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Larry Wilkerson: Will Libertarians ally with anti-war Dems to stop fight with Iran?

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Tuesday night, the Republican Party took over the House, made some gains in the Senate, sent predicted shockwaves through the political system. But just how did the Republican Party, after only two years [of] perhaps being the most discredited party in a long time in American history, after eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration, how do they make such a comeback? How do they get rebranded by the Tea Party? Helping us to deconstruct all of this is Larry Wilkerson. He joined the Republican Party about 36 years ago. He was Colin Powell’s chief of staff during the Bush administration. He teaches now in Washington. And thanks for joining us.


JAY: So how do we get from there to here?

WILKERSON: [inaudible] simplistic but nonetheless revealing answer: jobs. I think the real issue on Americans’ minds right now is jobs. And, frankly, the Obama administration and the fallout from that administration hurt the Democrats badly in that respect, because they don’t see the administration doing anything that they can recognize as job-creating. Real unemployment in this country is probably upwards of 20 percent right now in some serious areas like Ohio, Florida, and this massive closedown of NASA’s shuttle program, I understand from this morning’s NPR broadcast, is going to lose another 8,000 jobs. They’re really hurting. I mean, unemployment there could be as high as 25 percent. And unemployment amongst African-American males, for example, is over 40 percent. This is serious business. We are in a profound economic crisis. The administration keeps saying things like, well, we think we’re coming out, we’ve got a little bit of positive growth this quarter, or whatever. That’s nonsense. We [inaudible] about to come out of it. And this job situation in particular I don’t see us coming out of anytime soon. And that’s really hurting them.

JAY: Now, the administration, one would’ve thought it’s—we’re only two years in. You would think they could have pinned most of this on the Bush-Cheney administration, and most of that would have been justified. There’s something about this early argument which I had—mostly came up on the question of whether to investigate Bush-Cheney for a possible criminal investigation based on the wiretapping or based on the war, and President Obama very quickly said, no, let’s look forward, not backwards. But he seemed to not only get them off the hook for those issues; he seemed to leave them off the hook on the economy, too. It’s only recently is he starting to say how, you know, you want to put back in the people that dug the ditch for us. I don’t understand. Why didn’t he go after the previous administration, like, consistently for two years?

WILKERSON: I think the American people have a very short memory, and in that sense President Obama was probably correct in his calculation that it wouldn’t do much good trying to keep Cheney and Bush and the malfeasance in office that they perpetrated for so long, particularly with regard to the economy. I mean, they’re responsible for what we’re in right now to a certain extent. I’m not going to give them the full responsibility, ’cause I think it goes all the way back to Bob Rubin, to Greenspan, to Clinton’s negligence with respect to those two people, and a whole series of things that were done during the Reagan administration to eliminate government regulations and so forth. And so when you put all that together and you sort of get the crisis we’re in right now, combine it with the fact that we’ve murdered our manufacturing and industrial sector in order to beef up finance, insurance, and real estate, and you get a real economic and financial problem for this country—one, incidentally, that if we don’t have sustained good leadership over the next, say, four or five presidential terms, be they two or single, we’re going to be a second-rate country, we’re going to be a second-rate economy and a second-rate country. So that’s the really serious problem, and that’s what troubles me most about this recent political resurgence of the Republicans, because I see some scenarios that could unfold from this that can exacerbate this problem, not fix it.

JAY: For example?

WILKERSON: Well, I see, for example, [inaudible] two possibilities, variations on a theme I think can happen, but two distinct possibilities. One is that we will have a situation not unlike that we had after the great fall in 1929 of the stock market and so forth, where we get an extraordinary period of austerity. That’s, after all, what the Tea Party’s talking about. I don’t necessarily disagree with them that spending needs to be brought under control, but you’ve got to time this right vis-à-vis the current crisis. You could have an extraordinary period of austerity, if they are successful in bringing it about, and plunge the world into another Great Depression. That’s about all it would take to do that. Martin Wolf, Financial Times editor, or economics editor for The Financial Times; Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist at Columbia; and others have pointed out how stimulus spending is necessary at a time like this. And the only people who can, the only entity that can do the kind of stimulus spending we’re talking about, if you can get the banks to turn loose the trillion or so dollars that they’ve been loaned by the public, is the government. So that’s one possible scenario, that we’re going to plunge ourselves right back into the same kind of scenario we were in in the ’30s.

JAY: Part of that issue, of course, is taking real consumer power and sucking even more of it out of the economy.

WILKERSON: Absolutely.

JAY: And one of the things that’s being talked about as a solution, which boggles my mind, is some kind of goods and services tax, which will take even more money out of ordinary people’s pockets.

WILKERSON: Yes. The conversation I’m hearing within my own party is ridiculous. It’s risible. If it weren’t so painful, I’d be laughing at it. The second possibility, almost as bad as that one, is that the Tea Party element—and I listen to Marco Rubio, for example, I listen to Rand in Kentucky, I hear them saying things that sound good—fiscal responsibility, slashing spending, and so forth. But I also hear them saying things that sound like, hey, we’re not necessarily going to be loyal members of the Republican Party, because we are going to go after these things. We may even establish a Tea Party caucus within the Republican Party. I hear Jim DeMint saying that if they do that, he’ll probably go along with it in the Senate. Okay, this is really fine. So you’ve got this one part of the Republican Party that wants to go this way, you’ve got another part that wants to go this way, and if they think they’re going to find unanimity under leadership from someone like [John] Boehner, they’ve got another think coming, probably, and we wind up with a situation not unlike what Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America produced in 1994, which really resurrected Bill Clinton’s presidency, and that is—government stoppage we get. And that’s the last thing we need right now.

JAY: I interviewed Rand Paul in the leadup to the 2008 election.

WILKERSON: Rand Paul was the individual I was referring to.

JAY: Yeah, you said Rand, but I think people knew who you meant—Ron Paul’s son. And Rand was out campaigning for Ron Paul in New Hampshire, and Rand made it very clear, in fact, to quote him, he was so against the Bush administration, particularly on the issue of war and the size of the military budget.

WILKERSON: Another thing I agree with the Tea Partiers on.

JAY: And he says—in that interview he says, I’ve got more in common with Dennis Kucinich and his supporters than I do with the Republican Party when it comes to the issue of war and the military budget. But we’ve seen this unholy alliance develop in this election. Rand Paul apparently got something upwards of over $5 million through organizations controlled by Karl Rove. Mitch McConnell apparently has made some kind of peace. I mean, this alliance, are they going to either tear themselves apart on the question of the military budget and war, or are we actually going to see a sort of caving-in by people like Rand Paul? And where does it all go?

WILKERSON: Well, this is the same time that you have people like the staid old editorial page writer for The Washington Post recommending that in order to resurrect the economy we go to war with Iran. You put your finger on an issue, I think, that’s going to rip them apart. You’ve got people who I wouldn’t describe as anti-war but I certainly would describe as anti-spending on war, especially any further or to the extent that we’ve been spending in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s preposterous what we’re spending, by the way. In Afghanistan we’re spending $100 billion-plus a year just on the military. That’s in a country whose GDP is $14 billion. Unbelievable what we’re doing. And these guys and gals are going to take this point, and they’re going to jam it down the throat of the other Republicans who are interested in continuing to do this, possibly even opening a third theater in Iran. I don’t see this as unanimity in my party; I see this as being potentially very divisive in my party. And, incidentally, I will predict that the only thing that might give President Obama a second term is his ability to resurrect his image in the eyes of the American people on the back of this Republic divisiveness. I don’t think he’ll be able to do it, but I could see him doing it, much the way Bill Clinton did in ’96.

JAY: Now, during the election campaign, at least, Rand Paul and the other people from the Tea Party type candidates never mentioned cutting the military budget, even though certainly the libertarian part of the Tea Party—and it’s not all the Tea Party you would describe as Ron Paul libertarians, but Rand Paul apparently is—this idea of putting the military budget and the whole issue of the presumption that there needs to be an American empire, which Ron Paul has campaigned against. Is there some weird crossover that’s going to take place between the libertarian Tea Partiers and maybe this kind of more left Liberal caucus that’s going to be in the House from the Democratic Party, who are supposed to be antiwar?

WILKERSON: Yeah. Well, it’s a possibility. There’s also the possibility, of course, that I’m wrong and the Republican leadership will be able to—through money, mostly, probably, and promises for the future, to forge some kind of alliance with the devil, if you will, and they will be able to smooth over their differences and get what they want to get done done. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think the likelihood, possibly, of not a public, not a overt alliance between the antiwar people in the Democratic Party, for example, and those in the Republican Party—in the Democratic Party antiwar purist, and then in the Republican Party don’t like the spending—that kind of a tacit alliance is possible, and it could produce some interesting effects.

JAY: The neocons had taken over the Republican Party with Bush and Cheney. There was some question what would happen after this sort of discreditation of what had happened over that eight years, but it looks like the even further right or at least as far right money is behind what this kind of rebranding, using the Tea Party, rebranding of the Republican Party. Karl Rove’s hands seem to be over everything. So, essentially, the far right has either kept or even strengthened its hold on the Republican Party, and by that I mean also the far right of the billionaires, ’cause even amongst billionaires you’ve got left and right.

WILKERSON: I’m not at all sure. I’m not nearly as confident as some of my Republican colleagues who at the last minute, you may have noticed, suddenly found a way to historically embrace Tea Party. I’m not so sure historically is the right way to embrace Tea Party, because I’m not sure this is a true populist movement more than it is a revolt against government in Washington as it is, Republican or Democrat. And in that sense, I listened to Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and others really closely tonight, because what I was hearing from them, I think, besides the euphoria, was watch out, we aren’t what you think we are, to the Republican leadership, and I think they’re going to demonstrate that. And if they can demonstrate it in a significant way, then, as I said, there’s going to be a problem ruling.

JAY: Which may not be so bad.

WILKERSON: Which may not be so bad. Colin Powell, I think, said not too long ago that it’d probably be best for Obama, he could govern better, if he had at least one of the houses in the hands of the other party. I think he’s onto something there. I think it may be true.

JAY: But there’s also an issue the Democratic Party has to face, too, which is—if they’re capable of it, is one of the things driving the Tea Party movement and why there seems to be so much sympathy for it amongst people who you wouldn’t normally think would support that kind of an ideology, is that there really is alienation from big government.

WILKERSON: Absolutely.

JAY: Big government is seen to be in the hands of an elite, and I think any objective observer would say, well, yeah, it is.

WILKERSON: I was involved with the 8th District of Missouri. A friend of mine in the Army is running out there against Jo Ann Emerson. He’s not doing too well right now, at least last time I checked, but he’s a solid citizen, he’s a veteran of the wars, and he decided to run. That’s Rush Limbaugh’s home district, by the way. I was at a political rally for him here in Washington, and a person in the audience—he’s a Democrat, obviously—the person in the audience asked him, will you promise—if I promise to give you money, will you promise not to use Washington as a bad word? And Tommy said, absolutely no, absolutely I will not make that compact with you, because in the 8th District of Missouri it is a bad word. And I think that’s true across the country. And I think for different reasons in different areas, many of them fiscal, in jobs and so forth, the Tea Party people who won exploited that.

JAY: So what happens over the next two years? A paralyzed Washington, one would think.

WILKERSON: That could be one outcome. Like I said, we could have another government stoppage, and that used as an example of our power to bring the government to its, you know [inaudible]

JAY: The Republicans passed a resolution over the summer. It didn’t get a heck of a lot of attention, but it was a resolution they got through the Senate, or at least proposed to the Senate, which didn’t pass (I should correct myself), but all the Republicans voted for it, which is essentially supporting an Israeli attack on Iran. To what extent will this control of the House put pressure for a more aggressive position by Obama vis-à-vis Iran?

WILKERSON: I’m hoping that the Tea Party element will cause that to attenuate somewhat. That’s what I’m hoping. There is a campaign going on right now—make no mistake about it, there is a campaign going on that I would say is probably about 1997, 1998, for example, with regard to Iraq. That’s where we are right now with regard to Iran. The same characters, some new ones added, are involved in this campaign, and they are marching us slowly, carefully, ruthlessly, and they believe inexorably, to war with Iran. And it involves, as I said, the same kind of coalition: the people who are for the security of Israel come hell or high water and don’t understand that they’re compromising Israel’s security, not securing it; the people who are adamant that freedom and democracy and Utopia must come to the Middle East and it must come within the next decade; the people who believe that nonrenewable fossil fuels can only be secured by American boots on the ground and that we’ve got to do that because they’re dwindling and we need to be there. And they’re—this group is working the same way they did on Iraq for war with Iran. If the House has a considerable element of these antiwar people in it, for whatever reason, fiscal or otherwise, that’s good, because they may be able to step in and sort of stick a wrench in that machine. But right now that machine is moving on, and I don’t see a lot of people standing up to try and stop that machine, especially in the media.

JAY: Well, it’ll be fascinating to see if the Tea Party people who have been against this kind of military foreign policy get eaten up by this machine or stand up to it. Thanks very much for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

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

End of Transcript

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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.