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  May 12, 2017

Wilkerson: Trump 'Needs a Good War' and Pence is Waiting in the Wings to Lead It


Col. Lawrence Wilkerson and Paul Jay discuss the significance of the Comey affair, the prospect of the rise of VP Mike Pence as the real power in the White House, and the danger of war as a way out for a dysfunctional administration
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biography

Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.


transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay. I've welcomed the chaos in the Trump White House and Congress. I think we have far more to fear from a functional Trump administration than one in disarray, but with the firing of FBI head James Comey, the craziness has crossed a line. The American state and military institutions, the leaders of the political class, and the billionaire elites where real power resides are okay with a certain amount of zealotry in the White House. After all, most went along with Dick Cheney. But the elites do want a certain amount of checks and balances. They don't want a cabal to take the reins of American power and wield it without limits.

The firing threatens the system of power in Washington where the permanent state, the deep state as some like to call it, can directly assert systemic power, and no president can defy it. The permanent state represents the basic interests of the billionaire class as a whole, and it's their job to maintain the empire. Of course, there are splits and fractures of many kinds within this deep state, agencies and individuals that vie for more authority and higher budgets, but together they will defend their institutional power. Even a president cannot be above it. He has to work within it.

If Trump continues this path, this chaos and megalomania will burn down his presidency, and rising from the ashes will be a phoenix. The face of this dangerous creature will be Mike Pence. Whether it's by impeachment, resignation, or simply de facto, Pence will be the real power in the White House. Maybe that was the plan all along, something we suggested months ago on The Real News. Pence White House will be Cheney redux, far more efficient and capable than the Trump clown show, and far, far more dangerous to peoples everywhere.

Now joining us from Falls Church, Virginia is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary, and a regular contributor to The Real News. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks Paul. Good to be with you.

PAUL JAY: The dysfunction, the clowniness, within it the seeds, I think, of a lot of danger. What do you think?

LARRY WILKERSON: I think one of the things you just said in your lead-in, most of which I agree with, that the elite want or don't want a government that is unlimited in its power, is a little bit off. I think what they want is a government that doesn't operate either through chaos or design, and it's looking more like chaos, against their interests. What we have here, of course, I think, is a display, repeatedly a display, of the potential, if not the actual already, actions against that interest. You're right in the sense that this group is probably going to be the most formidable foe ultimately that Trump is going to face, and that it might in some of its parts be more comfortable with a Pence than a Trump, and that that might be even more dangerous than the chaos we're seeing from Trump, is a worrisome point. The Comey debacle as it were sort of illustrates how profound that can be, even to the point of perpetrating a constitutional crisis, out of which one wonders what would come.

PAUL JAY: Yeah. What I'm saying by why they don't like this cabal type of control, while I say there's overall interest of the billionaire class which means maintain the empire, maintain the military supremacy of the United States, maintain what's essentially a one superpower world, there's certain basic principles that have to be maintained. Within the billionaire class, there's all kinds of splits, and there's a split right now I think between the section that wants this geopolitical rivalry with Russia because it feeds the military-industrial complex, and there's a whole, I'll use the word cabal again, of fossil fuel types that Tillerson represents that want to play ball with the Russians because there's enormous amounts of money to be made in the Russian energy sector.

But they don't want a control of the White House that's above the FBI, the CIA, the basic state institutions. Yeah, they'll go with a Dick Cheney, because on the whole, it served the elite's interests and everybody was cashing in from lower taxes to any regulation you wanted gone would be gone. But I don't think the state institutions and the elites like it if you can simply fire anyone that doesn't agree with the president.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, you're right on that, I think. I think you used the word, if you didn't I will, the lunacy of the Trump administration, and the uncertainty and unpredictability which it emanates, is inimical to their interests any way you look at it. If you don't know what your clown, your puppet, is going to do in day-to-day operations with the enormous power at his fingertips, then it becomes of grave concern. In that respect, I think you're right.

PAUL JAY: Before we talk a little bit more about the Pence idea, what do you make of the various players in all of this? What does it tell us about sort of what I would call systemic decay?

LARRY WILKERSON: You have just that. You have institutional decay, and that's systemic. You have the decay of diplomacy in the State Department. You have the decay of the government and its meritocracy, if you will, in general. You have the decay of the very republic that we supposedly represent, and ultimately the decay of democracy and liberty. That's all happening at the same time we have this clown, this lunacy, in the White House, and as you pointed out, the prospect of something even more nefarious perhaps standing in the shadows behind it. No matter who I was as a billionaire, no matter if I were Charles and David Koch or I were Robert Mercer or anyone else interested in the goose continuing to lay my golden eggs, I would have some grievous concern over this bunch.

On the one hand, you have the ideological component represented most prominently by Bannon which seems to be just short of insane, and reflective more of Adolf Hitler and his gang than anything else we can cite in recent history. On the other hand, you have the lunacy and the unpredictability of the clown at the center, and on the other side, you have two political parties, both in, I would argue, complete disarray. You have the Republicans in possession of the White House and both houses of the legislature, and just excited as hell about that, salivating over it, and yet beginning to realize they're not going to get anything done because of the lunatic in the White House and what they've done to themselves in dividing up into this suicidal arrangement of parties within a party. You have the Democrats who are still stunned by their electoral loss and can't seem to get their act together, and could never be as ruthless and as strategic as the Republicans are.

This is a disaster taking place in front of our eyes, and you have 300+ million Americans who are not aware of this disaster in any real way that they could do anything about. You have the recipe here for a real problem in governance, a real problem in the continuation of this republic in any sort of significant and meaningful way, and what you have, what you have big time right now, is leaders all around the world, including those of our allies, who are thinking hard about the United States in the way of it being distrustful, mistrustful, even no longer reliable, questioning their commitments to things they've been committed to since World War II, thinking about what they might do to join forces and balance the hegemon gone amok.

Increasingly, you're going to see signs of that actually happening. You're not going to just see Prime Minister Abe in Japan trying to grow Japan up as fast as it can to be its own security element. You're going to see other leaders all across the globe, both friendly and opposed, who are going to be doing things that are inimical to our interests and increasingly going to be doing them together.

PAUL JAY: The one moment of respite for Trump, in terms of the onslaught from the media, from the Democratic Party, even from some elements within the Republican Party over his Russia ties, was after he bombed the air base in Syria. All of a sudden, he was presidential. All of a sudden, everyone was cheering him on. It seems to me the one way out for him, and again I think there'll be a problem, people rallying around Trump, which is why again I think the Pence card will eventually be played, but is a war. He started his inaugural address, not started but within the inaugural address, he called for a global war against Islamic fascism.

He's called for war without restraint. He wants to give $54 billion to the Pentagon. It seems to me there's elements within the Pentagon, some of which he has picked for his Cabinet, who never thought the Iraq War was lost, it was lost because Obama pulled troops out, not for other reasons, and want to go back in, whether it's to Iraq or Syria or in Afghanistan. They don't think that business is done. It seems to me this is a particularly dangerous moment given the internal crisis this administration's in.

LARRY WILKERSON: I think you're right in the respect that the war power has devolved almost entirely to the executive branch. The cowardice of the Congress, the incompetence of the Congress, the fundamental interests of the Congress in fueling those who contribute to their campaigns from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Grumman, Boeing, you name it, that is very conducive to what you just suggested. The one power that the president has that is unlimited in that regard is the war power. That this president would use that to ultimately try to resurrect what is increasingly a failed administration is something to be worried about, something to be concerned about, and that the military, from H.R. McMaster to Jim Mattis, within his Cabinet would be supportive of that, if he picked the right place and believe me they'll help him pick the right place, is also worrisome. It could put us on a trajectory of even more war after 17 years and $2-3 trillion and so forth which could be empire-ending.

PAUL JAY: The targets for war, he's got, I guess, three. He said he's going to go over ISIS, which means a bigger commitment in the Middle East. Certainly, as he ran his election and the early days of this administration, and in terms of their strategic thinking, Trump and the people around him, the target is Iran. The shorter-term, I guess, target at the moment is North Korea, although I'm not sure what they can actually do with North Korea other than lean more on China. At some point, they want to get back, I would say, into the Middle East, and that includes re-initiating this hyper-rhetoric against Iran.

LARRY WILKERSON: I think you're right. I wouldn't say they're trying to get back in the Middle East. From what I'm hearing, we are there, and we're getting there even incrementally more so every day, every week. Mostly special operating forces, but lots of logistics and other things that make me think that the plan is to get there with even more than just SOF. Iran is the ultimate target. I have to think that. I have to feel that, because I know that's the strategic viewpoint of the military.

If Iran is the ultimate target and we're talking about doing something, precipitating something, making something happen that either shows Iran as the culprit in violating the current nuclear agreement or that sort of approximates that in a way that they can excuse themselves as we did in 2003 when we invaded Iraq and start something, and that's very worrisome. Of all the things that are out there right now from the South China Sea, Taiwan and China, to Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, to North Korea and so forth, the Iran business concerns me the most, because it offers probably the most satisfying and most immediate and most in-your-face sort of area for them to do this. That's concerning.

PAUL JAY: What do you think is the balance of power within the Pentagon, because that's not a monolithic institution or view either? When Cheney wanted to go after Iran, it seems to me a lot of the Pentagon actually stopped it, and there were a lot of retired generals even publicly writing in the pages of the Washington Post and New York Times opposing starting a war with Iran. He may have gathered people around him in the Cabinet that will be on board with that, but what about the rest of the Pentagon? Will he get a pushback, or if he throws enough billions of dollars at the Pentagon, they'll go along with it anyway?

LARRY WILKERSON: We could, but you have to remember, time has elapsed. When you're on the money train, when you've got to have the money, and you need justification for that money, the tendency to search for a little conflict to make that money flow a little more abundantly is strong, very strong. It's been some time since major troops were committed in Iraq, and we really don't have 8,900, 9,000, whatever the figure is now, that much committed in Afghanistan. We're going to beef it up a little bit. We've got some 24-30,000 contractors there. As I've said before, I think we're in Afghanistan to stay, but still, that is not a real satisfying commitment schedule, if you will, for lots of more dollars. When I say lots of more dollars, I mean many more dollars, not the 54 or 60 billion or so plus up. I mean 100 or 200 billion dollar plus up. If you're going to get that, you're going to have to have a war. It's going to have to be a first-class war.

PAUL JAY: The opposition to this is certainly not going to come from the leadership of the Democratic Party. Chuck Schumer was beside himself with pleasure when Trump attacked the Syrian air base. He's as vitriolic about Iran as John McCain is. In fact, I don't think there's any space between McCain and Schumer on their aggressive stance towards Iran. This opposition, if there's going to be one, there's going to have to be some kind of massive movement out in the streets amongst people. Other than a very small number of people within the Democratic Party in Congress, and they're a very small number, it ain't going to come from there.

LARRY WILKERSON: You're right, and this affection for war with Iran is all about Israel. It's all about this strategic approach that Netanyahu and Lieberman and others like him have developed, and that Schumer and others have bought into. That is that destabilizing all of Israel's enemies, and mind you, this includes ultimately Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, destabilizing them and keeping them destabilized, and even maybe breaking them up into statelets or less, is a good strategy for Israel's security.

This has been bought into by much of the American sycophantic approach in the Congress and elsewhere to Israel's security, and it's certainly been bought into and even designed, principal architect of it is Netanyahu. As I said to my students recently as they were taking their final exam, what issue do you know of in your knowledge of what we studied since World War II, what issue do you know of that is more potent than Israel in American domestic politics, and therefore in affecting US foreign and security policy? No rebuttal. Israel is the number one issue.

PAUL JAY: Given the disarray and the plunging in the polls of Trump and such, and the possibility of a real reverse in 2018 congressional elections, and then right now I would say a pretty unlikely second term for Trump in 2020, except who knows what war would do in that scenario, but they better do something fast. They're going to want to maybe up their schedule, move ahead their schedule on this, and make sure that they do something big before 2018.

LARRY WILKERSON: And they need to do something big, I think, to deflect what is going to continue to trouble them majorly, and that is however it is conducted in the Senate, in the House, elsewhere, by the FBI, into the Russian connections not only with the 2016 election but also with the entire Trump team to include possibly the president himself. There's no question in my mind anyway that the reason Comey was fired was because he looked like he might be a little bit too much of an independent agent in investigating these things, connections to Russia.

PAUL JAY: This is the danger of people in "the resistance" against Trump, that if you let people like Schumer and Clinton into the resistance, then wait till this thing with Iran comes, because these people are going to be for the war.

LARRY WILKERSON: Oh, yes.

PAUL JAY: Then where is the resistance going to be?

LARRY WILKERSON: Oh, yes. I wouldn't count on the Clinton camp, Bill or Hillary or anyone around them, for anything fruitful, and I wouldn't count on the Democrats in general for anything fruitful other than perhaps enough pressure to eventually make it an independent investigation into these two possibilities, collusion and influence on the elections. I'm almost positive that that's what the outcome over the next six months or so is going to be is an independent investigation. What that will turn up is anyone's guess, but I would suggest it's going to turn up positive evidence in both instances of Russian complicity in the election and Trump's team, and maybe even the president himself's, complicity in that complicity, if you will.

PAUL JAY: In many ways to me, that's the worst of all worlds. You get some kind of attack on Iran, and you get it with Pence. That ain't good.

LARRY WILKERSON: And maybe you get the impeachment proceedings after the midterms in 2018, and you get the war and you get Pence in the middle of all that. Let's just worry about where we go from there.

PAUL JAY: Yeah, I go back to there better be some big movement outside both of these parties or insurrectionally inside some of these parties. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.

PAUL JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.



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