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Transcript: Eliot Cohen talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - ELIOT COHEN

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Welcome to the show, Eliot. It's great to have you on Intelligence Matters and it is always great to see you.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Well, it's great to be back together with you, Mike.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So you've had primarily an academic career, but you've had a number of touch points over the years with the U.S. national security community. The most prominent was your service as counselor to the secretary of state--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Right.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--to Condoleezza Rice during her tenure. And really two questions that come out of that for me. One is, what does a counselor to the secretary of state do every day? And even more important, what was it like to work for Condi, who I think is a remarkable person?

              ELIOT COHEN:

Well, the short answer to the first question, Mike, is you do whatever the secretary asks you to do. It's a very odd position. There's nothing like it in any other foreign ministry in the world because you're actually quite a senior official, you're an undersecretary level official.

And therefore, you can represent the department in all kinds of ways including the deputies committee, which we both served on, which is where a lot of the high-level policy, the shaping of decisions gets made. And then she can deploy you wherever she likes. And because my background had mainly been in association with the United States military, I spent a lot of time on Iraq, Afghanistan.

And then when we had crises blow up, like the North Korea nuclear reactor and Syria, you know, she gave me that portfolio and others. So it was fascinating. Day to day, it was-- I would read an enormous amount of intelligence product. I would periodically-- there were certain routine kinds of things I would do, particularly on the Iraq and Afghan accounts.

And then I had a brief to look at things and then walk into her office and in all privacy say, "Boss, you're really not going to like what I'm about to tell you, but X." One of them was very much on the North Korean account saying, you know, "Boss, I hate to tell you this, but I think the North Koreans are probably cheating on the plutonium declarations and they probably have a nuclear program." I made at least one of my state department colleagues very angry when I did that. But--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

I remember that whole story. Yeah--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah. Well folks were incredibly helpful on that one. But really valuable. And Condi, to kind of transition to your second great, she was great. I mean, I was paid to disagree with her and I did in private. She would be unhappy, of course, when I told her that something that really was not going to comport well with the policy that she wanted.

But she would always hear you out. She wouldn't necessarily do what I wanted her to do. But, for example, when I went in and told her that and made a powerful case that Afghanistan was not going well, that was not what she wanted to hear. But she took it onboard. And, of course, this is somebody who just kind of lights up the room whenever she used to turn the charm on.

The last thing I would say about her, and I think this is why she wanted somebody like me as counselor, she's a woman with many different pieces to her identity. One critical part is being an academic. And so often on overseas trips we'd have dinner together on her plane and actually what she wanted to talk about was academic gossip. You know? So there was-- and I think, you know, the state department's a pretty hierarchical place and I think she wanted another professor to argue with. So that was my job.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Eliot, you mentioned that you read a lot of intelligence, and I'm sure both analysis and then the raw human intelligence and the raw technical intelligence. And I'd be interested in how helpful you found that. And even more importantly what would have made it more useful to you as you look back on it?

              ELIOT COHEN:

I did read a lot of intelligence and I did read both finished intelligence and some of the raw intelligence, particularly signals intelligence and that kind of thing. I found that they were always useful in terms of providing context, but I was always craving other kinds of things as well. So, you know, I think it's very important for policy makers both to understand and respect what intelligence can provide you, but also understand what it can't.

So, for example, I'll give you two cases where sources, other than the intelligence community, could provide me, if you will, better intelligence than the IC. The first was we had an absolutely terrific consul general in Peshawar. And she wrote these wonderful dispatches, these wonderful cables, as they call them in the state department.

And she was really well plugged into the power structure in that part of Pakistan, which was of critical importance to us. She knew the personalities. She had a wonderful feel for the politics. So if I wanted to know what was really going on in that part of the country, that's what I read. I would read reports by the International Crisis Group. Now, usually the last two pages were their policy recommendations, which were useless, so I'd rip those off and get rid of them.

But they would have people on the ground, they could go places other people couldn't go, and they were very valuable. But, having said all that, the American intelligence community produces a lot of wonderful material. My view is you have to immerse yourself in it and then periodically it's really important to be able to do a deep dive. And, of course, you helped me do that on a couple of occasions--

                   MICHAEL MORELL:

-- on North Korea where you--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--came over. I was the head of analysis at the agency at the time.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And you wanted to get smart on North Korean because of what was happening. And you came over and I think we spent a couple of hours in my conference room--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--and we had probably ten analysts around the table.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And I remember as we were walking out you said to me, "You have a great job because you have access to all this expertise." Right?

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

At moment in time. And it was absolutely true.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah. It really was. And there was-- one of the things I really respected about that was the ability to take quite technical knowledge, in that case it was about whether the North Koreans were lying, which, of course, they were about what they were up to and that required some technical expertise, and be able to put it into something that I could understand without that kind of nuclear engineering background that I needed. So that was great. And, you know, I will say, I don't miss that feed. At first I did. I think a lot of people feel withdrawal. It turns out, when you get off the intelligence feed you've time to read other kinds of stuff.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. I thought I was going to miss it, too. And I didn't.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And, in fact, reading open sources and reading work by academics and think tanks can get you most of the way there. Not all the way there but can get you most of the way there--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah. Not all the way. Yeah. I very much agree with that.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Eliot, one more question before we jump into the meat of what I wanna talk about. And that is, you are often described as a conservative, sometimes a neo-conservative, although that term doesn't-- tends not to get used so much anymore. But what I'm really interested in is how you see the fundamental difference between a conservative foreign policy thinker and a liberal foreign policy thinker? What's the difference?

              ELIOT COHEN:

You know, I do think of myself as a conservative, which as I tell people now, "That's why I'm no longer a Republican." I think-- I'll give you just my feeling. And I don't like the term neo-conservative. You know, it meant something in the 1970s and whenever I ask people what the apostolic creed of the neo-conservatives is they can never come up with a good definition.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

It's just not meaningful anymore.

              ELIOT COHEN:

It's really not meaningful--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah.

              ELIOT COHEN:

I think what it is that a conservative foreign policy means in a conservative in general? Well, I would say, a conservative in general is always aware that you can make things worse and that so therefore you should be careful. I think conservatives often tend to have a somewhat dark view of human nature and where it can take you. And so perhaps a deeper sensitivity to evil and it's in--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

More skeptical of the adversaries as a result--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes. Yes. So I would say those kinds of things. I think that, you know, liberal foreign policy thinkers, I don't want to caricature them, I think will frequently have more confidence in international institutions. I think they will be more confident that there are solutions to really hard problems. I'm not in favor of being passive, far from it, but I think I'm probably particularly sensitive to the idea that you're going to solve one problem that will give you then a different set of problems that you have to deal with.

I think the thing that distinguishes, though, a conservative from somebody who says, "Look, just don't do anything," is an awareness that sometimes by doing nothing is a decision too and it can make things worse. And maybe I'll put it this way. I think being a conservative in the foreign policy world, you understand that all the hard decisions are 51/49 kinds of decisions when they're not indeed 50.1/49.9, that you know the decision--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Or they wouldn't be on your desk. Right? Somebody else--

              ELIOT COHEN:

They wouldn't be on your desk.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--would have made them.

              ELIOT COHEN:

That it's a murky world that you cannot fully foretell the consequences of what you're going to do. And you just have to live with that.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

There's a perception that conservative foreign policy approach to policy tends people more toward a military option. Is that your sense or not? Is that--

              ELIOT COHEN:

I don't think necessarily. I mean, there are some maybe who are. I think the way in which that might be true is that I think it'd be very hard for a conservative foreign policy thinker to say, "Well, force doesn't matter. Military power doesn't matter." So I think they tend other weigh heavily the importance of military power in the conduct of foreign policy. But I think I would certainly say this for myself, I think a good conservative is also aware that, you know, you decide to use military force then all kinds of other things are going to flow from that, many of which you cannot foretell.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And certainly in the Obama administration I saw liberals argue for the use of military force and the conservative argue against it.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And Libya's the best example of that.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Where Secretary Clinton was pushing for military action and Bob Gates was, "Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Let's--"

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

"--think this through. Right? This is not a good idea."

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah. Which I'm sure was influenced by Iraq, where you could make the reverse case. The conservatives were in favor and the liberal-- actually the liberals were pretty much in favor of it, too. It's just that's--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Everybody was. I think a lot of people have forgotten that they were--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Oh, yes. No. There's been a lot of rewriting of history there.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Eliot, what I really want to dig in on is an article that you recently published in Foreign Affairs titled "America's Long Goodbye: The Real Crisis of the Trump Era." I think this is one of the most important pieces published in Foreign Affairs, which is an elite journal in the last few years. I read it with great interest. I found myself agreeing throughout. I found my head bobbing up and down. Can you walk us through the argument in that piece? And I want to take some time here so don't worry about how long you're taking.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Sure. Well, thank you. And thanks for the compliments. Well, I begin with the presidency of Donald Trump. And just so your listeners may be aware, I was from the outset very critical of Candidate Trump and then of President Trump. I helped organize these two letters by Republican foreign policy experts that were severely critical of Trump during the campaign.

And I don't think I've let up since in the column I write for The Atlantic. But what I begin the piece with is saying, "Look, you know, he hasn't caused the apocalypse. We haven't had World War III. We didn't have war in the North Korean peninsula. He hasn't done any of the really crazy stuff that people were afraid of withdraw from NATO, something like that."

But-- and this is really the thesis of it, is that there's this long-building crisis because the-- and what the fundamental argument is, is that to some extent what Trump represents is a broader, not complete, but a broader American disenchantment with the role that we played in the-- we've played in the world since 1945. And basically I then unpack it. So I begin by saying, "Okay, why didn't Trump do some of the crazy stuff that he was talking about?"

And there are a number of reasons. I think he's not -- part of it is that he's not focused and disciplined enough to actually make the government work the way he would like to make it work. And as we both know, to get the government to do what you want to do is hard with a fantastic team and with a really switched-on president. And that's not what they've got. I make the case further that he is actually, in some ways, risk averse.

And that-- you can even see that in a different way in his business career. You know, he preferred to go bankrupt with other people's money and debt. I argue then that the damage that he's done has really been in terms of long-- the deterioration of long-term relationships, particularly with allies. But, I think behind all that-- and I would also say that his-- some of his advisers, including, I think, the team they have now, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton, are much more skilled than their predecessors were at manipulating the president.

And I use the word manipulated advisedly. But I think the larger point to make here is there are certain ways in which actually he represents some continuity with the Obama administration, which will make friends of mine from that administration uncomfortable to hear. But I believe it's true, the kind of not only disappointment with but dismissal of our European allies.

The desire to really disengage almost completely from the Middle East. The unwillingness to really contribute to the building of alliances. So, for example, the transpacific partnership, which Trump walked away from-- well, the thrust is the Obama administration was not all that keen on it until the very end.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And you remember Secretary Clinton ran against it.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes. And ex--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

In the campaign.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Exactly. So I think, to some extent, he's representing a kind of broader sort of fatigue, which has a number of different sources.

[T]here's these broader set of attitudinal changes in the United States, which help provide some of the background for Trump and which make me think that the issues that we're confronting now will last some time. So one is--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Which makes both Obama and Trump not the actors but reacting--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--to something going on in the country.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yes. Or manifestations of something going on in the-- and, you know, I have a complex view of the role of individuals in the making of history. They're both consequential individuals in different ways. But they are also, to some extent, consequential because they're reflecting some deeper forces and trends that are--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

              ELIOT COHEN:

--out there. They wouldn't be able to do nearly as much in opposition to those trends. So I'd say there are really three things at work. One is fatigue with the, what people sometimes call, the forever wars. Iraq most notably. Afghanistan, the sense that, you know, we've been stuck in the Middle East forever and body bags coming home and what exactly has it bought us and so on. I think-- so that's one.

Second, behind that, and even larger, is the American people bought off on a global role for the United States in the wake of the Cold War. Actually, they bought off on it starting at the end of World War II. And then in the 1990s and early 2000s there was no public reconsideration of the policy that had given us a military in order of magnitude larger than we had ever had and permanent alliances in peace time and deployments overseas.

I talk about this in my last book, The Big Stick, the-- about the missing debate. And there's a number of reasons why that debate didn't happen. But it didn't happen. So in some ways we're seeing the kinds of views that would have been represented earlier if people had wanted to talk about at the end of the Cold War. And then I think the third thing, which I talk about in the article, is, you know, we are finally at the point where there is no living memory of the 1930s to speak of.

And very soon there will be no living memory of the Second World War. And what-- you know, it's impossible to overstate the impact of World War II, and not just World War II but the 1930s, on the sensibility of Americans throughout the Cold War. You know, every one of our Cold War presidents had some kind of connection to the Second World War. They all had learned some very profound lessons about what happens when the United States choose not to be a major actor in shaping world order.

I'm not talking about isolationism in the classic sense. I'm talking about the United States not thinking that only this country has the ability to really shape an international order. Well, that is no longer a living memory. And I think that's really important and it's often underestimated how important that is.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So if this doesn't change, if this goes on for some period of time, what does the world look like? What's the impact of all of this--

              ELIOT COHEN:

So first with the "This" is. I think that this, and I discuss this in the article, the "This" will be a United States that's sort of erratic. Trump will either lose in 2020 or he'll lose in 2024 or not lose but he'll be succeeded or he may get impeached along the way or something like that.

But I suggest that you can have different varieties of America first, either of the Left or even of the disenchanted center. So I think it's quite conceivable, absent some serious political leadership, that you could have a period where the United States is only erratically internationalist.

Yeah, we sort of engage on Venezuela, but we're not to willing to really think through what it would mean if the Maduro government's overthrown and, you know, how do you stabilize that region. Or, you'll have one-off kinds of deals here and there. And I think in a world like that we won't be supplanted by a single power or even a coalition of powers. I don't think that's what's likely to happen. But there'll be more room for all kinds of states and non-state actors to first have their will in their local regions, as to some extent they are already doing.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Heading in that direction, certainly.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah. I mean, it is stunning to me that here you have-- I'll just give one example. You have China putting a very large percentage of its Uighur population into concentration camps. We're talking hundreds of thousands of people. And there's not a squawk about it--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Nary a peep.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Nary a peep. So you'll have more-- you can-- people can get away with stuff. They won't even be called out on it. You know? We won't call out the Saudis when they murder a journalist who was an American resident. But it'll get a lot worse than that. So they'll be asserting themselves in a variety of ways that will erode international norms and they will also believe that they can get away with intervention in politics around the world in the kind of way that we saw in the last election and that we'll see in future elections.

So I think you'll see more of that. And the result of that could be a more-- I think would be a more chaotic kind of world.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Is it a world in which there's a risk of conflict that would draw--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Much of us. Yes.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--us in and so we would come full circle back to what we learned in World War II?

              ELIOT COHEN:

I think so. Except, the difference would be that it's a world in which the United States wouldn't have the enormous economic leverage or the same kind of economic leverage that it had. It would be a world with a lot of people with nuclear weapons and possibly with other weapons, which would be biological in nature, which would be able to deter us from doing things.

You know, if Nazi Germany had had a full-blown nuclear arsenal, can we be so sure that we would have gone into World War II the way we did? You know, and more broadly I would say, I have-- part of being a conservative, as I said, you have a dark view of human nature, the possibility for people screwing up and stumbling into a war that they don't really want I think gets much higher.

You know, we just-- we may have avoided another Indo-Pakistani war. Who says it's guaranteed that we will always avoid that? You know, the-- I'm basically a historian. And if there's one thing I think I've learned from history is human beings make all kinds of mistakes all the time.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. Most wars start that way.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

So when I travel around the country, Eliot, one of the things I heard from folks is if there's a national security threat that is absolutely clear, like ISIS, or like North Koreans with nuclear weapons, they want their government to do something about it.

But when it's much less clear, like Vladimir Putin messing around in Eastern Ukraine, or the Chinese dominating the South China Sea, they ask themselves, "What does that have to do with me? Why should I care about that?" And I'm wondering to what extent we, as national security folks, need to do a better job of articulating why that kind of stuff matters to the American people--

              ELIOT COHEN:

I think we do need to do a much better job, but it's a job not just for us but for political leaders. And, again, this is nothing particularly new. You know, if you look at what was the debate, last time we had America First, which was shortly before World War II, there were arguments that people were making, you know, the Versailles Peace Treaty was unfair to Germany or look at British and French behavior in their colonies, are you really telling me that they're any better? And Europe is really far away, what difference does it make to us?

Part of the difference then is you had as president a very savvy politician, Franklin Roosevelt, who understood that you had to make a case in a way that people who do not focus on foreign policy who are smart, but don't pay a lot of attention to it, can understand. And I think one consequence of the Cold War, and then of that period in the 1990s when everything was going our way so it wasn't important, and then the 2000s when you had the crisis of 9/11, is politicians, particularly presidents, got out of the habit of talking to the American people about the American role in the world, what we should do, what we have to do, what the consequences are if we don't do things.

I don't think they've thought of it as part of the job description. And I regret to say that I don't see a whole lot of that either these days in Congress. You know, I was pretty close to John McCain. I think John McCain understood that that was part of his job, it was to make the case for why the United States needs to be engaged. And there was a generation of congressional leaders who came out of World War II who also felt that way.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

You actually talk in your article about--

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

--John's passing and what that means for where we are. Maybe the last individual on the Hill who really understood what we're talking about.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Yeah. And somebody who understood that the Senate has a particularly important role to play, in terms of exercising leadership. You know, McCain would go to all the hard places, he'd put himself in harm's way, but he understood he was representing the United States. And he also understood the importance of being there, seeing for himself, and then coming back and talking to people back home, whether—everybody, from the president to his constituents in Arizona.

And I wish, I thought, we had more people who could do that anywhere near as well as he could. Now that's, you know-- we just had a large congressional delegation go to the annual Munich Security Conference. I think that was a good thing. I think they wanted to send a message to our European allies that the United States is not just walking off the stage. And the great strength of this country is we can grow new political elites. We are better at that than anybody else in the world. But it all comes down to leadership.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Is there a particular moment when you think we began this shift away from traditional American leadership in the world to this new world that you're describing? Is this a result of the aftermath in politics of the Iraq war? Is there a particular moment or is it more long-term?

              ELIOT COHEN:

You know, it's very hard to tell close to the events. And having taken part in a marginal way in some of them, I'm a good enough historian to know that I'm a terrible judge of that. I think you can see some of the seeds of this in the immediate post-Cold-War period. But I do think as Iraq went sour, what it did was-- it was partly the cause but more that it activated lots of doubts that people already had.

You know, that how I think politics often works, that it's not that somebody says something that you've never thought of before, but that you-- ideas that were kind of in the back of your mind that you didn't really express and you knew other people didn't agree with them so you wouldn't put them out there. Now all of a sudden it's okay to lay them out on the table and to put them pretty forcefully.

And there are politicians who are saying the kinds of things that you've always had this kind of uneasy feeling about. And that-- I do think Iraq was the trigger, in many ways, for ideas that have been there for a long time. You know, we-- Dwight D. Eisenhower had to fight a really big battle with Robert Taft over NATO, so it's-- these views have been out there forever.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And in some ways this period of American leadership in the world is an aberration in our history--

              ELIOT COHEN:

It is in some ways an aberration.

              MICHAEL MORELL:

We spent a little time upfront talking about North Korea. And I know you've spent a lot of time thinking about it. I just want to get your sense of what's going on today. How do you think about the Singapore Summit and the Hanoi Summit and where we are and where we might be going?

              ELIOT COHEN:

So, you know, we're are colored by our own experience. So the first thought I had was, "Boy, I've seen this movie before." You know? I was in the Bush administration--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

You played in this movie before. (LAUGH)

              ELIOT COHEN:

I played in this movie before. I was a bit of a spoiler in it. You know, I remember when they blew up the smokestack at Yongbyon and the assistant secretary of state was running her negotiations with him, was ecstatic. "This is the end." Of course your people said, "No, actually they can rebuild the smokestack." And I vividly remember when I told Condi, you know, "They're cheating on their declarations and the circumstantial evidence is really good that they have a parallel program to enrich uranium."

So this assistant secretary comes into my office and says, "Counselor, what do you think is gonna happen? They're gonna fling open a steel blast door and there's gonna be a room full of spinning centrifuges?" A year later, actually Sig Hecker, who you know well from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, went there. They flung open a steel blast door--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

And they showed him those centrifuges.

              ELIOT COHEN:

--and there was a room full of spinning centrifuges. So this is not the first time that American policy makers have deceived themselves into thinking that there's a deal. First thought.

Second thought, you never send a president to a summit unless it's just to sign the deal and have a great ceremony or maybe to close the last two to five percent.

These folks decide, or the president, I think, decided, it's okay to have him make the deal there. And that, I think, is really pretty crazy.

Third thing, I think is one of the ways in which Trump is a problematic foreign policy president is it's pretty easy to figure out how to manipulate him. And the North Koreans are good at that. And so that even when this thing collapses, you know, they've got him in a place where he's saying, that, "No, I don't think that they knew that this young man, Mr. Warmbier, had been--" he was essentially murdered by them--

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. Right. So you're painting a pretty dire picture of the future here. And I'm wondering if there was one thing that we could do to make a difference here what that might be.

              ELIOT COHEN:

You know, I mean, I am a glass half empty kind of guy.

              (OVERTALK)

              ELIOT COHEN:

--supposed to do. You smell flowers, you look for the funeral. Look, I think the most-- I am a long-term optimist about the United States. I think it's the most resilient country on Earth. I think the most important thing, and this is a good thing, which this era is producing, is for people to get involved in politics.

And whether the-- I mean, some of the people we both know who've run for office, people like Tom Malinowski. I was delighted to see him run for office. I was delighted to see on the other side somebody who I knew as a graduate student, Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin run and win as a representative. The challenge is to get engaged. And the main thing I would tell your audience is, you know, we've had it really easy, our generation.

When I think about what my parents and what my grandparents lived through, the Great Depression, World War II, McCarthy, Korea, you know, the cities up in flames, the struggle for civil rights, Vietnam, and that's just my parents, my grandparents lived through the First World War and the influenza epidemic, I mean, who says we have it easy? You know?

              MICHAEL MORELL:

Eliot, thank you so much for joining us.

              ELIOT COHEN:

Thank you for having me.

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