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Former Bush administration official Lawrence Wilkerson says neocons including Mike Pence are to blame for the crisis in the Middle East

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KIM BROWN, TRNN: Hello and welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore. The running mates of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off at their lone debate on Tuesday night at Longwood University in Virginia. Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence had a few testy exchanges over each of their candidates’ credibility and suitability for office. But a large portion of the discussion was spent on foreign policy. Now joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former Chief of Staff to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary and he is a regular contributor here to the Real News Network. Larry thank you so much for speaking with us. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me on [inaud.]. BROWN: Well Larry let’s jump right into some of what Tim Kaine and Mike Pence were discussing as it relates to foreign policy and lets start with the Iran deal where Tim Kaine made the assertion that Hillary Clinton negotiated the end of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. We’ve seen some fact checking in some of the major publications the morning after the debate saying that this was an exaggeration and I know you have a specific take on this. Who is getting this right and wrong about Hillary’s role in negotiating with Iran? WILKERSON: Well Senator Kaine was a little bit imprecise in his language. That’s understandable under the heat of the debate. But Governor Pence was absolutely wrong and that didn’t surprise me so much as waking up this morning and finding out the New York Times and the Washington Post and probably a lot of others are dead wrong too. They’re supposed to be fact checkers under the guise of fact checking, they got their own facts wrong. Let’s examine the facts. First of all, Iran has had a nuclear program for many, many years. Henry Kissinger and the Russians and others helped Iran start that nuclear program as early as the time of the Shah, pre-1979. Iran is a nuclear power. They have a nuclear program. What senator Kaine says that was precise and correct that the New York Times, Washington Post, and others just completely missed was nuclear weapons program. Now why was that imprecise to a certain extent, it’s not a dangerous extent but a certain extent, because our own intelligence agencies in an NIE in 2003 I believe it was, concluded that Iran, and I think rightfully so, that Iran had stopped any effort to develop a nuclear weapon. They had engaged in a strategic collaboration, discussion, and so forth and they decided at the highest levels, the ayatollah, to stop that program. That’s when we began working on sanctions in the Bush administration and so forth. That’s when we sort of begin to build a package that Secretary Clinton and President Obama would put together and bring more force to later on in order to get the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement. But Iran has not had a nuclear weapons program since about that time, ’02-03. But the issue is what we did to their nuclear weapons program capability and that is to say converting their nuclear program which, as I said, has been there a long time with a moment’s provocation or the right motivation or decision to do so into a bomb. That’s what the agreement was aimed at. Not stopping their nuclear program. Their nuclear program is ongoing, as are the programs of many other countries under IAEA and NPT supervision in general. So what we’re talking about here is–is Iran more capable now of converting that nuclear program into the pursuit of a nuclear weapon than they were before the agreement and the answer is a resounding no. Before this agreement Iran could probably have broken out and done it in a very short time had they wanted to. 24/7 operations and so forth, maybe even with the [inaud.] material they had which they have now gotten rid of under the agreement and with the technology they have which they have cut back significantly under the agreement. They could have broken out in as little as 45, maybe 60-90 days. Now, there is no capacity for that kind of quick break out under the agreement and, in fact, if they made a decision to do so and clandestinely try to do it, it’d probably take at least a year or more because of what the agreement, which the IAEA has supervised their compliance with, the agreement stops them from doing that. So this is a complex matter and I would not expect anybody like Governor Pence or for that matter Senator Kaine in a moment to master this brief the way they probably should. But I would expect The New York Times and The Washington Post to be a little bit better. After all, they’ve got all day and all night to study and to make sure they know the details of the agreement. So, I’m really appalled at the negligence of The New York Times and The Washington Post. BROWN: Larry, let’s switch gears for a moment from Iraq going to Russia. Mike Pence had strong criticism about the Clinton-Obama relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, slamming the so-called Russian reset, while Clinton was Secretary of State. Referencing the recent shut down in talks between the United States and Russia over airstrikes in Syria, where civilians were killed. Pence also was bringing up the close relationship, the close dealings of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Putin. So, your thoughts on Pence going after Russia. While Trump has publicly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, I thought that was an interesting contrast. WILKERSON: Well it was and I think Senator Kaine tried to make Mike Pence, essentially, defend a person who is the top man on his ticket on a number of issues but that one was prominent. And he wouldn’t do it. He simply wouldn’t do it. There’s no disputing the fact that there are contacts between the Trump family, Donald Trump himself, and his consortiums and Russia, perhaps some of the oligarchs of Russia. He had members of his campaign that had to leave because of the revelations about their connections with the oligarchs in Russia. There was a combination of things that Pence did that really disturbed me, though. And I’m no advocate of either side, right now, really. I’m certainly not much of an advocate of either side as far as security policy because I haven’t seen enough of it to see what its really going to be. I haven’t seen anything of Trump’s, for that matter. The two issues that really trouble me were Pence’s attempt to get Kaine and, through him, Hillary with regard to Iraq. Iraq, ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, the mess in the region right now in Western Asia and the Middle East is a direct result of George W. Bush and Dick Chaney, and my administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. I wanted to shout at Mr. Pence, read Joby Warrick’s book. Read anybody’s book with regard to ISIS and you’ll find a direct line between what we did in Iraq and what happened later in Syria and then backfired into Iraq. This is clear from the historical record. Its so clear that you wonder how the neo-conservatives and others who’ve manufactured these counterarguments get away with it. That is not the responsibility in any way, fashion, or form of the Obama administration. Now, you have plenty of things to blame the Obama administration for, but that is not one of them. They did not start this mess in the Middle East like the Bush administration did. And I must say, at the time, almost all the republicans, like Pence and others, were very much for what George W. Bush did. In fact, they were cheerleaders for it. So, they are responsible, too, for what’s happening in the Middle East, right now. That said, US-Russia policy has been mishandled by everyone since H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton started it. And there was Hillary as his first lady. Bill Clinton started it and George W. Bush accelerated it. And Barack Obama, trying from time-to-time, because of congruent interests in places like Iran and for that matter, with regard to nuclear proliferation with regard to counterterrorism and so forth, we have some very common interests. So, I appreciated and understood why President Obama was trying to reset, trying to get a better relationship with Russia. That includes Secretary Clinton. But we’re its fault for putting Putin where he is right now, as clearly as anything, Putin is [inaud.], which makes me really just laugh at Trump, and Pence, and others who talk about Putin being a decisive leader and so forth. All Putin has done is capitalized on our colossal mistakes. Beginning with the expansion of NATO into the very face of a great power like Russia. To Georgia, to Ukraine, and so forth. That’s what got Putin in the position he’s in now from both the strategic sense that he’s in Ukraine, he’s in Crimea, he’s got terrible influence in Georgia, and so forth. Because we provoked him into that, by moving an alliance in ways that it simply did not need to be moved and why did we do that? Primarily, so Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors could sell weapon systems to countries that were taking into NATO’s fold and into our own fold. This was incredibly done. And this doesn’t justify Putin. It doesn’t justify the dictatorship that the democratic process in Russia has turned into. He’s got 80 percent and still rising numbers in the polls in Moscow, in particular, but Russia in general. That’s because of us. Because all he has to do is respond like a typical great power with regard to our colossal strategic errors and he looks great in the eyes of most Russians. So, we can lay at the feet of several administrations, in a row, the capacity or the capable for Putin to do what he’s done. It has nothing to do with his leadership and everything to do with his political aptitude at taking advantage of some colossal errors on the part of the west, particularly the United States. So I wish someone would talk about this situation in a realistic way because its incredibly dangerous right now. There’s an old theory about conservation of enemies. It’s an old international relations theory. What it says in essence is that you don’t want any more enemies than you need at one time. We’re sitting on 200 plus trillion dollars’ worth of unfunded liabilities and personal and corporate debt in this country. 200 plus trillion dollars. There’s never been a nation in human history as highly leveraged as we are. Never been an empire so fraught to collapse at a moment’s notice. And here we are, not only recruiting Russia to be our number one enemy, but recruiting China, too. And oh by the way, we’ll throw in North Korea. Maybe Iran, at the same time. This is utter nonsense and its extremely dangerous. We’re going to bring this empire down around our ears within the next decade rather than in the next 3 or 4, which is what I suspected from a historical record. Because we have such inept people like Mike Pence, like Donald Trump, like most political party, and I’m sad to say like much of the Democratic Party who don’t do complexity. All they do is sound-bite. All they do is, “This is what’ll look good above the fold, front page, right side, on The Washington Post.” They’re idiots and they’re dangerous people. BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Larry Wilkerson from Williamsburg, Virginia. Larry is the former Chief of Staff for US Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently teaching as an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary and he is a regular contributor here to the Real News. Larry, thank you for your analysis, we appreciate it. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. BROWN: Thanks for watching 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.