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Col. Larry Wilkerson speaking at the National Press Club the day before the official AIPAC Conference. The alternative conference was titled: ‘U.S.-Israel Relations and Middle East Policy’

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SPEAKER: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is up next. And his bio is incredibly long, and he has a lot to talk about, so I’m going to shorten it. He is going to talk about is the U.S. ramping up its military presence in Syria and preparing to attack Iran for Israel. And his last position in the government was Secretary of State Colin Powell his chief of staff from 2002 to 2005 and before serving. OK. I’m really shortening it. Before serving at the State Department Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army, and he retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel and has taught national security affairs in the honors program at George Washington University in New York. You’re currently Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, and you’re working on a book about the first George Bush administration. Welcome.

LARRY WILKERSON: And thank you all for being here. I’m the last speaker, I get that distinction. If this were a military audience I’d ask you to stand up and do five minutes of calisthenics just to make sure you don’t doze off. I have to identify myself with the remarks that were just made. Over some 400 students, graduate and undergraduate, and 12 years on two university campuses, and 6 years with about a thousand students at two of the nation’s most prestigious war colleges.

We have determined, although it would be probably difficult to prove, and that’s the reason we have covert operations, that Lyndon Johnson not only knew the gory details of the Israeli attack on USS Liberty in the eastern Mediterranean, he also knew about what was just told you. That is to say, he knew the uranium was being diverted. He knew Israel was building a bomb, and he chose not to do anything about it. That’s not my subject today.

Although I could talk on that sort of thing forever, as I’m sure Jefferson could, too, these days I believe one gets the best insights into Israeli security policy, and perhaps even into Israeli policy writ large, which you’ve heard a lot about today, from the Russian emigre to Israel. A former foreign minister and now its defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. Whether it’s his calling Arab members of the Knesset war criminals or declaring the Jewish people should leave France, or claiming that the next military action against Hamas in Gaza will be the last, or contradicting his own military chief by denying there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, or stating categorically that the IDF will stop at nothing in order to win, reminding me a great deal of Dick Cheney, Lieberman is the living face of Bibi Netanyahu’s Zionist policies. I sometimes think he would have rather remained in Russia so long as it was the Soviet Union and as so long as he were in a significant position of power there. In addition to reminding me of Cheney, he is reminiscent of and indeed might well be a late version of Joseph Stalin.

As an aside, it is intriguing, and I think well outside the usual conspiracy theory, to consider whether or not Lieberman has been intimated of our own President Trump might be an NKVD, GRU, KGB, FSB, you name it, plant. That is, an agent of Vladimir Putin. He has, more or less, forged most of the 1 million Russian emigres since 1991 into a formidable political force forming the political party that has more than once played kingmaker in the Israeli political scene. What a strategic coup for Vladimir. The master chess player in the world today in my estimation, while everyone else plays a really lousy game of checkers. It would be quite a coup for him.

Of far more concern at the moment and readily provable, unlike what I just said, Lieberman exemplifies where Israel is headed. Toward a massive confrontation with the various powers arrayed against it, a confrontation that will suck America in and perhaps terminate the experiment that is Israel, and do irreparable damage to the empire that America has become.

Lieberman will speak in April in New York City at the annual conference of the Jerusalem Post. The title is, quote: “The new war with Iran,” unquote. It is clear that he’s in the forefront of promoting this war. And nowhere does my concern about such a war focus more acutely at the moment than in Syria. As president of France Emmanuel Macron described it recently, quote: “The current rhetoric of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel is pushing the region toward conflict with Iran,” unquote. In that triad no state is doing that more than Israel. Listen to Netanyahu in January at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. Quote: “The greatest danger that we face of hatred for the Jewish people and the Jewish state comes from Iran. It comes from the ayatollah regime that is fanning the flames of anti-Semitism,” unquote.

This anti-Semitism bit of course, as we’ve heard today, almost always a weapon of choice for Israeli politicians under stress, hurled in this case at the country whose Jewish population, by the way, the largest in the Middle East outside Turkey and Israel, lives in Iran in reasonable peace. And don’t forget that these words are uttered by the man who is, as we’ve heard here today briefly, doing everything he can to expel dark skinned African refugees largely from Eritrea and Sudan from Israel, where most have come as legitimate refugees. President Trump’s wall on the Mexican border is nothing compared to Bibi’s actual policies.

More recently Bibi’s performance at the Munich Security Conference bordered on the infantile, and yet effective when you think about the audience to whom he’s speaking, is he held aloft an alleged piece on the alleged Iranian drone and asked Mr. Zarif if he recognized it. Of course Mr. Zarif later took his occasion at the microphone to characterize Netanyahu’s performances like that of a circus clown. Pretty good characterization, as a matter of fact. But I like the comment of Lebanon’s defense minister even better. It went to the point. He said that he had an Israeli drone over his head virtually 24/7. That comment put the hypocrite that Netanyahu is in the right perspective.

Of late, of course, Tel Aviv is increasingly using Iran’s presence in Syria, its support for President Bashar al Assad, and its alleged drive, and I love this one. My military comrades love it too. For a Shia corridor from Tehran to Aden as the hoary beast that must not be at any cost, including, of course, American treasure and lives, as his probable cause and existential prompt for action. That Israel has in support such disparate figures as Nikki Haley at the United Nations, Jim Mattis at the Pentagon, Rex Tillerson at State, as well as the usual suspects from outside the world of warmed-over neoconservatives, is indicative of such policy. But it’s not just the usual suspects from the world of neocons, about whom I knew quite a bit, having experienced them in 2001 and ’02 and ’03.

Take, for example, my South Carolinian, fellow South Carolinian, Lindsey Graham speaking four days ago after a breathless trip to Israel. A bipartisan trip, he called it. I don’t know how anybody could use that term. And I caution, you know, don’t laugh, Because Lindsey was serious, I think. But anything bipartisan with regard to Israel? Call it unanimity. Call it absolute unanimity, anything but bipartisan. In fact, The proper words are probably overwhelming and an unprecedented unanimity. In fact, the only issue that does unify the United States Congress other than mom and apple pie.

But Graham had this to say. Quote: “Anytime you leave a meeting or the request is ammunition, ammunition, ammunition, that’s probably not good.” That’s Lindsey. I know Lindsey well. “This was the most unnerving trip I’ve had in a while,” he said breathlessly, again.

Graham went on to assert that, quote: “When they tell you we want help to deal with the blowback that might come from attacks on civilian targets where, where Hezbollah has integrated military capability. That was so striking. That was striking.” End of quote. And then Senator Coons, who up until this time I’ve had some respect for. Fairly sane and sober senator from Delaware reported that quote, “The tempo in terms of potential conflict in Syria has gone up astronomically. The technologies Iran is projecting into Syria and southern Lebanon has gone up. Iran’s willingness to be provocative, to push the edges of the envelope to challenge Israel has gone up.” End of quote.

Coons reported this almost as breathlessly as Lindsey. What the highest tech nation on earth in Syria, the United States of America, that is all Coons could derive from his visit, that the country that spends less than 1 percent of what the U.S. spends on its national security has introduced new technologies in Syria. Technologies that threaten the country Israel to whom the U.S. bounty is limitless. This is Josef Goebbels territory. Karl Rove is envious. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies as the heir to the Project for a New American Century, Bill Kristol’s Iraq bound think tank, leads that pack of wolves disguised as warmed over neocons lavishly funded by the likes of Paul Singer. It’s even spawned the Institute for the Study of War, a fascinating Orwellian title if there ever was one. It should be the Institute for War.

I’ve been asked, why is it that you ascribe to FTD and now the ISW such nefarious motives? I was asked this by the New York Times editorial staff when they published my op-ed on Iran a few days ago. My answer is simple: because that is precisely what FTD is attempting to do, just as Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Office of Special Plans did in 2002 and 2003 for Richard Bruce Cheney to lead us into war with Iraq. I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need the tour. The salient question, though, why do you believe that America is headed for a struggle with Iran, needs an answer.

Certainly America’s unquestioning support is required, as has been the case from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to the rapture seeking Mike Pence and the tweeter and king Donald Trump. But it seems that recently Lieberman and Netanyahu and their acolytes in this country, amongst which I put at the top Nikki Haley, have determined that it would be best if American troops also participated in the overthrow of the Tehran regime.

From one point of view I suppose this is understandable, the crassly opportunistic point of view that is that better to squander your own allies’ blood and treasure than your own. But it’s certainly not in the character that I’m used to with regard to the state of Israel and certainly not with regard to Israeli Defense Force. That that force could handle anything Iran or that it militarily is undeniable. Any military professional will tell you that. And that Israel’s more than 200 nuclear warheads could decimate Iran is equally undeniable. So why this attempt to suck America into this conflict.

I believe the answer is fairly clear once you push aside the cobwebs that surround it. The legitimacy of great power is what I call it, and that is precisely what Netanyahu and Lieberman desire. It’s also what Riyadh desires especially within the new boy king Mohammed bin Salman, now and erstwhile ally of Israel. In short, the IDF could defend Israel but could it–it could not attack Iran. Not successfully, anyway. And were it to do so it would be damned internationally and thus isolated even more than it already is today, perhaps devastatingly so. But America, already damned well more than half the world. Polls show at least four billion people think we’re the number one threat to their security in the world. Think about that for a minute. We’ve already done Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Afghanistan would be just be seen as continuing the trend. Besides, America has the military capacity, and here’s the long pole in the tent, to project the power needed to unseat swiftly the regime in Tehran.

Swiftly in terms of Saddam Hussein, for example, not swiftly in terms of taking care of 75 million people, each one of which, in a very rugged and strategically deep terrain, would want to kill every damned American in the country, along with probably half the rest of the Arabs in the area.

So there’s only one significant hangup that I see with this strategy that Netanyahu and Lieberman are pushing. Embroiled in his own legal problems that just might send him to jail, as such problems would likely have sent Sharon to jail had he not been in really bad shape at the end of his prime ministership, they’re both headed for war. Of that I’m convinced.

They will use Iran’s allegedly existential to Israel presence in Syria, which is becoming even more so from a military perspective every day, Hezbollah’s accumulation of some 150000 missiles, if we believe our intelligence agencies, the need to set Lebanon’s economy back yet again, that’s important. Look at what they’re deliberating right now with regard to the new, very, very rich gas find in the eastern Mediterranean with Israel claiming Section 9 and Lebanon claiming Section 9. Take that, Lebanon, we’re going to bomb you then you’ll let us have it. And that will be their excuse. And we’re looking at them taking on, and this is a point that all military people understand, a country that couldn’t beat Iraq in eight years of brutal, bloody war. An Iraq that we beat in 19 days. So this is a colossal threat that they’re up against.

And men such as H.R. McMaster are helping them. The much heralded author of Dereliction of Duty. Great title. And a man who knows about as much about Iran as I do about the eighth planet in the 95th solar system in the 50th galaxy past our own. And here’s a hope I have. Let’s hope that the Chessmaster in chief, old Vladimir Putin, he that ruins elections from Paris to Peoria, is smart enough once again not to let this happen. I fear he will not be. We might have the stirrings of 1914, as utterly stupid as we now know those stirrings to have been.

People to whom I mentioned such possibilities, people who are critically analytical and normally fairly sound in their thinking, respond that, well, don’t you consider that sort of dreary prognosis a little bit overdrawn? My rejoinder is usually something a bit too clever, perhaps, but along these lines: Don’t you think a number of people said that in the summer of 1914? Ah, they respond, but have we not learned so much since then.

I’ll let you be the judge of that, and inform you only that in my considered view we have learned very little, and there are the ingredients right now with Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia losing dramatically in Yemen right now, and the United States and Russia at the peak of all of this to get engaged. A very distinct possibility.

I looked at this from the perspective of the political parameters. What is it that we’re confronting today in this country. And this took me down an entirely different path as I tried to figure out just how this team of McMaster, Tillerson, Kelly et all, and Trump up at the top of it, will face this sort of decision making process. And the only place I could find that remotely resembled where we are today in our past was a period in 1850 to 1860. And so about six months ago I started reading as voraciously as I could on that period. I’d done some reading but I needed to really do a lot more.

It is stunning, the similarities between that period and now, particularly in the political situation where one side of the country wouldn’t talk to the other side of the country, and vice versa. And I was struck today by some of the comments that were made that resemble the comments that were made by my region, my state fired on Fort Sumter after all, back in those days. And if that is the political situation in which this government will do its national security decision making, then we are in deeper trouble than even the prospects of a region wide and perhaps even bigger war in the Middle East. And the country that will have started it all, the relationship, unbalanced as it is, that will have made it possible, is Israel. And that’s the danger we face.

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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.