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  February 12, 2018

Wilkerson: From Trump Parade to Budget, There's 'Too Much Military'

As President Trump requests a military parade, Congress has approved a new budget that increases military spending to record levels. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, says that from Trump's cabinet on down, there is "too much military."
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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.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. President Trump has asked the Pentagon to plan a massive military parade for later this year. Trump apparently made the request directly to his generals after being inspired upon witnessing France's Bastille Day. Now, while that request has drawn criticism from Democrats, Democrats have helped give Trump an immediate and much bigger gift. As part of the new budget deal that keeps the government open, Congress has removed caps on military spending for the next two years. This clears the way for a military budget of some 1.4 trillion dollars over 24 months. Joining me is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William & Mary. Colonel Wilkerson, welcome. Your thoughts when you first heard that Trump wants a military parade.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, I wasn't that much surprised because let's face it, this is a egomaniacal guy in the White House. This is a guy who continues the Republican and I must say somewhat Democrat trend, too, as president to put military forces, men, women, formations in the background of speeches, remarks, and so forth as much as possible. So, it's not like it's not a trend to do this sort of thing but this rather stunned me. Nothing should stun me anymore about this administration but this did because it is so just out of character, I hope, for our republic. It's not the kind of thing we do. Yes, when we welcomed Dwight Eisenhower home from World War II, or Douglas MacArthur from World War II, or when we welcomed the troops home who had been rather gloriously victorious in the first Iraq war. We had a big parade in Washington, I know. I went down with my son and stood on the boulevard, Pennsylvania Avenue and watched it. That's one thing.

But to do it gratuitously just to bolster the ego of an already egotist in the White House, and to send a signal to the troops, as it were, that he's on their side and that they should be on his side? That's the signal that worries me because this man looks like he's getting increasingly in trouble. Not just with the Mueller investigation but also some of the things that he's doing which are clearly borderline tyrannical. So, putting the military in that scene is the last thing I would want to see. We already have Kelly, Mattis and McMaster in crucial decision-making and decision-advising roles in the White House. This is too much military. Just too much military.

AARON MATÉ: You know, Colonel, we didn't bring you on for us to debate the first Gulf War but since you mention it, I have to say, not everyone would view that victory as glorious. The US was attacking a former ally in Saddam Hussein, who may have simply disobeyed or misunderstood the US when it told him not to invade Kuwait. There was conflicting signals there, if I recall right. He was under the impression that actually the US may have given him the green light. No matter how it started, can we agree that the Iraqi military did not put up much of a fight in that war?

LARRY WILKERSON: We will agree on that. I was simply trying to say that at least there was a patina of victory there. What have we won as a military since then? Nothing.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Well, you know, on that front, let me ask you. There was a recent piece in the Washington Post about General Mattis, and they quote an exchange between Mattis and Trump in the Oval Office. This is the Washington Post. “Last summer, Trump was weighing plans to send more soldiers to Afghanistan and was contemplating the military's request for more aggressive measures to target ISIS affiliates in Northern Africa. In a meeting with his top national security aides, the President grew frustrated. "You guys want me to send troops everywhere." Trump said, "What's the justification?" "Sir, we're doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square." Mattis replied. The response angered Trump, who insisted Mattis could make the same argument, again, about almost any country on the planet.” Your thoughts there about that exchange, if it's correct. Yeah.

LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah. That's a very intelligent exchange and reminds me of some of the things that drew my attention during the campaign when President Trump would, I guess, mess up, and actually say some sane, reasonable things, and even more importantly, things that needed to be said about this empire's over-extension, particularly with its military. We have spent trillions of dollars. Whose estimate shall we take? Shall we take the Pentagon at 1.7 trillion or, I think it was Brown University at 5 trillion to 7 trillion? And anyway, it's in the trillions, on a threat, terrorism, that has the likelihood statistically to kill one of us of a lightning strike. Now, we're not spending trillions on lightning strikes. Gun violence kills thousands more people than terrorist attacks. The opioid epidemic. I don't see us spending trillions of dollars to stop those things. So, this is absurd, and Trump is absolutely right to challenge Jim Mattis on such a statement.

AARON MATÉ: But it looks like at least policy-wise, he stood down because he's given Mattis and the generals all the leeway that they've asked for, as far as we know.

LARRY WILKERSON: That's the scary thing about this array of general officers around Trump. They're very persuasive. They seem very rational and they've always got a bugaboo in the closet that you need to spend a billion or two dollars to keep from coming out of the closet. That's the way empires go down. They imagine more and more threats. They imagine more and more need for military force. They build a complex to support that imagination that makes tons of money off that imagination, that military, industrial, Congressional, university, think tank, research, you name it, everybody's involved in it now, complex. And that becomes a self-licking ice cream cone. Worse, it becomes self-destroying instrument of the nation. That's what we're doing to ourselves today.

AARON MATÉ: And you know, Colonel? Those trillions of dollars that you mentioned that we've spent on the so-called "War on Terror," a lot of that is separate from the conventional budget for the military that I talked about in the intro, right? So, Congress has just now voted to remove spending caps on the military, clearing the way for 1.4 trillion dollars in spending over two years. On top of that comes all the extra war money that's added in in a separate budget, if I have it correct. Can you comment on that, the removal, especially, of these spending caps.

LARRY WILKERSON: I think it's, I think that's a necessity in and of itself because it forces the Congress to go back and do its job instead of allowing the budget caps to do its job for it, and being lazy and fat, which the Congress generally is. But I don't like it in terms of the Defense Department because they're already getting too much money. The slush fund, the so-called OCO, the Overseas Contingency account, continues to be funded. That was supposed to be a one-time thing for George W. Bush's administration when we started the response to 9/11. Look, it's been going on now for 16 or 17 years. This is unappropriated money, really. It's not through the appropriations process, so it doesn't have the oversight. Military's spending it on everything now. It's not just a war fund. They're spending it on everything, including what they're really hurting in is personnel and gaining personnel for the armed forces. But if you look at this budget and you look at the money that's being spent and you understand that the money that's being spent is not clearly identified. It's not transparent.

Let me give you a really vivid example of this. I was talking to a former Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Sarasota, Florida this week. He told me that the bill for the veterans we have produced in the Afghan, Iraq and associated hostilities like Syria, Somalia, Niger, and so forth, that bill is going to top a trillion dollars over the next five to ten years, and maybe as much as 10 over the life of those veterans. This is never factored in because we don't plan on spending that money to the degree we should. We don't plan on taking care of these veterans. But that's what we should be doing and that's what we should be looking at if we're being transparent about the cost of the Pentagon. The costs are vastly more than those we see and those we see are even vastly more than we need.

AARON MATÉ: Colonel, we just have one minute, but let me tell you about this poll that was in the Military Times, presumably a heavy readership of military veterans or at least people who are interested in the military. A poll says that 89% of them oppose the idea of Trump's parade. Your final thoughts as we wrap today.

LARRY WILKERSON: Every veteran who has sent me an email, including my veterans at William & Mary and elsewhere that have sent me an email or communicated with me by phone or whatever has said, "Are you kidding me? Who said we were Mussolini? Who said we were Hitler? Who said we were Kim Jong-un?" This is how the veterans with whom I communicate have relayed their views to me. They see it as something that a democracy shouldn't be doing and on top of that, they see it as something that's going to consume time, preparation, money, and so forth that needs to be done, spent, you know, elsewhere.

AARON MATÉ: We'll leave it there. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, thank you.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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