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Lawrence Wilkerson: Obama painting himself into a corner, Congress handing him the paint

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

And in Washington, when it comes to foreign policy issues, of course Syria is being talked about hot and heavy. But the bigger picture is Iran. In fact, most people think the reason the United States is interested in Syria is because of Iran.

Well, in the last few days, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and now an often-contributor to The Real News Network, was on the Hill talking to senators and congressmen about what’s happening in Iran and vis-à-vis the United States and Israel. And he now joins us. Thank you for joining us.


JAY: So what’s the mood about what’s happening in Iran on the Hill?

WILKERSON: There are three aspects of it to me that were disconcerting. One is a constant admission from both Republican and Democrat alike that the political space is very, very small, if at all, for maneuver. That has a lot to do with the herd mentality, and especially the herd mentality vis-à-vis Israel. That is to say, almost no one is really willing to lead the way in a charge that could be interpreted in any way, fashion, or form as being even neutral, let alone against Israel. So that’s complicating matters for having maneuverability.

JAY: Does this have to do with funding or actual votes?

WILKERSON: I think it has to do with actual votes. When you start looking at some of the—for example, some of the harebrained proposals to amend the current banking legislation, things like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and her staff suggesting that we put a part in there that says no U.S. citizen, period—diplomat, soldier, Marine, admiral, anyone—can talk to an Iranian, that it’s material support to terrorism, if you will, and punishable, these are the kinds of lunacies that more sober, sane people have had to deal with on the staff in drafting some of this sanctions legislation.

JAY: So this is like a competition to show how militant you are [crosstalk]

WILKERSON: Precisely. And so that limits the maneuver space for—in fact, you get a very senior staffer who says, we’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished given the obstacles. And yet what they’ve accomplished—and they’re somewhat aware of this, perhaps not as intensely as they should be—is not supportive of a real, solid diplomatic track. In fact, it is probably antithetical to a real, solid diplomatic track, so much so that it brings me to my second point (before you interrupted me), that not only is there not space for maneuver, but what has become diplomacy is sanctions.

There is no other aspect to the diplomacy. Diplomacy equals sanctions, sanctions equal diplomacy. It’s not going to work. It’s simply not going to work. So if on the one hand you’ve said Iran approaching red lines or having a nuclear weapon is unacceptable, and on the other hand said all options are still on the table—well, you’re running out of options fast if your diplomacy is not geared to work.

JAY: Do people on the Hill seem aware that the American intelligence agencies have still not said anything other than there is no plan in Iran to have a nuclear weapon, that Leon Panetta said a couple weeks ago, testifying to Congress, that Iran has not decided to build a bomb? I mean, do people on the Hill—are they aware of where this conversation’s at, the IAEA has no evidence that there is a nuclear weapon?

WILKERSON: I think the more studied amongst them, the ones who actually look at this issue hard and examine it. And you say, well, aren’t they all doing that? No. Aren’t their staffs all doing that? No. That’s—that might worry you. It concerns me as a citizen. But no, they’re not taking that kind of level of detail approach to it.

And part of the reason is (and I’ll admit this on my own behalf; there’s no question in my mind as a military man, as a diplomat would-be, as a citizen) that Iran’s intention is, at a minimum, to get to the point where they would—as one of their own people said recently, we want to be like Japan, where they could build a nuclear weapon in roughly a heartbeat. That’s—I think that is what they’re driving towards.

JAY: So let’s say it is. So then—.

WILKERSON: Remember, they is a very amorphous thing, too. They—Iran, has as much decision dissension in its ranks right now as we do in ours.

JAY: Well, so, first of all, for the record, Iran denies all of this. There’s still not yet any evidence other than that they have a nuclear energy program. IAEA says there are some unanswered questions that need to be resolved and then people can reach their own conclusions.

WILKERSON: I agree your facts are correct. But we’re talking here not about an interpretation of capabilities at the moment but intent over time. And the latter is much more difficult to ascertain by intelligence professionals or whomever than the former.

JAY: Okay. So you knowing all this, you, if I understand correctly, think diplomacy is the answer.


JAY: Why?

WILKERSON: I do, but real diplomacy.

JAY: So what does that mean?

WILKERSON: Real diplomacy means that you’re willing to bilaterally and multilaterally—because we’ve trapped ourselves, in this case, into P5+1, going at it by sitting down, talking, talking, talking, until you recognize in the conversation, as Ambassador Dobbins and Ambassador Pickering have pointed out recently, what it is you want, because you don’t know what you want until you get into that dialog. You can’t. You may express what you want, and it may be almost like ultimata on both sides, but you don’t know what you want until you get into negotiations and begin to feel the other side out and understand what you might get.

JAY: Now, a lot of people we’ve talked to have suggested that the real issue here isn’t the weapon anyway. The real issue is Israel does not want to have Iran as such a power in the region. They particularly don’t want Iran beefing up Hezbollah and Hamas. And it’s really about that more than it is about the weapon.

WILKERSON: Well, now you hit my third point that I was going to make originally.

JAY: Go ahead.

WILKERSON: It is simply that it appears to me that wittingly or unwittingly both the White House and the legislature have adopted a policy of regime change and not diplomacy. And that’s frightening. I could see, for example, as happened to Bill Clinton in ’97 or ’98, as I recall, when he was forced by, then, a Republican legislature, essentially, to sign a piece of legislation that declared official U.S. policy regime change in Iraq—and like other presidents he might have thought he could control that, and for the end of his administration he did. But the Republicans, George W. Bush, my administration, was able to use that as buttressing for what they eventually did in Iraq. It was official U.S. policy, a regime change. I think we may be headed towards that kind of legislation with regard to Iran.

JAY: Now, Biden, and Obama himself, when they ran in the primaries in ’08, both said, if you didn’t want Iran as a regional power, you shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, Obama said, and Biden said, if you don’t want them to have nuclear weapons, stop threatening regime change.

WILKERSON: And you shouldn’t have, I might add, recognized them as the hegemon in the Gulf for 26 years when they had our tyrant in control, ’53 to ’79.

JAY: Do you think—from what you can tell on the Hill, your sense of the politics of D.C., is regime change the Obama administration plan? Is it a Netanyahu play with the Republicans?

WILKERSON: For us I think—I used this metaphor yesterday. I think the president is painting himself into a corner and the legislature’s handing him the paint. And I don’t know how you stop that, except by, you know, retracting the paint, getting rid of the brush, or whatever. But that’s what’s happening. We’ve got a legislature that has no political space to maneuver. Israel surely complicates that majorly.

And we’ve got a president who thinks he can control the situation, at least through the election, and so that it doesn’t damage his chances to be reelected. And he’s, yet, unleashed these—not just rhetoric, but also these lack of rhetoric in key places, that is to say, not showing the courage to push back against some of this. That is putting him in a position where he’s going to wake up, as John Kennedy did, for example, in ’61, and he’s going to have a plan, and the plan’s going to have to be executed, and it’s going to be the Bay of Pigs, only it’s going to be with regard to Iran and it’s going to be far more catastrophic than the Bay of Pigs turned out to be, in my view.

It’s the closing down of space. It is the closing down of maneuver room. It’s putting all the instruments of our government into one bag, tying Israel to that bag, and saying, let’s go forward from here. That’s not a very wide space to go forward in.

JAY: Our correspondent in Israel was just at a security conference she covered, and some of the top Israeli security people were saying, just get used to it; Iran’s going to have the capability to have a nuclear weapon; and essentially said, well, so what? They were saying this—you can’t call this an existential threat. So we’re not hearing any of this kind of conversation over here.

WILKERSON: I heard a little bit of it, and I enjoyed joining in a very friendly debate that ultimately—with several staffers and one member, that ultimately ended, I think, in our implicit agreement that, yeah, it wasn’t existential, and we all knew that. But we appreciated Tel Aviv’s position, and we particularly appreciated Netanyahu’s position.

At that point, someone suggested that they knew that—and I have no reason to doubt this person’s expertise in this regard, that Netanyahu and his closest advisers right now are toying with the idea of calling an election and using that win—and this is interesting, because the individual there knew more about Israel’s history than I did—said no prime minister who’s ever done this has won, has subsequently won. And then I said, well, what do you think about Netanyahu’s chances? Very good, very good at winning.

So he would use this mandate, as it were, being reelected and having called the elections himself, as an expression of majority Israeli opinion in agreement with whatever he wanted to do. And given the U.S. election coming up, and given the hands-tied atmosphere that it’s going to create for President Obama, then he would go ahead and execute. He would—in this period of opportunity, if you will, rather than immunity, he would go ahead and execute, expecting, fully expecting that the United States would pick up the pieces in whatever way they needed to to make sure it was a successful series of strikes. That’s very worrisome. I don’t have to believe that scenario. I think it’s further out, if it’s going to happen, than between now and the election. But I understand the individual’s point, and I understand his reasoning, and I can see how he arrived at the conclusions he came to.

JAY: So, based on what you saw on the Hill the other day, do you find some voices that are raised against this kind of a policy?

WILKERSON: I find a lot of understanding on the Democratic side, some on the Republican side, that when we got Senator Kirk from Illinois, for example, to sign up as a cosponsor on the Incidents at Sea agreement, I think that was an indication that he’s beginning to understand the catastrophic nature of war with Iran. I think the understanding’s there. But, again, you can have all the understanding the world; if you don’t give them maneuver space, if you don’t have political opportunity to do what you need to do to move out courageously and forcefully, to say what you feel and to put that feeling into some kind of support for the White House and, ultimately, for diplomacy, it’s of no consequence.

One person said this, which I thought was very, very appropriate, sadly enough. This person is about 75. I feel like we’re in Vietnam again. And he was not talking about comparing Vietnam with Iran or Iraq or anything; he was talking about the decision-making atmosphere, that when McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow and LBJ were thinking about the escalation in ’65 and then afterwards, and Nixon and Kissinger, too, trying to end it, they felt trapped. They couldn’t go this way, they couldn’t go that way, because the circumstances were trapping them into a certain mode of decision-making. It couldn’t be truer about ’65 and LBJ and the decision to escalate and, essentially, put 500,000 Americans in Vietnam, finally. It is that kind of environment.

JAY: So what would break that?

WILKERSON: Wow. Successful secret diplomacy, which I pray to God is going on right now, that there are these kind of talks going on right now wherever.

JAY: So, I mean, what I take from what you’re saying is, if the objective really is about the nuclear weapons program, there are negotiations and diplomacy that could probably be effective. If your real objective is regime change, then you ain’t interested in diplomacy.

WILKERSON: Let me back up and say now I’m not sure that the diplomacy could be effective even if you did it right. But we haven’t even tried. That’s my concern. We haven’t even tried. And until you’ve tried, you’re guilty.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.


JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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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.