NBC News

Editor's Note: Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen is now chairman and chief executive officer of the Cohen Group, whose stated objective is to help "multinational clients explore opportunities overseas as well as solve problems that may develop."  He spoke with NBC Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell about world events prior to President Bush's State of the Union address. Here is an edited transcript of that interview.

Andrea Mitchell: Secretary Cohen, what does Hamas' victory mean for the U.S.'s foreign policy?

Sec. William Cohen: It means the road map is in jeopardy at this point, its likely to be put on hold, certainly until after the Israeli elections coming up. I suspect that the Israelis will now move to the right. They'll want to have a very strong position in dealing with Hamas. The sentiment was we are going to see Kadima perhaps win, that may be in doubt now. And you may have Bibi Netanyahu who comes forward with a much tougher position than Ehud Olmert.

We'll have to wait and see but I think it’s going to drive the Israelis to the right and that means a set up for some kind of confrontational future unless there is any kind of amelioration or softening of Hamas' position sometime in the future.

No one expects Hamas to deviate from their platform of being against Israel's existence. But over time, depending on what happens - whether there is a freezing of the settlements on the West Bank - that may be some signal the Israelis are still interested in pursuing the roadmap but we'll have to wait and see.

Mitchell: Isn't this a real defeat for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?

Sec. Cohen: I think it's a real defeat for the peace process. I think the notion that we are going to have a country that now has a majority in its legislature that is dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel, that can only lead to heartbreak for the Palestinians and also for Israelis. So it’s a defeat, at least at this point, and I wouldn't seal it as if it's closed and shut. There is still an opportunity for Hamas in working with its leader whoever that may be, whether it's going to be Mahmoud Abbas or someone else, to, after a period of time, say they want to seek peace on terms that ultimately might be negotiable.

Mitchell: U.S. officials at the highest level did not see this happening. In the last couple of days they thought Hamas might get 20, 30, maybe 40 percent. They didn't predict this at all. How could they have been so wrong about the outcome here?

Sec. Cohen: Dewey wins the election.  Its sort of the same sentiment. If you look at the Wall Street Journal and other papers today they were all predicting Hamas would do well ,but not that well. And its obvious that we in this country didn't appreciate the depth of feeling toward the Fatah, toward the corruption in government.

In a way if you compare what has happened in Iran where the people of Iran voted for a leader who campaigned on internal issues, domestic issues even if his foreign policy is extreme and outrageous, nevertheless they voted for internal issues.

It may be, over time, that they see the benefit of yes they've got a strong position, they have cleaned up corruption, they have sought international support for building infrastructure and life is getting better for Palestinians that may then put them in the position of being able to negotiate some kind of settlement ultimately but in the short term I think it could lead to more confrontation and more deaths unfortunately in the region.

Mitchell: The U.S. is now counting on somehow influencing Hamas to become more mainstream, to eventually recognize Israel. Is that realistic?

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Sec. Cohen: I think in the short term Hamas has not been interested in the U.S.. or anyone else. I think their goal in the short term is to solidify their support, to again concentrate on bringing some measure of hope, prosperity to the extent they can. Security to the Palestinian people so that they can then see themselves as being not on par with Israel but certainly in a much better and stronger negotiating position. Hopefully that will be the case, that will be the best case.

Worst case scenario is that they have assumed power and that they continue their campaign to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. And then I think you are looking forward to armed conflict with large scale catastrophic damage to both sides.

Mitchell: The president has talked first in his second inaugural about democracy being on the march. Is this the inevitable outcome of having democratic elections in difficult parts of the world?

Sec. Cohen: As we say, be careful what you ask for. But I think the administration understood that in calling for open democratic reforms that this is part of it and we'll have to work our way through it. But you can't on the one hand support democracy and then say but we still like dictatorships or authoritarian regimes when it supports our interests.

One of the biggest criticisms that we have had to live with is the charge with hypocrisy on the part of the United States that we say one thing and we practice one thing quite different when it serves our interests. So if we are to restore credibility to the extent that its been damaged or diminished than it seem to me that we have to consistent and in that consistency there are definite down sides to it in the short term. Hopefully in the long run the people will see the benefit of this interaction in an increasingly globalized world that peace is really the only solution and not warfare.

Mitchell: In the president's first State of the Union speech he talked about the "axis of evil" Iran, Iraq, North Korea. How did that change American foreign policy? And was it a good thing or a bad thing over the next couple of years to try to isolate and even in one case invade those axis of evil countries?

Sec. Cohen: It's one thing to point out inherent dangers of living in an increasingly dangerous world where the fact that you now have the intersection of terrorism and technology. I think it was a very positive thing for the president to point that out. I think his choice of language should have been different and could have been different and it would achieve the same result but nonetheless noting that Iran was on the road, on the march to gain access to weapons of mass destruction as we believe Iraq was and as we also have I think reason to believe North Korea is.

I think it was important to point that out. How we deal with them however is something of another magnitude. With respect to Iran and North Korea it won't be the United States that really has the leverage to produce a positive result. It's going to be Russia or China or India in a case of dealing with Iran.

Russia, I think because they obviously have a very close connection and relationship with Iran, they don't want to see Iran go forward as a nuclear weapons production country. Because at this point it will destabilize the entire region. They depend on having access to energy like other countries do. China for the same reason. India is now becoming a major consumer of Persian Gulf oil and energy.

Everybody has an interest in seeing that stability is maintained rather than instability created. So I think other countries will have a much greater leverage than we will because the threat of a war is real. And the nothing that even though it's the last resort it's there either as a precipitator or initiated by Israel or possibly by us. I think it's not a desirable thing to do but it's not something that's completely off the table as far as the administration is concerned or the Israelis.

Mitchell: Is there a military option? They say these nuclear facilities, the suspect sites are dispersed, they are underground, they are hard to target.

Sec. Cohen: The military option is not a desirable one to be sure. It's complicated.  It would take an enormous amount of effort. Could it be done? The answer is yes. I think it could be done but the damage that could result from it, not only in Iran, but the damage that is suffered by the United States or Israel in initiating such a military operation would be considerable. And the military consequences are significant. On the one hand you have a very narrow neck that you have to pass through in the Persian Gulf. You have all of the international traveling shipment of energy going through that region. There would be considerable resistance on the part of the Iranians. It could in fact turn into something of a major catastrophe throughout that region.

So the consequences are severe. On the other hand the consequences of Iran getting a nuclear weapons capability, it's not the fear that Iran is going to launch a missile attack against Israel or against anyone else in the region or indeed against us. Because the moment they did that they would be liquidated. We would be able to see immediately who was launching any kind of missile strike. The real fear is that nuclear materials would be given to terrorist groups who could use them in smaller amounts and target them against cities such as Tel Aviv or here in the United States and cause catastrophic damage without being able to put the finger prints on who released it. That's the damage that can be done and the fear that is being generated.

Mitchell: What should the president try to project in his state of the union speech about his foreign policy goals in the coming year?

Sec. Cohen: I think the president has to indicate that he is willing to reach out to other countries and seek their support, understanding that every country has the right to act in its own self interest when it feels threatened. But that the goal of the United States is to build coalitions and to find common ground in terms of how to deal with threats that all of U.S. are subjected to it's not the United States that's the only country that has to fear the threat of terrorism. You can not ride a bus in London, a train in Madrid, go to the beaches in Bali or anywhere else in the world, ride the subways in Tokyo without the fear that terror can strike. And so everybody has an interest in controlling the spread of terrorism and I think that is the message that we, all countries, should be in this together and try to find common ground, how we can work together.

Mitchell: Do you see a move now to be more engaged diplomatically, with Condoleezza Rice's attempts to patch things up with Europe. In this past year have you seen a transition and do you expect and want to see that in the coming year as well?

Sec. Cohen: I think Secretary Rice has really worked very hard to repair some of the relationships that had been in need of repair, and has done an outstanding job in that regard. I think the president has been trying to reach out and indicate that he is not in a bubble, that he does listen to other people or at least make the effort to listen whether he actually receives that information and acts on it is another matter.

I think he's sensitive to the fact that many in this country and certainly beyond this country feel that he is too insulated and isolated from the views of others. So what you are seeing now is appearing to reach out and solicit the views of other people. I think that at the core he has not really changed that he has maintained the same policy that he took office with when he was first sworn in. And I see very little modification or moderation of that.

Mitchell: And how does that effect U.S. foreign policy?

Sec. Cohen: It makes it more difficult. We have the interesting situation where other countries understand that the United States really is the only country that can lead, that we do enjoy primacy, that is we are not called an empire or such because we don't seek to control territory or dictate other people. But we have an empirical reach, imperial reach rather.

So if you look at our economy, our military, our culture, we are global in scope and depth and in influence. And so many countries resent that. And so part of our foreign policy has to be to persuade others that we are sensitive to their history, their culture, their viewpoint. And express a willingness to understand why they come to a different position if they do. But ultimately most countries recognize in this period of time the U.S.. is the only country that can serve as a stabilizing force throughout the world. And whether they say that rhetorically or admit that publicly its a clear understanding that we are the only country in the short term that can maintain the stability that makes the world stable and more prosperous for all.

Mitchell: What would you like to hear the president say about Iraq?

Sec. Cohen: That we are pursuing a strategy, that he is now on a course where he believes that we are starting to achieve the results that he had hoped to achieve the first three years and didn't. That he welcomes the support of Capitol Hill, members of Capitol Hill. That he wants to build a consensus that we depart Iraq on terms that will persuade not only the people in the region that not only do they have a government that can sustain itself but that we will continue to be a force for good, in the world but also listen to other countries in terms of how we can achieve that.

Mitchell: As a former Senator, how do you think the president approaches Congress and the Senate in particular?

Sec. Cohen: I think that they have to do… the administration has to do a better job in working with Congress. I think that there has been too much division. I think they are really polarized. It's a poisonous atmosphere in this town. And I think the job of the president trying to be a reconciler or healer, reaching across the aisle has not been achieved during the past four or five years. I think more has to be done. I think it can be done, I think members of Congress are eager to work with any president, because we know if the president succeeds in his policies we also succeed as a country.

And so there is that obvious political tension that always exists but when the president walks through that chamber into the House of Representatives and addresses the nation there is an indefinable feeling that infuses that body. We are all Americans whether we supported that president or not. They are with him for that moment and hopefully well beyond that because he is the leader of the country.

Mitchell: Is there a solution to get Iran to back down?

Sec. Cohen: I think there is a solution. The solution is going to be with the strength of the EU - with Great Britain, Germany, and France, together with the United States, with a mutual, that we have that kind of cross channel support at this point.

Russia is going to play the key role. Russia is going to propose a system where by they allow Iran to continue to pursue a nuclear power capability. And so I think that it's in its interest being a broker of peace of sorts in this particular case. I think the United States would welcome a system where by this crisis is diffused because the alternative is ultimately conflict in the region and I think that is something to be avoided at all costs if we can.

Mitchell: Is North Korea a bigger threat than Iran?

Sec. Cohen: I think if we are not successful in Iran that North Korea is watching it very closely. They will see that it's all bluff on the part of the U.S. and its Western allies. And that they can go forward as well. And if that is the case then I think China has a real problem as well. Because if China allows North Korea to move forward and it doesn't intervene in a much more significant way then the danger of proliferation will be technology including other countries acquiring it puts China at risk. So they have a real interest in not allowing the North Koreans to move forward. So I think China will also be instrumental much more so than the United States in resolving these tensions.

Mitchell: Thank you.

Sec. Cohen: Thank you

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