Reviewed by Anthony Quainton
Herman J Cohen, The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures, New Academia Publishing/Vellum, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-098643530, 288 pp. $34.00 (Hardcover), $24.00 (Paperback)
In the course of a forty-year career working on and in Africa Ambassador Herman “Hank” Cohen was called upon to deal with more than his share of renowned scoundrels, unabashed autocrats and charismatic leaders. In this book of recollections Ambassador Cohen recounts his personal interactions with fifteen African leaders from French, British and Portuguese Africa. The majority of these men, most of whom were the founder presidents of their respective countries, considered themselves endowed with a special mandate to rule their subject populations whom they often regarded as little more than children. Personal aggrandizement and enrichment were more often than not their principal achievements. Some were Marxist Leninists, some devout Christians, both Catholic and evangelical, many were tribal leaders, and others were sophisticated and skilled politicians. Some were educated in France or England or Portugal while others had little formal training. All reveled in the power that they enjoyed and all justified their policies, however selfish, in terms of the welfare of their citizens.
Ambassador Cohen’s book has several important aspects. At the beginning of each chapter there is a succinct description of the history leading to the leader’s rise to power. These are invaluable thumbnail sketches of the process of decolonization in Africa. The second part of each chapter is Cohen’s own personal interaction with these leaders. His access to them was extraordinary. He could talk to them on the phone or in person. Their doors were almost always open to him, and he was able to give them advice, both solicited and unsolicited. He would meet them in their offices, their country retreats, or semi-clandestinely in hotel rooms. Cohen describes these relationships in matter of fact terms, as though this level of access was nothing exceptional. These leaders invariably referred to him as “Secretary” Cohen in recognition of the role that he played in the making and implementation of American African policy. In fact, this unique intimacy was a reflection of his profound commitment to Africa and his understanding of the idiosyncrasies of each leader, acquired over a lifetime, beginning as a junior officer and running through his time as Senior Director for Africa in the White House and Ambassador to Senegal under President Reagan and as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under President George H. W. Bush. Cohen’s contacts remained valuable throughout the 1990s even after he no longer had a formal diplomatic or official role.
Basically this is a series of vignettes set against the background of the Cold War. As the countries of Africa attained independence in the 1960’s and 70‘s they became centers of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. In a rapidly expanding United Nations their votes were increasingly important. Our primary concern was that they vote with us in New York and not give the Soviet Union a strategic or military presence. In a few cases such as Zaire the mineral resources of the country became of strategic importance. In this endeavor of keeping Africa on our side we were remarkably successful in large part through the efforts of Ambassador Cohen. The result was an African policy across administrations, which tended to downplay or ignore human rights abuses and value tangible evidence of political support. This was surprisingly true even in the Carter Administration, which gave greater saliency to human rights. Ambassador Cohen did not ignore human rights, however. As he sought to advance American geo-strategic interests, Ambassador Cohen also sought to promote multi-party democracy, even though that concept frequently worked against the interests and policies of the leaders with which he was interacting. He did not, however, allow his support for democracy to get in the way of the tough negotiations he often had to carry out.
My own experience in the Central African Republic certainly was consistent with this overall strategy. While Cohen makes only passing reference to the CAR, its ruler throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Jean Bedel, later Salahuddin Ahmed, Bokassa would have fitted nicely into Cohen’s template. Like Omar Bongo, his neighbor in Gabon, he maintained a close relationship with France, embraced Islam, if only superficially, and enriched himself at the expense of his people. Like other presidents he ruled with brutal strictness. No opposition was tolerated outside of the ruling party. Yet Bokassa could be charming, as former French President Giscard d’Estaing could attest. But he also had a streak of paranoia and suspected the United States of plotting his overthrow. In that fear he was not alone. In a revealing description of a meeting with Libyan leader Gaddafi, Ambassador Cohen was asked why the CIA destabilized countries around the globe, he answered, one hopes with tongue in cheek, “Leader. We are a superpower. That is what we do”. In the Central African case all we asked of Bokassa was that he continue to vote on our side in the General Assembly. He always did.
Ambassador Cohen showed a remarkable independence of view and willingness to offer advice without instructions. A notable moment came during his ambassadorship in Senegal, when he suggested to the Senegalese President that he invade Gambia and put an end to the economic obstacles, which the Gambians were placing on the free movement of goods across Senegal. Happily Cohen’s advice was not taken.
There are also moments of hyperbole. Ambassador Cohen refers to Gaddafi, for example, as an “accomplished monster”. This is perhaps not an entirely accurate description of that enigmatic and capricious leader. He is also quick to characterize the political views of the leaders. For example Mugabe of Zimbabwe is said to be a committed Marxist Leninist, yet his style of rule deviated substantially from traditional Cold War Marxism.
While Ambassador Cohen had strong views about the personalities with which he had to deal, he kept his emotions in check. He showed remark able equanimity in maintaining his relationships and did not allow his personal judgments of their morals, personal behavior or domestic policies to get in the way of negotiations to secure concrete solutions to complex political and economic problems. He was, for example a critical player in negotiations for peace in Angola.
After reading this quasi memoir, one cannot fail to admire the skill with which Ambassador Cohen managed these relationships and advanced US interests under vastly differing and difficult circumstances involving a series of domineering and in some cases unstable personalities. In that respect Ambassador Cohen shows diplomacy at its best: flexible, creative, and empathetic when necessary, tough if need be. His long career demonstrates the value of area expertise and the cumulative benefits of staying in a region throughout most of a career. Ambassador Cohen was an Africanist par excellence. This book tells the story of a versatile, talented and creative diplomat. It makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the United States’ relationship with Africa in the final three decades of the twentieth century.