Skip to main content

William Cohen, the 20th United States secretary of defence, photographed in Toronto on February 13, 2013.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

A nuke goes off. A pope quits. The world seems upside down.

Who better to ask for reason than William Cohen? He was Bill Clinton's defence secretary and that increasingly rare American political animal, a Republican who works happily with Democrats.

Mr. Cohen was in Toronto this week for the quarterly Grano dinner series and he spoke with me on the side.

These are some highlights of our chat:

  • The U.S. military is reapplying itself to the Pacific, where China is developing a serious military force. Marines are stationed in Darwin, Australia, U.S. warships will be seen increasingly in Singapore, and (who would have thought?) an American-Vietnamese military alliance is in the works.
  • It is almost inevitable Israel will attack Iran. The more time that passes, he says, the more the odds grow as everyone gets comfortable with perceived inevitability.
  • The U.S. defence budget is on the verge of being whacked by “sequestration,” a consequence of budget paralysis that could see bases shut down and soldiers sent home while all of the above is going on.
  • Don’t expect any compromise in Congress. Republicans are more conservative and Democrats are more liberal, and those in the middle ground, like him, are not welcome.
  • Marco Rubio is still a serious contender for 2016, despite his televised water crisis. The Republicans got the demographic message last fall, Mr. Cohen says. Look for Chris Christie to challenge.

Lots of dangers everywhere, but this is Mr. Cohen's biggest revelation: No one in Washington seems to know Stephen Harper.

With the crowd around us focused on wine and hors d'oeuvres, Mr. Cohen pulled me to a corner to ask about Canada's mysterious Prime Minister. An answer of "intellectually smart, socially cool" reminded Mr. Cohen of Barack Obama. People in Washington call them "Heisman politicians," arms stretched out like the Heisman Trophy, pushing back those who want to get close.

What surprised me more was that Cohen – friend of Canada, native of Maine, confidant to former prime minister Brian Mulroney and gold baron Peter Munk – had not met Mr. Harper. For Canadian Conservatives who are concerned with all the tensions that worry Mr. Cohen, it's a missed opportunity.

Our own Patrick Martin sat down with Mr. Cohen, too. You can read his interview this weekend.

Paul Koring joins Hannah Sung to discuss President Barack Obama's State of the Union address and its heavy domestic agenda. Obama's strong emphasis on climate change issues may shape the likelihood of the Keystone pipeline.

Enjoy the weekend,