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Larry Wilkerson: Why weren’t commercial flights banned over an area where aircraft had already been shot down?

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome to The Wilkinson Report with Larry Wilkerson, who now joins us.

Larry is the former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary. And he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for joining us again, Larry.


JAY: So, just before we get into this downing of the Malaysian aircraft over the Ukraine, President Obama on Friday morning made a statement. Here’s a little clip from it.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: More broadly, I think it’s important for us to recognize that this outrageous event underscores that it is time for peace and security to be restored in Ukraine. For months, we’ve supported a pathway to peace, and the Ukrainian government has reached out to all Ukrainians, put forward a peace plan, and lived up to a ceasefire, despite repeated violations by the separatists–violations that took the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and personnel.

Moreover, time and again, Russia has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to deescalate the situation.


JAY: Here’s a quote from John McCain responding to the events in Ukraine. And if people remember, in his bid to be president 2008, perhaps his most important foreign policy plank of John McCain was Russia and was going to be the main focus of U.S. foreign policy, contention with Russia, containment of Russia. Here’s what McCain said. So he outlined a number of steps the United States should take. “First,” he said, “give the Ukrainians weapons to defend themselves and regain their territory.” He said all this on Fox News. He continued, “Second of all, move some of our troops into areas that are being threatened by Vladimir Putin, other countries like the Baltics and others. Move missile defense into the places where we got out of, like the Czech Republic and Poland and other places. And impose the harshest possible sanctions on Vladimir Putin and Russia. That’s just for openers”, said McCain.

So, Larry, what do you make of the American response to all of this?

WILKERSON: I don’t know what the response is going to be ultimately. The response so far, I think, has been fairly cool, calm, and calculated.

JAY: You’re talking about the official response from Obama.

WILKERSON: Yes, yes. I don’t count John McCain as anything other than a raving maniac anymore. Listening to him makes me understand viscerally and deeply and profoundly what’s wrong with the U.S. Congress.

JAY: The response of Obama, though, essentially is saying this is Russia’s fault. Russia, Putin replied or responded by saying this is the Ukrainian government’s fault. Essentially I don’t think from what I saw of Putin–he’s not denying that it might be Russian separatists that fired the missile, but he’s saying they’re in that situation of firing missiles because Ukraine, the Ukrainian government, stepped up their campaign against the separatists. What do you make of this back-and-fourth?

WILKERSON: I think it’s typical of what happens when great powers contend with one another over a middling power or lesser power’s territory. I think it’s everybody’s fault. It’s particularly an egregious case of lack of responsibility of the ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, who should have put out notice to airmen and other precautionary notices about flying in this area. It’s not like this is the first plane that’s been shot down at some altitude. A transport was shot down, I think, at something like 6,000 meters. That’s pretty high. That means an SA-11 or even better. So I think the first blame here goes to the organization that’s supposed to keep civilian airliners out of conflict zones like this. And then the rest of the blame, the ultimate blame, the fundamental blame goes to all parties–the United States, Ukraine, the Russians–for not coming to some kind of negotiated political solution to what is a cancerous problem right there in the heart of what we used to call in the old days the continental landmass that’s so important to the rest of the world.

JAY: Now, the response from a lot of leaders around the world and a lot of the press around the world, it’s not all that far from McCain’s outrage. They’re not, perhaps, calling for such aggressive measures against Russia as McCain is, but clearly if this is what they’re describing as pro-Russian separatists–I’m not even sure that’s the right label for them, but at any rate, if it turns out it is them, I don’t think anyone would suggest they would deliberately target a passenger aircraft. The American Navy, I believe it was, shot down an Iranian aircraft in 1988 that killed almost exactly the same member number of people–298 people were killed. And that was not described in the West as an act of terrorism, while this one is.

WILKERSON: Yes, we’re probably, possibly, the biggest hypocrites on the face of the earth. In 1988, after we’d taken Iraq’s side almost wholesalely in the Persian Gulf in a very brutal and bloody war between Iraq and Iran–a war, I might add, Iraq started, then sends an Aegis cruiser on patrol in the Gulf, and having come under some fire, as I recall, immediately prior to the shoot-down, had a few seconds to react [at the] combat center and reacted and shot down an Iranian Airbus and killed–my recollection was 290 people. And that act caused Ayatollah Khomeini to, as he said himself later, throw in the towel and agree to a ceasefire and end that brutal war, which had, I think, gone on for about eight years at that point. So the United States wastes no opportunity to be hypocritical.

JAY: Now, the critique of the Russians in this specifically about this event is why are they giving such missiles to the separatists and why are they getting so involved in militarily supporting them. What do you make of that critique?

WILKERSON: I think it’s a sound critique as far as it goes. I suspect that with John McCain ranting and raving, and others like him who are not quite as outspoken as he, that we’re probably doing similar things and are planning on doing more, just as we’ve done in other places around the world.

So what we need to do, Putin, the European Union, and United States, and Ukrainians of any type, separatist or in the East, West, Crimea, Odessa, or wherever, is stop this business of killing one another and seek a political solution to the problem. I’ve said before, we need to have a neutral Ukraine, neither aligned with Russian nor the United States nor the European Union, a Ukraine that nonetheless is helped by all three to become more stable, politically and economically, and a Ukraine that is not coveted by anyone.

Now, the proximity of Ukraine to Russia certainly means that its relationship with Russia is going to be a lot closer and more intimate than it is, possibly, with others, particularly that portion in Ukraine that is Russian. And a lot of Russian military industry is in Ukraine. You can’t tell Putin that he can’t have that industry. It would take years to relocate that industry into Russia proper. So there are all sorts of complexities here that need to be taken care of. But they can be taken care of if people will quit fighting.

JAY: Now, you describe McCain as a madman, but to what extent does he represent a significant opinion in the professional foreign-policy or, perhaps more so, the military-industrial complex? He seemed to have a fair amount of support. As I say, when he ran in 2008, he was gung ho about this contention with Russia. A lot of people want this new Cold War.

WILKERSON: I don’t think a lot of people do. I think a certain number of people do. And you named some of them–Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Grumman, and others who sell weapons and want to sell more. McCain is–while I might call him a madman–and lately, lately John McCain looks just like that–he’s–nonetheless comes from the warp and woof of this country. He comes from the very fabric of this country. Go back and look at the Mexican War, which Lincoln decried from the House of Representatives and the president and others were screaming for because they wanted to extend slavery and Texas promised to be a slave territory. Go back and look at the Spanish-American war, when the Hearst press, the yellow press, so-called, was screaming and yelling about Spain and about the need for the United States to do what it needed to do in Cuba and the Philippines. Go back and look at those times and you’ll find lots of John McCains around those times. That’s not to excuse them or to say they’re right; that’s to condemn them, in my mind, and say they’re wrong. But they’re there, and they’re very American in that sense.

JAY: So, Larry, how dangerous a moment is this?

WILKERSON: It’s a dangerous moment, Paul. I won’t equivocate on that, especially if we let the John McCains rule our minds. Then we begin to think that we have to, say, arm the other side, as it were, equal to what Putin’s doing with the separatists.

But I think cooler heads will prevail here–I hope they will. And I hope we’ll investigate this, we’ll find out who did it. Blame will be assigned accordingly. And it’s an accident. I hope then the ICAO will put out the necessary /ˈnoʊtəmz/. This is a very–I understand, very heavily traveled route. We’ll get the civilian airliners away until we’ve got a political solution on the ground, and we won’t have any more shot-down and innocently killed people.

It is a dangerous moment, but it’s not one that can’t be handled it cooler heads prevail. And I think I’ve seen of late with regard to these kind of things that the White House has a pretty cool head. I hope that is sustainable.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

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


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.