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Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to former U.S. secretary Colin Powell, says the organizing of indigenous forces and participation of Iran, not escalated U.S. military actions, are essential to bring stability to Iraq

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of The Wilkerson Report.

Now joining us is Larry Wilkerson. He is the former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary, and he’s also a regular contributor to The Real News Network.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.


WORONCZUK: So let’s get your take on Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes on Iraq, also considering that he said that they might take up to months.

WILKERSON: I don’t think he had any choice, especially given the fact that his secretary of state, which is becoming too typical of John Kerry, is out there talking about genocide and people dying all over the place and so forth. Interesting that John Kerry didn’t talk much about people dying when many, many hundreds of Palestinians were dying, most of them civilians, many of them children, in Gaza as Israel prosecuted its attacks. But I don’t think the president had much choice.

I think he’s right in confining his efforts right now to air power. And I think if those efforts are correctly applied and if the Iraqi government can get its act together–after all, it’s sitting on some fairly formidable military capability–it’ll be enough to make sure the Islamic State doesn’t make too much further progress.

WILKERSON: Well, then let me get your response to statements made by some Democrats and Republicans. For example, we have California senator Dianne Feinstein, who’s the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; she said, recently, quote,

“It takes an army to defeat an army, and I believe that we either confront [the Islamic State] now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future.”

And McCain also said recently on the airstrikes, he said, quote,

“It’s almost worse than nothing, because I fear the president is threatening and that he won’t follow through.”

“It’s the weakest possible response, and we cannot allow them [the Islamic State] to take Erbil. What [the administration has] done so far is almost meaningless.”

So what is your response to this? It seems that some of these leading members of Congress are saying that there needs to be an escalation rather than just airstrikes.

WILKERSON: Well, my opinion of those people of Congress who are making statements like that is my opinion of those people of Congress who made statements like that about Iraq’s WMD and about the need to invade Iraq, which started all this mess in the first place, which, unfortunately, President Obama inherited from the administration that I served and know quite a bit about.

I don’t think their statements are correct. I don’t think major U.S. power, including ground troops, is going to solve the problem. It might temporarily solve the problem, but as soon as you pull them out, you’ve got the same situation coming back again, because it is not in the strategic interests of the United States, or for that matter any Western power, to remain on the ground for an extended period of time in this region of the world. I’ve said that for 30 years. I will continue saying it.

So what do you do if that is the case? And it is the case, I assure you. You have to have indigenous forces on the ground who are interested in whatever borders that they have and protecting those borders, in this case, the Iraqis, but certainly the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Egyptians, and ultimately the Israelis, too. One of the things you need to do in order to bring that about in any meaningful way is to have the most stable state of consequence in the region on your side, or at least operating off the same sheet of music you’re on. And of course I mean Iran. I mean the most powerful stable state in the region. Demographically, geographically, militarily, you name it, Iran is the natural hegemon in the Gulf. I’m glad to see that the administration is beginning to speak as if it recognizes that. And perhaps using the nuclear negotiations–which, incidentally, are going quite well–to make end roads into a better relationship with Iran is a very smart thing to start trying to do, because without Iran, you are not going to have any kind of stability, peace, prosperity, or any positive thing in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, ultimately in Egypt, and you’re not going to have any mid- to long-term security for Israel. So you’d better start cooperating, you (Washington) and Tehran.

WORONCZUK: But I’m wondering if you also think that maybe some contradictory U.S. policy towards Iraq is maybe responsible for some of this. Like, for example, we saw, I think it was just a couple of weeks ago, that the U.S. stopped the unloading of oil from tankers in Texas that were sent from the Kurdish region. But at the same time, just a few days ago, the CIA was sending armaments to the Kurdish national government.

WILKERSON: I’m not saying that our policy, especially our policy in our private interest, is coordinated well with our policy needs and our policy interests, which should be being pursued more by the government than private interests, although we’ve taken to pursuing them with private interests to a vengeance in the last decade, decade and a half. And I wouldn’t put the oil companies anywhere near what one might call interested in U.S. national interests, whether it’s Royal Dutch Shell out of Amsterdam or whether it’s ExxonMobil out of Houston. Their interests are not the U.S. interests in many cases, and vice versa.

It is an uncoordinated, almost inexplicable thing we see on a daily basis in terms of sanctions against Iran, in terms of the Kurdish regional government and what they do, and as opposed to what Baghdad wants, and so forth. And this is part of the problem. Until these governments can coordinate reasonably well and cooperate reasonably well, the Islamic State and other half-assed organizations–and that’s what they are; militarily and otherwise, they are half-assed–they’re going to make progress. They’re going to make progress against established states, against established state militaries, because they’re not cooperating, they’re not politically led well, they’re not politically inclusive, and therefore they enter the battlefield as incompetents and get beaten by people running around in Toyota pickup trucks with heavy machine guns on the back. And we can call those armored personnel carriers all day long, and our media, our corporate media, can scream that they are making incredible progress and that they have mobile formations, armored formations, mechanized formations, mortars, artillery–yes, I heard that the other day; they have artillery–all day long. It doesn’t make it true. This is a ragtag bunch of terrorists funded by Saudi Arabia largely, coming out of Syria and out of other places, supplied with volunteers from Malaysia, the Philippines, and all over Southwest Asia, who are making progress because the state-sponsored militaries up against them are either cowardly, unpatriotic, or aren’t led very well. They need to get their act together. And until they do, all the support from the United States short of mounting an invasion of the region and staying forever is not going to help them that much.

WORONCZUK: Well, you mentioned Syria. Let me read you a quote also from a recent interview that Hillary Clinton gave The Atlantic. What she said is, quote, the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad, that failure left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled. So it seems what she is saying is that what needed to be done was a further armament of Syrian rebels. What’s your take on that?

WILKERSON: Well, when Hillary was secretary of state and afterwards, we were doing such stupid things as not chiding the Saudis very strongly, if at all, about their arming the most Wahhabist, Salafist, radical elements of the opposition to Assad in Syria. So I don’t think Mrs. Clinton has much room to speak or criticize anyone else in that regard. And had we gone into Syria with major military force, I guarantee you the upswell of American citizen opposition to that would have been so much that Mrs. Clinton, had she advocated it, would have had to search forever and a day for any possibility that she might someday occupy the Oval Office, because that is not what Americans wanted to do. In fact, I actually had members of Congress whom I was visiting on other matters during that timeframe tell me that they had in their time in Congress–one of them had 26 years–not seen such an upswell of American opinion about an issue as they saw with regard to potential for the U.S. using force in Syria, using its own military in Syria. The American people were vehemently opposed to that.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Larry Wilkerson, thank you so much for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Anton.

WORONCZUK: 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.