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Col. Larry Wilkerson digs into Marco Rubio’s worldview and foreign policy positions

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to this edition of the Larry Wilkerson Report on the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. According to a recent New Hampshire poll, Florida Senator Marco Rubio is in third place for the Republican presidential nomination. Rubio has often spoken of himself as the best candidate on foreign policy. He recently appeared on Face the Nation to comment on Obama’s decision to send 50 special forces into Syria. Let’s have a look. SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Well, it’s an important start to what I think–from a tactical perspective. I think the broader issue is what is the strategy? And I think the strategy has to involve more coordination with the Kurds, and also with Sunnis. Because you’re not going to defeat ISIS, a radical Sunni movement, without a robust anti-ISIS Sunni coalition. So I do think it’s an important tactical step forward. It needs to be backed up with increased air strikes and so forth. So I don’t have a problem with the tactics of it, and the numbers might even have to be larger at some point. But I think the bigger issue is, can they arrive at a strategy? And that’s what I think the administration is still struggling to outline. PERIES: To discuss this I’m joined by Larry Wilkerson. He’s a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the college of William and Mary, where he teaches U.S. national security. Larry, thank you so much for joining us today. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: So Marco Rubio is now in third place. Is he the best foreign policy candidate the Republicans have? WILKERSON: Frankly, Sharmini, he frightens me a bit. First of all, when I started work for Colin Powell in 1989 he was a freshly minted four-star general, taking over a command called the U.S. Forces Command in Atlanta, Georgia. And that command had a, a role in the wider tapestry of American military activities throughout the world. And so as a consequence, having just come out of the White House as first deputy national security advisor and then national security advisor to Ronald Reagan, Powell had a writ that most Army four-stars simply don’t have. And I was hired as his speechwriter, initially. And I was to put some of what was his writ in speeches. And largely what it was was Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about national security and about the Soviet menace, and so forth and so on. But it was of course the end of the Cold War, and so we were speaking about not the, the preeminent threat of the Soviet Union. We were speaking about what is does the preacher do when the devil dies, for example? In other words, we were losing our threat, and we were going to have to find a new one. Well, Marco Rubio not only has found one new one, he’s found several of them. China, Russia, Iran, and so forth. But the riveting nature of Rubio’s article in Foreign Affairs, and his speeches and so forth was that he was resurrecting Ronald Reagan. That’s all I could think. The phraseology, the rhetoric, was all about the same as Ronald Reagan’s. And not only is that out of sync, not only is it anachronistic, even, not only does it mean he’s buried in the kind of Cold War rhetoric that existed during that conflict, it means that he’s talking about things totally out of context with the existing situation in the world. And the main problem there is he doesn’t seem to understand that America’s role in the world is changing every day. That others’ role in the world is changing in consonance with that. That our power is coming down, if you will. Their power is rising. And what we need to do is develop an entirely new strategy for how to live and exist, cooperate, collaborate, and yes, fight from time to time, one hopes less so than not, in this new world. I’m really stunned that his foreign policy is the foreign policy of the past. PERIES: Larry, evoking Ronald Reagan seems to be something that’s very popular on the part of the, not only the Republicans, but also the Democrats. It seems to have some resonance. So what is it about Ronald Reagan’s policy that Rubio thinks he can benefit from specifically in terms of Syria, here? WILKERSON: I think it’s largely this business of telling the American people about [inaud.]. Ronald Reagan was perhaps opportunistic, politically speaking, but I think he was also right to assert [inaud.] in reinforcing the myth, the myth about American exceptionalism, the myth about American power, the myth about America’s desire to lead the world, America’s right to lead the world. All of that was, is, and will continue to be a myth. Myths are important. And at that particular time Reagan saw Vietnam, he saw other instances of American malaise, as Jimmy Carter so aptly called it. And he wanted to restore the faith of the American people in their country, and in their military in particular. So he did what he did at the time that was opportunistic, politically, but it was also opportunistic in terms of the strategic situation in the world. After all, he closed out the cold war. He and George H.W. Bush, his vice president. So this is not something that Ronald Reagan could roundly be criticized for. People have of course criticized him, including me, for certain aspects of it. But one could understand Ronald Reagan doing what he did at the time he did it. It’s very difficult to understand Marco Rubio resurrecting all of that now, except for one reason: political opportunism. The positive goes over better than the negative. Look at John Kasich, for example. He keeps telling us how fiscally strapped we are, how crazy we are not to think about that and do something about it. And he’s absolutely right. But he is way down in the polls. Marco Rubio tells us about how we’re exceptional, we’re the greatest nation in the world. We have to lead the world. We need the strongest military in the world, and so forth. We don’t need to spend, as Dwight Eisenhower said, one more penny on our military. We need to cut about $100 billion a year for the next ten years, save a trillion dollars, is what we need to do. Marco Rubio is dealing in the past, but very craftily so, because he knows the American people, or at least enough of them to get him the primary and maybe even get elected, like to hear that kind of rhetoric. Love to hear that kind of rhetoric. Indeed, live for that kind of rhetoric. PERIES: Larry, in terms of his specific comments related to Syria, how does that differ from, say, Obama’s or Clinton’s? WILKERSON: The comments that you just played are an interesting set of comments, from all the perspectives that I just suggested. First of all, he kind of agrees that putting troops on the ground, 50 or so special operating forces, is the right way tactically, as he said, to go. But it belies any strategic approach. Putting any troops on the ground in Syria, any U.S. troops, is a disaster and a recipe therefore. I have to praise President Obama for putting no more than 50. And what these people were going to do are probably whole handheld laser guidance devices and so forth, and direct U.S. airpower, which to this point has been rather feckless, as opposed to Russian airpower, which has been very effective because they have boots on the ground directing that airpower. So that’s what he’s trying–he’s trying to sort of square that circle, if you will. But any ground forces in Syria is nonsense. Any ground forces of consequence. The further application that he gives to the strategic appraisal that he thinks, or he suggests, might be right, again is nonsensical. And even dangerous, because it hints at the possibility of even more ground forces and the U.S. taking a ground force role in the combat there, which would be tantamount to disaster. PERIES: And Hillary Clinton’s position on Syria? WILKERSON: I don’t like Hillary Clinton’s position much better than I do Rubio’s, although I have to say I’ve not really heard that position articulated in a way that I think I [learned] about Marco Rubio’s approach to foreign policy, by reading his foreign policy piece, his foreign affairs piece, and listening to his speeches and so forth. Here’s a man, for example, who declared three cases, if you will, as declarative. As indicative of what his foreign policy would be. China, Iran, and Russia. And in all cases it’s a prescription for disaster. If we want to make an enemy, a really formidable enemy out of China, if we want to make a really formidable enemy out of Russia, and if we don’t want to take advantage of the sort of break in icy relations with Iran that the new Iran nuclear agreement foretells, and that’s essentially what he’s saying. He’s saying I want an enemy in China, I want an enemy in Russia. And oh, by the way, let’s scrap that agreement with Iran. I want an enemy there. Then I don’t want him anywhere near the White House. This is all coming from a gentleman who’s been listening to people, who I listened to, had to listen to when I was a member of the George W. Bush administration. These people are certifiable, as George H.W. Bush said, send that plane back to the crazies in the basement of the Pentagon. I say the same thing about Marco Rubio’s foreign policy. Send it back to the crazies in the basement of whatever building from whence it came. PERIES: All right, Larry. Thank you so much for joining us today. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: 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.