WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen thinks internal dysfunction within our own country leaves the United States with a major credibility problem that weakens its role in an increasingly turbulent world.
“When other countries look at us … they say, ‘Really? You want us to be like you? You can’t make a decision. You’re engaged in a dysfunctional system,'” Cohen said Wednesday in a discussion at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. “What is going on in the United States where your Congress can’t even arrive at a budget?”
Cohen served as Pentagon chief under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001.
Among the many current struggles in the world, Cohen said the U.S. is in a propaganda war of information, and it is losing.
The first way to take back a leading role in shaping events instead of reacting to them, according to Cohen, is “going back to the business of trying to arrive at a consensus.”
“We have to sacrifice in order to be strong,” he said.
Cohen believes the United States will have a hard time setting the standard for other governments and being a role model in the world if elected leaders cannot find common ground.
“Frankly I’m skeptical” of the prospects for collaboration on Capitol Hill right now, he said. “I think we’re already now just kind of lining up saying what’s 2016 going to bring us. … We’re not talking about between now and then. Between now and then, a lot is happening in the world, none of it very good for us.”
Cohen argued that year-round fundraising saps leaders’ integrity and time, which needs to be spent working with others to tackle problems.
He also posited that the word “compromise” has become a poll-tested synonym for weakness, and is usually avoided by politicians hoping to please their party bases.
However, Cohen believes we are going to continue to see instability in the world without a willingness to arrive at a consensus, especially when it comes to America’s role in the world.
“We have an obligation,” said Cohen. “We can’t be the world’s policemen, but we should never be the prisoner of world events.”
He argues that we have drifted a long way from the era of John F. Kennedy, who said we must “endure any hardship” and “oppose any foe to ensure the survival of liberty.”
“We’ve gone from that to, ‘Let’s not do stupid stuff,'” said Cohen.
“What I want to do is make sure the United States continues to be the beacon, continues to have a leadership role so we can say, ‘Look at us.’ … We can do that if we get our own house in order. It’s not in order right now.”