Secretary Cohen's Legacy

American forces that fought the air battle over Kosovo get excited to see Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Kosovar Albanians greet him as a liberator. But Cohen seems more reflective than jubilant, realizing how much was at stake. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver reports.

"We had the new king of Jordan, for example, saying Saddam Hussein is watching. We had others say that Kim Jong in North Korea is watching. Everybody is watching to see whether you have the staying power and the will power and the courage to stay the course," says Cohen.

Although the United States and NATO have triumphed, it's clear that Secretary Cohen is concerned about the coming months. Cohen realizes that there could be more instances in which U.S. forces have to fight off an attack.

"It's one thing to have waged the most successful air campaign in the world. We were successful in that, despite many doubters. But now that it's completed, now comes the tougher part, about implementing this peace," Cohen continues.

So while Cohen, a former college basketball player, had a few light moments shooting hoops with refugees in Kosovo, what was really on his mind was the safety of U.S. troops.

About 7,000 American men and women will serve as peacekeepers in Kosovo, a small component of the NATO force of 50,000. But there is no timetable for withdrawal, and no real government structure set for Kosovo. From the beginning, Cohen says, this has been a treacherous mission.

"There's no question in my mind had we simply sat on the sidelines and witnessed a campaign of purging an entire population, it would have been a sad testament to the civilized world," says Cohen.

Even after two and a half years on the job, the man who's in charge of the 3.5 million civilian and military forces that comprise the Department of Defense is still surprised to be there. He is the first and only Republican in Bill Clinton's cabinet. As a congressman from Bangor, Maine, he came to national prominence on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon.

He was elected to the Senate in 1978, and had just announced his retirement when President Clinton picked him to run Defense. This came as a surprise to many Washington watchers, who pegged Cohen as a maverick.

"In the Senate you can be very independent, but if you decide to take a position in someone's cabinet and you agree to serve at the pleasure of that president, then you have to make sure you are a part of the team," Cohen explains. "If there ever comes a policy decision which is such a fundamental disagreement that I couldn't accept, then that will be one thing. . ."

In fact, Cohen has been criticized for being too much of a team player, for example giving Secretary of State Madeleine Albright too much input on Kosovo. One of Cohen's worst moments of the war came when he learned that the U.S. had mistakenly bombe the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

He was at his son's graduation in Orono, Maine when the word came. "I was in the middle of the auditorium, the very middle of the auditorium, when a note was passed to me, and I left immediately after the ceremony and came back to Washington," says Cohen. "I thought, here's a big mistakeÂ…We were starting to intensify the air campaign and so to have this attack go, I knew was going to complicate our lives."

On the side, Cohen has cast himself as a fierce defender of military men and women, lobbying to raise their pay. His high-profile partner in that effort is his wife, Janet Langart Cohen, a former television anchor. They married in 1996. He had been divorced years before. She travels with him frequently, encouraging the usually button-downed secretary to relax a little.

Cohen is also a published author of non-fiction, novels, and poetry. For now however, Cohen's life is a blur of briefings and meetings and 20-hour workdays. The peace in Kosovo is even more complicated than the war, and how it plays out will determine whether the allied intervention is judged as a noble mission or a naive adventure. It will also determine William Cohen's legacy as secretary of defense.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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