Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, discusses record US military strikes under President Trump and how Al Qaeda is taking advantage of contradictions in US policy
AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. During last year’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump often painted himself as being anti-intervention, but since taking office, he’s been anything but. New data shows that when it comes to military airstrikes, Trump is the most trigger-happy president in modern history. Through this month, Trump has dropped more than 20,000 bombs, about 80% of what President Obama dropped in all of 2016. U.S. bombings in Iraq and Syria are at unprecedented levels, and meanwhile, the U.S. is quietly building up its military presence on the ground in Syria. Turkey’s state-run news agency recently published the locations of 10 U.S. bases and outposts in northern Syria. Joining me to discuss all this is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State, Colin Powell, currently a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, welcome. LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Aaron. AARON MATE: Colonel, let’s start with that. I mentioned Trump having campaigned, painting himself as being opposed to military adventurism abroad. He claimed to be against the Iraq war, but now, since coming into office, he’s been there for seven months, quite trigger-happy overseas. LARRY WILKERSON: First, Aaron, we have to understand that Trump is not in control of this. Trump is not dropping these bombs. I appreciate your saying that in that way, and I realize it was metaphoric, but in a real sense, he is not. Not only is he not in those airplanes, he has given the war zones to the Pentagon. So what we’re seeing is the Pentagon taking ultimate advantage of this president’s not really caring about the details of what they’re doing. Any time you turn the United States military loose — believe me, I was there for 31 years — and you tell them they’ve got carte blanche, they are gonna drop bombs until the cows come home. They know that their bread is buttered with Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and other makers of these armaments, and they know that in order to keep a good, warm production base and a relationship with these defense contractors, that they gotta drop a lot of bombs and shoot a lot of bullets. That’s what the military does. They’re training their pilots, they’re testing their aviation equipment and their AWACS control and so forth. They’re salivating over doing this, not to put too fine a point on it. So you let the Pentagon be in charge, and the Pentagon is gonna run, and run, and run, and that’s essentially what’s happening. I daresay that many of the bombs aren’t really dropping on feasible targets. They’re just dropping to be dropped or to train or whatever. If you don’t have someone in charge … Eisenhower once said, “God help the United States of America if someone ever sits in this chair”, meaning the Oval Office, “Who doesn’t know the military the way I do.” He was absolutely right. AARON MATE: This dynamic you’re talking about of Trump essentially giving free rein to the Pentagon, how does that compare to previous administrations? LARRY WILKERSON: Most administrations give a certain amount of freedom to the military commanders. Particularly in the field. When troops’ lives are at stake, you can understand that. When they’re going in to harm’s way, then presidents, Secretaries of Defense and so forth, are not wont to interfere with the ground commanders. That said, there is never this sort of divorce from the White House and from the National Security Council staff and others that Trump has created. Eliot Cohen — who I have no great affection for, neoconservative — has written rather well about this, how civilians should never turn wars over to generals. I think the history of our own warfare, such as it is, whether it’s our civil war and Abraham Lincoln or it’s later with Franklin Roosevelt, indicates that that is absolutely the case. Whenever you turn it totally over to the military, you wind up getting problems. And, I might add, you often get situations where you create a ground conflict that you’re not in any way, fashion, or form going to “win” in the traditional sense. Eliot’s right about that. Civilians should never turn war over to the military entirely, and that’s what Donald Trump has done. AARON MATE: Have you heard anything from your contacts in the military or government circles about what the culture is right now under Trump when it comes to basically farming this out to the Pentagon? LARRY WILKERSON: I think what you’re seeing in Syria is an example of what I was just talking about, and there are some voices of disquiet with regard to that. First of all, they don’t know what the strategic landscape is. Is it that we are looking for residual forces in Syria so we can keep the Turks, for example, from killing all the Kurds? Is it because we want residual forces to challenge Russia, who has said quite categorically that its bases and installations — naval and air and ground — in Syria are gonna stay there permanently? After all, it is the last leg of any kind of presence Russia has in that difficult part of the world, so I don’t blame them for that. Or is it simply because we want to defeat the last remaining elements of ISIS? Who knows? But there is no strategic decision on that, so far as I can tell from the White House. So the military walks into that and starts making whatever it can that’s in its benefit, it thinks, out of that lack of strategy. So I can’t answer your question, because I don’t know what the strategic and political approach to Syria is other than those three things I just outlined. AARON MATE: Right. Well, let’s talk about one development on this front that I mentioned, which is Turkey, its state-run news agency, publishing the locations of U.S. bases and outposts in northern Syria. Now, it’s interpreted that that’s being done because Turkey isn’t happy about the U.S. teaming up with Kurdish forces against ISIS in Raqqa. But certainly, the Turkish news agency would not have done this without the authorization of the Turkish government, and it’s a decision that angered the U.S. for having its base locations disclosed. LARRY WILKERSON: Yes, and this is a NATO ally, mind you, doing this. A NATO ally doing this. It’s particularly egregious on the part of Erdoğan and Turkey’s military, but it’s completely understandable, because they do not want the United States interposing itself — in a military way in particular — between it and the Kurds, whom it would like to exterminate, very frankly put. So, I understand why Erdoğan is doing this, but I challenge his procedure for doing it. It really makes — and this is the case increasingly — NATO look obsolete, look like it’s an anachronism trying to hang on to something that is not very substantial. AARON MATE: I want to ask you about what’s going on with the province of Idlib, also in northern Syria. You have, right now, the Al-Qaeda offshoot increasingly taking control there. It essentially controls the important parts of that province, and I want to play for you comments recently from Brett McGurk. He is the U.S. envoy to the Global Anti-ISIS Coalition, and he talked about what’s going on in Idlib with Al-Qaeda’s presence there. This is what he said. BRETT MCGURK: Look, Idlib province is the largest Al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is a huge problem. It’s been a problem for some time. We have shone the spotlight — the international spotlight — on ISIS. We’ve been very focused on Al-Qaeda and Idlib province. Leaders of Al-Qaeda that make their way to Idlib province often do not make their way out of there. But we have to ask a question: Why and how is Ayman al-Zawahiri’s deputy finding his way to Idlib province? Why is this happening? How are they getting there? They’re not paratroopers, and the approach … I obviously will not talk about anything the U.S. government has done in certain parts of Syria on this problem, but the approach by some of our partners to send in 10s of thousands of tons of weapons and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come in to Syria may not have been the best approach, and Al-Qaeda has taken full advantage of it. Idlib now is a huge problem. It is an Al-Qaeda safe haven right on the border of Turkey, so that’s something obviously we will be in very close discussions with the Turks on. And I think as we did in some ISIS areas in sealing the border, making sure nobody can cross, is something we might have to think about in Idlib province. AARON MATE: So, I’m wanting your thoughts, Colonel, on what he’s saying here. LARRY WILKERSON: Not just … And he must have had his tongue in his cheek when he was saying all this, because he’s smart enough to know this. Not just the policies of others, but our own policies. Particularly our policies of looking the other way when the Saudis do things and even supporting the Saudis when they do those nefarious things. I would say I’d add one other place. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda is flourishing, and I would say in Idlib province, it probably is the presence of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the now-bin Laden replacement if you will, heading Al-Qaeda that has people’s attention as much as it is the number of fighters there. So Yemen, there, and elsewhere. And it has been really astonishing to me. It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be. I was around in government when we supported the Mujahideen when Charlie Wilson’s War took place. We made what I called at the time were really some very stupid strategic decisions. AARON MATE: We’re talking about Afghanistan, here. LARRY WILKERSON: Yes. They were tactical decisions to support these terrorists. I say you do not support terrorists anytime, anywhere, anyplace, period. That’s always been my advice to leaders. So any time the United States does it, it’s bound to rebound to our discredit later on, if not really hurt us even while we’re doing it. Right now, you’re seeing the results of our having supported the Saudis, Prince Bandar and his policies, having supported the Qataris, the Emiratis, and others, who were funneling arms and weapons in to anybody and everybody. The Saudis knowing full well they were going to the best recruits they’d ever had, Al-Qaeda, and it’s just … It’s not good policy, and we’re still doing it. To accuse the Turks of giving them sanctuary or support, even, or whatever is disingenuous. I’m not saying the Turks aren’t doing it. They probably are. But we’ve been doing it, ourselves. We need to sort our own act out as to who we support in the world and who we don’t, who we’re gonna fight, and who we’re gonna kill, and who we’re not, before we start accusing other people of these nefarious activities. We’re as guilty as anyone else. AARON MATE: Well, look, Colonel. On that front, do you see Trump’s recent decision to stop the CIA program supporting Syrian militants — a program that empowered jihadists on the ground — do you see that as an acknowledgement that the U.S. was doing that and that it wants to stop? LARRY WILKERSON: I think so, but I think he did that on the basis of some military man’s — probably Jim Mattis’s — recommendation. You can’t be in the field and be a true military professional and watch this sort of thing go on, and not object to it. I recall vividly what went on in Honduras with regard to the Contras and the Sandinistas. I recall one incident where the CIA actually eliminated one of the military people who was present at the time — insofar as my memory holds, it was a former Navy SEAL or something like that — who they felt had become too cognizant of what the CIA was doing in the drug world. In particular, to finance their support of the Contras at the time. You get these internecine battles, and some of them turn out to be bloody. And we have an even closer connection now because of the longtime use of JSOC and Special Operating forces in general, and the so-called war against terrorists. You have this almost sick relationship between the agency, the CIA, JSOC, and Special Operating forces. So I have no doubt that the angst and animosity that often exists between the professional military and the CIA is still present. I wouldn’t doubt that that wasn’t a military decision to stop that, because they know it’s stupid. AARON MATE: This development of over the years, the U.S. having helped facilitate the rise of Al-Qaeda inside Syria … I’m wondering if you can talk about that in the context of national security policy overall, and the tension, often, between genuine national security and serving U.S. geopolitical goals, whatever they are. You were in government after 9/11 and you saw, personally, how invading Iraq became as much if not way more of a priority than it was to actually counter Al-Qaeda after they carried out 9/11. LARRY WILKERSON: That’s correct, and I have to say I grew sick of national security elites — I call them that with my tongue in my cheek — talking about making decisions on a spectrum that went from really, really bad to just slightly bad, and therefor having to pick the slightly bad. That’s absurd in most cases because there’s always, outside that decision framework, the ultimate decision: Don’t do it. When you’re sitting down … Obama had put that really categorically by saying, “The first principle is don’t do something stupid.” You sit down and you array these possible decisions, and you come to the one that says, “Well, we could support Al-Qaeda because they might be able to help us against ISIS, because we want to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, because, because, because. And before you know it, you’re ankle-deep, maybe knee-deep, maybe waist-deep in all these corrupt and incredibly vicious people, and you’re arming and funding and supporting them. That’s the way you get into it. That’s the reason I say my principle is, you don’t do this in the first place. When you’re presented with these bad options, you don’t pick any of it. You do nothing. AARON MATE: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State, Colin Powell, currently a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, thank you. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me here. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.