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Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says that the Trump administration and its Gulf allies are taking aim at Iran through the re-ignited dispute with Qatar. Sources also claim the Pentagon has directed U.S. troops to directly confront Iranian-backed forces inside Syria

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AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. A major Middle East feud is at its lowest point in years. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and three other Arab countries have all cut ties to the Gulf state of Qatar. They accuse the Qatari government of supporting terrorist groups and meddling in other countries’ affairs. The Saudi news agency says Qatar is “harboring a multitude of terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to create instability in the region.” That’s a charge many people have made of the Saudi regime itself. So what is really going on? It’s believed these states are united behind seeking to confront Iran, which has friendly ties with Qatar, and they may be feeling emboldened by President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Colonel Wilkerson, welcome. COL. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with this news. We have Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen all cutting ties to Qatar. Iran is pointing the finger for this melee at the Trump administration, namely because of President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. What do you make of it? COL. WILKERSON: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saudi king and perhaps some of the others who met in Riyadh discussed with President Trump doing something like this. That is to say, making a statement about terrorism. It’s rather rich that the Saudis, whom I still consider and probably will always consider as the very linchpin of support for Salafists, Wahhabists, the radical Islamist groups, if you will, in the world, are doing this on this pretense. You might remember that in 2014, they had an eight month as I recall split, where at least Saudi Arabia, maybe the Emirates, withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. This is not something that hasn’t happened before over either their animosity about Al Jazeerah, Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas or whatever, or even in some cases its cheek and jowl relationship with Israel. There were times when Saudi Arabia didn’t like that, and others too. It’s a curious thing that it happens at this moment, though, in the public way it’s happened, because immediately what it does is belie the Trump attempt to show what everyone who knows the region knows was an artificial unanimity and an artificial security cooperation group in the region led by Saudi Arabia. It defies that. It blows it all apart. Within literally the sands settling after Trump whirled out of Riyadh, this group that’s supposed to be so solid and so aimed at particularly Iran is so in disarray. I thought it was rich, too, that Rouhani came out and essentially said to Qatar, to the sheik, that if he needed any kind of food or anything like that, then Tehran would be glad to provide it, and then followed that up with, “We need to have peace here, not conflict,” insinuating of course that Saudi Arabia was the major problem in the region and not Iran. AARON MATÉ: Yeah, and the reason that Rouhani said that is because Qatar shares a border with Saudi Arabia, and I think relies on it for 40% of its food imports. COL. WILKERSON: Yeah, very difficult to get things if you don’t have that border. Also, I would say, though, that Saudi Arabia gets a lot of its liquified gas from Qatar, so they have a little bit of leverage there too. AARON MATÉ: Okay. In a second, I want to get into what you said about you thinking Saudi Arabia is the linchpin for Salafist jihadism, but let’s get into why they’re targeting Qatar. Here they are cooperating with Qatar, presumably in Yemen where there are Qatari forces fighting the Houthis. They’re also cooperating, they’re on the same side at least, in Syria, both supporting the same rebel or jihadist forces. Why go after Qatar now? COL. WILKERSON: The Saudis of course see Qatar as being a double agent, if you will, in the region. They see them working with, as I said, from time to time Israel. They see them working with rather consistently Iran, or at least taking Iran’s position from time to time. That irritates the Saudis. Let’s look at this from a more conspiratorial way, if you wish. Let’s just say that the United States is beginning to feel a little untenable in what is, as far as I know, still the largest United States Air Force complex outside the United States and perhaps even in the world. That’s the one in Qatar. It’s a magnificent, huge facility with new runways and such, but it resulted because after the first Gulf War, we got asked to leave Saudi Arabia. Are we trying to get back to Saudi Arabia? Is that what this is all about? Are we trying to get back inside the kingdom with these kinds of facilities, and if so, have this happen? Because we wouldn’t want to pay any money. The money would be exorbitant for this kind of move, but if the Saudis are going to pay it, that’s altogether a different deal. I’m not saying this is a fact, but I am saying these are the kind of devious deals that we work out with these people, particularly the Saudis. If we do want major military facilities, particular airfields and so forth, accessible to us again in Saudi Arabia as they once were, and we feel Qatar’s becoming untenable for whatever reason, then this would be a wonderful way to start the process. AARON MATÉ: I just want to understand this. This would be, under this scenario that you’re putting forward, a way in which the Trump administration works with Saudi Arabia to create a pretext for the U.S. forces to leave Qatar? COL. WILKERSON: Yeah. I’m not saying that’s the case, but I am saying that this is a delicate situation for us if it isn’t the case. That is to say, we’ve got to mollify both sides, because as I said, we have a significant if not the most significant air force facilities in Qatar in the world. They’re supporting everything we’re doing in the region from Afghanistan to Syria. AARON MATÉ: What do you think this means, then, for the Middle East? If you’re having such a harsh competition for who will be the U.S. client amongst the U.S.’s top allies at a time when it’s fighting, when everyone’s presumably or at least claiming they’re fighting the Islamic State? COL. WILKERSON: If this is a fundamental rift, if you will, if they don’t as they did in 2014, after seven or eight months they got back together again, as it were. If this were a fundamental rift, if we’ve really got a problem here, a significant problem that’s going to see sanctions from Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in real trouble, and maybe even the 2022 FIFA World Cup in jeopardy and so forth. I understand they’re shutting down airlines and everything else right now. If this is a serious rift, then it certainly gives the lie to everything Trump spoke about, everything we achieved or said we achieved in Riyadh a few weeks ago. There’s no solidarity amongst these people, and it plays right into the hands of Iran. If we’re looking at this as strictly a power game between on the one side of Gulf and on the other the majority of the GCC, then Iran is winning, winning big-time, and has been winning incidentally since we invaded Iraq in 2003 in probably the most catastrophically bad strategic decision the United States has made post-World War II. We’re still seeing the ramifications of that bad decision in the civil war in Syria. If it is a fundamental rift, if there’s truly a rift and we’ve got on one side of the GCC on one side and another side on the other side, and the strategic cooperation that Trump so touted in Riyadh is a farce and a public farce at that, then U.S. strategy is going to be in utter disarray, as it is in many respects in Syria already. AARON MATÉ: I’m wondering if we can talk a bit more about Iran in relation to this development of this Gulf state rift, and also the recent developments from the Trump administration, wrapping up the anti-Iran posture. The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that the Trump administration has created a new CIA mission center targeting Iran, and the New York Times quoted or cited some anonymous officials who said that Ezra Cohen-Watnick of the National Security Council has told other administration officials he wants to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government. COL. WILKERSON: I think this is a serious effort. When you look at all the threats that we’re confronting right now that President Trump has in essence exacerbated each one of them, whether it’s Russia, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s North Korea, China, you name it, this president has made all of those threats worse since he was inaugurated. At the same time, he is rapidly divesting the United States of its traditional allies, particularly those in Europe. This is a really bad situation, but into this bad situation comes what you just asked, and that is Iran. I think that Bannon, President Bannon if you will, really has his focus on Iran. I think that’s the ultimate place. The rest is bluster and bravado. It could be dangerous, but it is on our part bluster and bravado. What they’re really after is Iran. I have it on pretty good authority that Secretary Mattis has already directed our forces in Syria to change their rules of engagement in such a way that it allows them to go after directly what is called, in the direction, the Iranian militia, that is those Iranians inside Syria assisting the Assad regime, and its Hezbollah auxiliaries, meaning Hezbollah, the number one terrorist organization in the world in terms of capability. This is a drastic change that the American people, if it’s true, if what I’m hearing is accurate, have been told nothing about. It gets the United States deeper and deeper into this morass now called southwest Asia or the Middle East, and particularly deeper in a burgeoning conflict with Iran. They want to undermine the nuclear agreement with Iran, and they want the American people, much as George Bush wanted to see Iraq as the culprit when he invaded in 2003, and bent the intelligence to make it look that way, they want the intelligence as it were, and the situation on the ground in Syria, so that it looks like Iran is the perpetrator of the failure of the agreement rather than the United States. They hope that will bring the other members of the permanent five and Germany into league with us as we bring the war to Iran. That’s not going to happen. In their fondest dreams, that’s not going to happen. They may fool the American people, as Bush did in 2003, but they’re not about to fool the Germans, the French, and the others. This is going to be an interesting thing to see if they’re trying to indirectly bring on this war with Iran and to abrogate the nuclear agreement with Iran, how many people in the world, I predict none, will follow in our footsteps, and how big a disaster this may be for the United States. AARON MATÉ: What you say there about Mattis directing U.S. forces or giving them the leeway to increase military engagement with Iranian-backed forces inside Syria is indeed explosive. Can you talk a bit more about what that could look like on the ground, if it’s actually true? COL. WILKERSON: What we’re talking about here is an assessment by those in the administration who I think have some strategic bones in their body, people like H.R. McMaster and Mattis, that the situation in Syria is so untenable now, given the inability of the Trump administration to effect any kind of negotiation with Russia at all, given Russia’s continued support for Bashar Al-Assad, and given Assad’s more definitive progress in consolidating his own power at least in a portion of Syria, to include Damascus, all of that’s looking bad if you believe that Assad should go and that the United States is an instrument of that departure. You’ve got to change your strategy, and you’ve got to change it rather dramatically. The quickest way to do that is to increase U.S. presence on the ground, even if it’s just special operators initially, and to give them new rules of engagement, as we’ve been doing since Trump took over. We’re killing, for example, many more civilians now with our airstrikes. The rules of engagement have been loosened to the extent where you essentially just attack the target now, and you don’t essentially worry about collateral damage. We’ve already expanded the rules of engagement. We’ve already widened the war, so to speak, and we’ve already taken a position that looks as if we want to be an arbiter in the outcome of this war. Before, under the Obama administration, we shied away from that kind of approach, and we were more or less looking for others in the conflict to bring about negotiations and thus eventually a political solution. Even though we knew Erdogan and Putin in Moscow and Rouhani in Tehran and others were going to be difficult to deal with, we thought a political situation was possible. I think we’ve given up on that, and I think now we see military force, and this plays right along with Jim Mattis’s feelings about Iran, I think, which are quite dramatically opposed to Iran. We feel like an increase in force and the United States taking a very formidable as opposed to a rather neutral military position in Syria might be advantageous to us and it might eventually bring about a change of regime in Tehran, which after all has been the objective of the Republican Party for years now. I see this as the most possibly dangerous thing that’s happening right now, even with this array of other threats that look dramatically developing against U.S. interests, largely because of what Trump is doing. I see Iran as the one that they’re really going to push and really going to go after. Others see North Korea or perhaps Russia. I don’t. Not right now, anyway. I see Iran as the real problem and the one we’re going after. AARON MATÉ: Just to add some context on the issue of Mattis and his posture towards Iran, there was a New York Times report back in February, just a few weeks into President Trump’s time in office, that said that Mattis was weighing a plan in which U.S. forces would intercept and board an Iranian Navy ship in international waters, possibly sparking a firefight. The plan was scrapped, the Times said, because news of it leaked. COL. WILKERSON: Something like that would surprise me with General Mattis, but it wouldn’t surprise me with the administration. Frankly, I’ve grown to believe I was wrong in the beginning that McMaster, Kelly, and Mattis would not do anything that they thought innately desperately unstrategic, that is to say, because against America’s interests and against the U.S. armed forces’ interest. I’ve changed my mind now. I think they have been so assimilated in this administration that though they still may provide a check on it, because they do think after all, which I do not see anyone else doing from President Bannon to President Trump, they are exponents of the imperial reign of the United States of America. As the armed forces of the United States is integral to that reign, they are advocates of their use. What I think I’m seeing is a merging of what you might call Trumpism, Bannonism, and the thoughts in at least some areas like Iran of people like McMaster and Mattis. As far as I’m concerned, this is doubly dangerous because now you’ve got the armed forces feeling in sync with this bizarre president. I don’t think there could be a greater, more formidable recipe for disaster for the United States. AARON MATÉ: Finally, Colonel Wilkerson, I want to get back to where we started with Saudi Arabia. You called them the linchpin for Salafist militancy. Defenders of the Saudi regime say that even if they played a huge role in spreading Wahhabism, that they’ve changed their tune, and now Al Qaeda and ISIS are at war with them. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has done more and has taken great efforts to counter extremism. What’s your response to that? COL. WILKERSON: My response is what Colin Powell once said to me about the Saudis, and in particular we were talking about Prince Bandar, who was then ambassador to the United States. He said something like this, and this is almost verbatim. “Larry, the Saudis will always take their gold and put it on every horse in the race, and when two or three horses pull out a length or two ahead of the pack, they will shift their gold to those horses, and when one horse, if it does, pulls out ahead of that small group, they’ll shift all their gold to that horse.” What he meant by that metaphor, of course, was that the Saudis put their money on where they at the last minute think their interests reside. That’s what they’ve been doing all along. The Saudi arrangement with the Wahhabists inside Saudi Arabia and elsewhere has been, “You support the house of Saud, and we will be sufficiently Islamic to where you can do that. As long as your clerics do not go after the house of Saud, then we will be your support and even from time to time your funder. We might not be able to say, as the king or the crown prince or a minister of the Saudi government, that we’re doing this, but we will ensure that for your madrassas, for your religious fervor, for your terrorists, we will provide support when and where it is necessary.” That’s what they’ve been doing, and as far as I’m concerned, their fear now might be, that is the fear of the establishment, the government of Saudi Arabia, might be that they’ve gone too far and that they need to curb it a little bit because they see some cracks inside their own kingdom. That doesn’t excuse them in any way. In fact, if history is any guide, most countries like Saudi Arabia are ultimately the implements of their own ruin and their own death, if you will. I’m not too worried about that royal family over there getting its comeuppance. I am worried that the United States is so connected to it and so integrally connected to it, as it gets its comeuppance, and that the West in general, from London to Berlin to Paris, suffers from this connection. AARON MATÉ: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Colonel, thank you. COL. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.

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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.