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A new Pentagon study says the U.S. may be losing its dominant position in world affairs and that the DoD needs a “wakeup call”–but Col. Lawrence Wilkerson says the report is really about using fear to drum up more money for the military

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. A new Pentagon study explores whether U.S. hegemony is coming to an end. The U.S. army [inaudible 00:00:18] Strategics Studies Institute says, “While the U.S. remains a global political, economic, and military giant, it no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors. In brief, the status quo that was hatched and nurtured by U.S. strategists after World War II, and has for decades been the principle beat for the Pentagon is not merely fraying, but may, in fact, be collapsing.” Well, joining me is someone who has seen the status quo from the inside. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is a former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and currently a distinguished professor at the College of William & Mary. Colonel, welcome. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. This report is interesting, lamenting the potential collapse of the status quo. You’ve read this study. Tell us about it. LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s an acknowledgement. I might say I’m rather ashamed of the Pentagon if this is the first time they’ve really thought about it. The Army War College is, as you pointed out, sort of the Pentagon’s in-house … The army’s in-house think tank. Rather ashamed of them from coming to this realization so late. That’s one point. This has been happening since the end of the Cold War. It was quite obvious that it was going to happen because since 1972 markedly and dramatically American power has been diminishing for two reasons. One because others’ power, China leading the pack if you will, has been growing. Two because the United States power has, in fact, been diminishing. Whether it’s the power of the dollar, the power of our economy with unprecedented debt. We have a debt now that no human concoction in 5,000 years of human history has ever contemplated. I’m not even sure that we can contemplate it correctly today. Witness the Congress being able to do absolutely nothing about it. We are in a situation that was quite apparent with the end of the Cold War, and certainly in the decade after the Cold War. To come to the realization that power is shifting in the world at this point is sort of a blinding flash of the obvious. I’m a little bit ashamed of the guys for taking so long to get to it. The second point though that I make about this study is its alarming sort of the sky is falling nature with regard to what I would call what built up in the post-Cold War era. The post-World War II era, rather, during the Cold War, that being a military industrial complex and all that it has come to mean today, special interests at large. The fact that the military, the study at least, is lamenting the passing of this, which is to say that they’re lamenting the passing of their cash cow. That this war and this Cold War, and the wars that follow it and 9-11 and so forth and so on, invasion of Iraq, have all been a cash cow for the military. They’re now lamenting the passing of this cash cow. They want to reestablish it. They want to move out swiftly and reestablish all the needs in the world, and the U.S. hegemony in the world that brings that cash cow into play big time. That’s disturbing. AARON MATE: Now, if this is a new epiphany for the Pentagon what do you think prompted them to come to this realization now as opposed to before? Obviously there have been many policy papers of this type in the past. LARRY WILKERSON: Well, it’s a very professional use, if somewhat pedantic, of one of the most powerful elements of politics, fear. If you frighten the American people into thinking that somehow this shift of power in the world is ultimately to their disadvantage, even overwhelming to their disadvantage, rather than looking at it as something that was inevitable and it would have to be dealt with over time, and could be dealt with and managed adequately and maintain their security and their prosperity, if you on the other hand point out to them that this is extremely a dangerous development, perilous development even, existential development even, and that they need to give more money to the Pentagon, yet more billions of taxpayer dollars to the Pentagon and to the military instrument, and to Lockheed and to [inaudible 00:04:51] and so forth and so on, then that’s their cash cow. They’re afraid they’re going to lose it, so you use the politics of fear to frighten the American people, to frighten their representatives in the congress. You get more money. It’s that simple. There’s nothing complex about this. It’s too simple, as a matter of fact. AARON MATE: That’s interesting. As they lament the decline of the military industrial complex, their answer is not maybe to abandon the approach of propping it up, but actually to advocate pumping even more resources into it. LARRY WILKERSON: Yes, absolutely. This latest thing by the president, if the president initiated it, maybe H.R. McMaster initiated it, maybe [Jim Madison 00:05:32] initiated it, the study of the industrial base and so forth. This is part and parcel of this. Let’s scare the American people. Let’s tell them that we can’t build ships that Donald Trump wants for his 350 plus ship navy because we’ve let our shipyards atrophy. Let’s tell them that we can’t build the airplanes that we might need to build because we’ve let that talent atrophy. Oh, Lockheed would salivate at that. Let’s have more F-35s. Let’s have more of these bombers the air force wants to buy that are going to be a billion dollars a piece. Let’s have more of this stuff. This is the way you frighten the American people into giving you what you want. Again, I’m ashamed of the Pentagon for letting this kind of strategic talk come out at a time when they’re already so flushed with cash that their slush fund, for example, is being used by the land forces, the army in particular, to feed into its [inaudible 00:06:28] problems, particularly with people, and actually buttress the all-volunteer force, for example, which is a failure. It’s an ethical, moral, and physical failure, and yet we won’t even talk about it. These are the real problems the military confronts, but all it wants is more money. AARON MATE: Colonel, when you say slush fund do you mean the money that’s allocated outside of the Pentagon budget that goes towards funding overseas wars? LARRY WILKERSON: Absolutely. Yeah. The so-called OCOO fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund, which is supposed to pay for war. It’s being stolen from every which way to maintain readiness and other things. They use that also as an argument, oh, so [inaudible 00:07:07] congressional committees. Uh oh, you see why we’re doing this. We’re doing this because you’re not giving us enough money in the appropriated system. The budget caps are killing us and so forth. My goodness gracious. My goodness gracious. They’re getting $600 billion and the National Security Complex is getting over $1 trillion counting Department of Energy and nuclear weapons, counting veterans affairs, counting the intelligence budget, counting the [150 budget 00:07:35] at the State Department. They’re getting over $1 trillion every year. This is nonsense. They need to use that money more wisely and this kind of strategic effort is not wisdom. AARON MATE: I just want to underline that for people who might not be familiar with it. Those budget caps that the colonel mentions, those have been put in place by law to limit how much the U.S. can spend on things like the military. One way that’s avoided is to spend money on the military through other means, like the slush fund that the colonel just explained. LARRY WILKERSON: Exactly. Another way to do it, of course, is to just rip, pillage, and plunder all those funds that are out there for poor people, for poverty, for other issues that confront this country, for infrastructure development, for the kinds of things we need to do to confront climate change, and so forth. You just strip those funds of money and give them to the military. I mean, it is a zero sum game when it comes to the budget, even though we do have the hugest debt in the history of the human race. AARON MATE: Getting back to the content of this report, there’s some curious language that they use when to comes to facts. They talk about fact [inaudible 00:08:42], fact perilous, fact toxic, suggesting perhaps that the facts are an obstacle to U.S. goals. LARRY WILKERSON: I think what they’re trying to say there is exactly what we were talking about earlier. They’re trying to use the things that are in the world today in terms of power shifts, in terms of shifting landscape that looks like it’s in chaos, and in some respects is, and incidentally that chaos was in large part begun by us post-Cold War when we started exercising our hegemony, particularly under George W. Bush, in ways that were inimical to the interest of so many other people in the world. They started to push back. They’re talking about all these things being in essence things that build and build to the disinterest on the United States, even to the danger of the United States. Having more or less pointed out that during … This is a republican mantra, but it comes from the Army War College in this case, having built on such inadequacies as they think they were of the Obama administration, which tried I think somewhat incoherently at first but towards the end fairly coherently to understand what was happening, understand the power shift that was taking place, and began to accommodate it with instruments of national power other than the military, which is the way you deal with power changes like this. You can’t go around the world bashing everybody and think that that’s going to be what keeps you in prosperity and in security. You can’t do that. You’ve got to use your other instruments of national power. What the military sees is that if that is the case then that money’s going to come away from the military to do these other things that you need to do. Contrary to that viewpoint, of course Donald Trump is stripping the State Department of millions of dollars and essentially giving the Defense Department more money. There’s not a direct exchange there, but he’s reversed what President Obama and Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton set up in the beginning, which was a recognition by both departments that diplomacy was not getting enough money. The military needed to share in the exchange as it were, that is to say some more money needed to go to state. Trump has reversed that, put more money in the military very, very aggressively, so put more money in the miliary and striped state of some of its billions. We’re emphasizing the military instrument, but we’re not emphasizing the other elements of power, which are necessary in this new world. The military wants that to continue apparently, and wants to even deepen the divide between the other instruments and its own. That’s bureaucratically understandable, but it’s not very healthy for the country. AARON MATE: Finally, Colonel, let me ask you, we know from internal planners, like those who wrote this piece, that they see emerging states like China as among the threats to U.S. hegemony. I’m wondering, though, when it comes to those who are on the inside how they regard global grassroots movements? I’m thinking of the Arab Spring especially. Does that factor at all into their conception of what challenges U.S. power? LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah, it’s one of those stack facts that gives them fright. Fright not so much for the very aspect of the danger presented by the Arab Spring, for example, but because something else with regard to national power might be called upon to deal with that rather than the military. If that’s the case, you’re going to lose money. Let’s look at North Korea for just a minute. North Korea could be solved probably in 18 months. How would you go about solving it? You’d go about solving it by recognizing. You’d have empathy. You’d recognize what Pyongyang’s major concerns are. Don’t talk about the regime for a minute or two. I know it’s a terrible regime. It’s an evil regime. It’s a criminal regime. Forget that for a minute. It’s easy to do if you know what you’re doing. You say, “Okay, let me see what I think about Kim Jong-un. Why is he really possessed of a nuclear weapon? Why did his predecessor develop a nuclear weapon?” It’s clear. Because of the U.S. presence, exercise, training, and so forth on the Korean Peninsula. Well, if that presence is not really all that essential, isn’t that negotiable? Isn’t that what North Korea wants? In a 18 month period with real negotiations starting with, say, trading exercises of U.S. forces on the peninsula, and a cessation there too for, let’s say, a cessation of ballistic missile testing, which I believe is very feasible. You could get that to happen. You could begin a negotiating process that at the end you would have South Korea fully capable of defending itself, and the U.S. able to augment that defense if it needed to but not visibly present on the peninsula 24/7 and not exercising and training and frightening North Korea. You would have North Korea not doing some of the things that it’s doing today. With that start, you could probably work out [inaudible 00:14:07] that the South Koreans could then flow into over time and probably bring about a unification of the peninsula with Seoul as the capital, not Pyongyang. Now, let’s say who doesn’t want that to happen. We’re always talking about the Chinese not wanting that to happen. That’s probably true because they don’t want 70 plus million Koreans beavering away on their border the way the Koreans do, as opposed to 47 million. They’re perfectly happy with a basket case case between those 50 million or so South Koreans who are really economically successful and those others in the north who aren’t. The United States is opposed to unification, too. The United States doesn’t want unification because it doesn’t want a country of 70 plus million Koreans beavering away and being economically a powerhouse contending with Japan and so forth without a U.S. presence there to sort of temper them from time to time. We’ve got to back up and look at this entirely differently than we have for the last 50 years or so if we want to make progress. That’s what I mean by taking a different approach to some of these problems. You notice that approach does not require the military, except in the background. What have you just done? You’ve threatened the United States army four star command on the Korean Peninsula, and by implication you’ve threatened the navy four star command in Honolulu because that’s a sub-unified command in Korean of that command. You’ve threatened two of the [inaudible 00:15:34] for four stars in the military complex. You don’t want to do that because when you do that you get the military as one of your opponents. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about goes into this report is the defense of the status quo, and it’s defense of the status quo in a way that says not only do we need to maintain that status quo, we need to beef it up. What that means is more money to the military. AARON MATE: Yeah. Just to highlight that point, I mean, right now in South Korea you have 27,000 or something U.S. troops there who certainly could not stick around if Korea was ever to be united. Colonel, let me also say to you- LARRY WILKERSON: [crosstalk 00:16:14]. Look at what else you’re threatening. You’re threatening Lockheed Martin and [inaudible 00:16:18] and the military industrial complex who want to sell that billion of dollars of high altitude missile defense to South Korea. AARON MATE: Yeah. LARRY WILKERSON: I mean, you’re threatening. You’re threatening that in Eastern Europe, in everywhere else that those people are selling that kind of weaponry at those kinds of dollars. This is a real special interest problem. The military with this report from the Army War College is just flowing right into that special interest problem and making themselves a part of it. AARON MATE: Colonel, I’ve mentioned this a few times on The Real News, but there was news recently from CNBC that defense docks in the U.S. have hit an all-time high. One of the reasons they cited for that was tensions with North Korea, as we’ve been discussing, and also NATO tensions with Russia. LARRY WILKERSON: Absolutely, and ultimately South China Sea and China. Let’s come back to China for just a moment. You mentioned it a moment ago and I just wanted to elaborated on it a little bit with regard to what I just said about North Korea because China’s a much bigger threat in the long term to the United States’ interest. China’s strategy, clear strategy, is not to go to war with the United States. That’s the last thing they want. Now, the [inaudible 00:17:25] might have some trouble as it gets richer and richer and gives some of that richness to the military, to the [PLA 00:17:32]. They may have more and more trouble controlling them, and that’s a problem to worry about, but right now the leadership in Beijing does not want a war with the United States because it fully believes, and to this point their strategy looks like they’re right, that in terms of beating the United States, quote unquote, economically is the way to do it. That means ultimately replacing the dollar with some other currency, the [inaudible 00:17:57] would be really nice, the Chinese currency, [inaudible 00:18:00]. Some other currency, some other mechanism might replace it, too, taking a lot of power away from the U.S. economy. That’s the Chinese strategy. The Chinese are in Iran right now. The Chinese are making great friends of the Persians. They are building infrastructure. They just ran a standard locomotive, diesel locomotive, from [Shanghai 00:18:25] to Iran. Yes, it’s in Asia. We forget that all the time. We call it the Middle East. It’s Southwest Asia. They are going to build a high-speed network that will cut that time by about two-thirds. They’re going to be able to go from [Shanghai 00:18:41] to Iran in just a few hours. This is incredible. They’re building rail networks that will connect the Iranian gas and oil fields and everything else in commerce terms in Iran with Turkey and on into Europe, too, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and so forth. This is the Chinese strategy. The Chinese are not interested in war. They only have their military instruments to protect these commercial routes. That’s one reason the military instruments are changing their nature a little bit, because they’re looking more and more like our own in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when we wanted to protect our commercial routes and we had a military to do that. The Chinese are not looking for war, they’re looking to beat us economically. They think that’s a fair game. That’s how we should be competing with China on our own part. Not militarily, but economically. If we don’t get our economic together, economic act together, we can forget our military anyway because you can’t have a military very long if you can’t pay for it. AARON MATE: Colonel, as we wrap I wanted to raise just one more point on the topic of North Korea and their thinking about nuclear weapons that you were discussing before. It’s an issue that we’ve actually discussed before on The Real News, but the North Korean regime in its dealings with the U.S. can look to previous models, and it has it’s being reported. They could look to Iraq, where Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction and he got invaded by the U.S. They can look to Libya, where Gaddafi did have weapons of mass destruction. He gave them up to the U.S. and then he got also bombed, invaded, and executed, which certainly goes into the thinking right now of North Korea. LARRY WILKERSON: Don’t think that calculus doesn’t play in the minds of the leaders in Tehran also, and doesn’t, for that matter, play sometimes rather [inaudible 00:20:26] in the minds of the leaders in Washington, that Iran getting a nuclear weapon, or even looking like it’s going to get a nuclear weapon, will put them in the same boat as Kim Jong-un. That is to say U.S. would never contemplate an invasion because they might use nuclear weapons on them. However preposterous that calculation is, because deterrents still works, it nonetheless plays a part in our thinking and also in the thinking in Tehran. When I say preposterous, just think about this for a moment. The chief of staff of the army said this I believe today or yesterday. If North Korea were to do anything [inaudible 00:21:02], even if it were to shoot, for example, a nuclear [inaudible 00:21:06] ballistic missile at Japan or Korea, or at the United States if they develop that range, they’d disappear from the face of the earth. The American president would have no choice. If a nuclear weapon went off in California or if it went off in Tokyo, or it went off anywhere in that area where we have allies, and it went off in an ally’s territory, Pyongyang would disappear. North Korea would disappear. That’s the reality of it. The first objective of Kim Jong-un and his generals is to stay in power, so why would they commit suicide? Deterrents works, but both sides, and particularly the United States, and the study is a reflection of that, plays this game of creating these fears so that they can get more money, creating the politics of fear so that they can continue to draw on the taxpayer purse and continue to get the things they want. That’s not the way we should be running this country. It’s not the way we should be running the world, for that matter. The way we should be doing it is based on economics and finance and diplomacy and so forth, bringing the pressures that are necessary to bear where they’re necessary. Doing things in a way that precludes war, not looks at it as the end all and be all. That’s what this study looks at ultimately. You have to conclude that. It looks at the war power as the essential element of national power. It says that war power needs to be better funded. That is nonsense. As Eisenhower said for eight years of his administration, “God help the United States when anybody sits in this oval office who doesn’t understand the military the way I do.” AARON MATE: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently a distinguished professor at the College of William & Mary. Colonel, thank you. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATE: 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.