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.
transcriptPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.In Cairo today, the Arab League announced that they think that what Assad is doing in Syria amounts to war crimes, crimes against humanity. Qatar has called for armed intervention. So has Saudi Arabia. And they've both called for arming the opposition. On the other hand, many people are suggesting this is a lot about the ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the West, and the situation's not so simple, and that what is really emerging is in fact a civil war in Syria.Now joining us to give us his take on what U.S. policy towards Syria should be is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He's the former chief of staff of Colin Powell, and he now teaches at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. Thanks for joining us.COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Paul.JAY: So, Larry, first of all, so much conflicting information coming out about what's really going on in Syria. I mean, as best as you can, what do you think is taking place?WILKERSON: Putting it all togetherâthe Arab League report, journalist reports out of the country, my own knowledge of the region, and experts' views, which are passed to me from time to time, including several people who served lengthy tours in Damascus when we had better relations with Syria, I would say it is a civil war. I would say there are assets, formidable assets, not least of which is the military, on the side of Bashar al-Assad, as it were, and there are some significant assets on the side of what is being called loosely (and I say that loosely) the oppositionâthere are probably multiple parts to the opposition, just as there were in Libya. So it is, I think, a civil war.And then you follow up from that determination and you say, what's the geography, what's the demography, what's the military circumstances, what are the surrounding countries, and so forth, and you begin immediately to see that this ain't Libya, this is extremely different from Libyaâperhaps being like Libya in one aspect, and that is that in eastern Libya, you may know, most of al-Qaeda who killed our troops in Iraq came from. So there are that potentialities with regard to Syria, too, there are those potentialities. Iran is there big-time, too.So, much of the talk you hear from people like John McCain (who borders on being insane these days), it comes not from a desire to do something about the humanitarian situation such as it is in Syria. It's a backdoor into Iran, because Iran's IRGC is supporting with weaponry and with advice and so forth the Syrian government, Bashar al-Assad. It is also supporting him with technical means, like how to block the internet and other social media and so forth. So this is a backdoor for John McCain into Iran.It is a very different situation, though, militarily. They have very sophisticated air defenses. We would lose a lot of airplanes and a lot of men and women were we to strike with air power. Air power probably would not do all that much, except kill a lot of innocent civilians who are caught up in this civil war. It's a very different situation. I agree with the Pentagon, which is, I think, officially and unofficially advising extreme caution here in terms of listening to people like Senator McCain and doing something about the atrocities, such as they are.JAY: Now, it usedâLarry, it usedâ.WILKERSON: I think the atrocities, too, are occurring on both sides. I think the opposition is probably as guilty of killing innocents and killing people in the government as the government is of killing innocents in the opposition or associated with the opposition or actual opposition fighters. The Arab League report sort of gives you that. But no one wants to listen to the Arab League report, and certainly the monarchs in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar and other places, as you mentioned, don't want to listen to it, 'cause for them this is a game of power, this is a game of diffusing their own people's attention away from their own monarchies, this is a way of fighting Iran. At the heart of all this, Paul, you keep coming back to Persia, you keep coming back to that regime in Tehran that the Saudis and the Israelis, not because they present an existential threat, but because they present a power rivalry, want to have put down.JAY: Now, of course, caught in the middle of all this are peaceful protesters in Syria, who are not these forces being harmed by the Saudis and others. There's a flow of arms coming in, including, I think, from Iraq, whoâ.WILKERSON: Two sides in Iraq, I'm told: one side Muqtada al-Sadr, the other side Maliki. So you've got Iraq supporting both elements inâor the opposition and the government in Syria.JAY: And, of course, the people are caught in the midst of all this, 'cause they'reâI think at the core of this there were legitimate, ordinary, honest protesters against a dictatorship, who are now caught in the midst of all these conflicting interests. But I want to go back to somethingâ.WILKERSON: [incompr.] Paul, those are the people that I was calling innocents, because I think you're absolutely right, and I think that probably, if you would sit down and count, you'd probably find that includes the majority of the Syrian peopleâmaybe not some of the segments of the elite or some of the segments of what I would call almost al-Qaeda-like elements, but it certainly, I think, includes the majority of the Syrian people. And that's what is the true shame here.JAY: Now, it used to be rather clear, innocent or in fact not, civil wars are civil wars and external powers are supposed to stay out of them. It usedâyou know, whether they did or not, whether they followed the lawâand in many cases or most cases they didn't. The external powers have always fished in troubled waters. But at least it was fairly clear in international law that you would stay out of civil wars. Now this rubric of humanitarian intervention seems to be wiping away this whole basic concept that if you want to have world peace, you don't meddle in internal affairs of other countries. What do you make of this humanitarian intervention?WILKERSON: This is something that Madeleine Albright, Samantha Power, and a number of other individuals have pushed. I mention those two because they both held formidable government office. Madeleine, of course, is ambassador to the United Nations and then secretary of state, and Samantha is a major member of President Obama's National Security Council staff. It's people like that who have begun to bring this to fruition.I'm notâI have mixed emotions about it, because, let's face it, I'm a realist, and I think there are some conflicts in the world that just ought to, as Edward Luttwak said at one time, be allowed to end and be allowed toâone side to achieve victory. You're going to have a lot more sustainability, a lot more stability, and a lot more endurance in the government that results if that is the case, and one hopes that it's a more democratic government rather than not. It's, I think, very difficult to intervene in a civil war. It's very difficult to intervene in a civil war that's being conducted in a land that's extremely difficult to get to militarily, and that's Syria as opposed to Libya.And I always bring up the analogy of our own war, which was the most painful one in our historyâ600,000 dead, and on both sides, brothers, sisters fighting each other and so forth. And England was messing in our civil war, and before the Battle of Antietam (which dissuaded them, I think), was thinking hard about coming in on the southern side. Imagine, if they had, what we would have thought in Washington. This is not precisely the same circumstances, of course, but it is a situation of civil war that I think ought to come home to Americans.Let this thing be handled by the Syrians. Let this thing be handled by people who are more contiguous, if you will, who have more dog in the fight, rather than interfering, and especially interfering with military force. I'm not saying that we shouldn't provide humanitarian assistance, support the ICRC, and all the other things that we can do that would be positive, but military force just in my view should be ruled outâat this time, anyway.JAY: And what are you hearing from the Pentagon in terms of your sources, and where are they at on this?WILKERSON: I think the cooler heads in the Pentagonâand that's the majority of themâare presenting these matters to the president. Of course, they're contingency planning, as they have to, in case the president tells them to do somethingâthey will do it, they will do it to the best of their ability. But I think their advice right now is, probably, this is a really hard nut to crack and I don't think you want to get out your nutcracker.JAY: Thanks for joining us.WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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