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As Putin visits Iran, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson and Paul Jay discuss the U.S./Saudi alliance in Syria and a relationship shrouded in secrecy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. With the recent attacks in Paris, a lot of attention has turned to the country many people think is the greatest sponsor of terror on the planet, and that’s Saudi Arabia. Given Saudi Arabia’s history and both its connections to the development of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Taliban, certainly its intervention in financing of extreme Islamic groups, I should say extremist groups who claim to be Islamist, in Syria, and so on, the question is why is the official American position on Saudi Arabia and its own human rights violations and so on, why is it so quiet? Now joining us to talk about that is Larry Wilkerson. Thanks for joining us, Larry. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul. JAY: Larry comes from Williamsburg, Virginia today. He’s the former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary. He’s a regular contributor. WILKERSON: Visiting professor, Paul. JAY: One of the major factors in the Saudi-American relationship is the massive arms purchases by Saudi Arabia of American arms, and of French arms, particularly. To what extent does this, I think anywhere from the last five years, one number is somewhere between $90-100 billion of American arms purchases. That doesn’t even touch what some of the French, and apparently recently somewhere in $11 billion in French arms. How much does this affect U.S. and French foreign policy, the fact that they have such a good customer in Saudi Arabia? WILKERSON: Massively. It affects that foreign and security policy massively. There’s no question about it. I would even say with Saudi Arabia now, especially with their fields growing more and more material, their oil fields, and Iraq’s fields looking like they might even surpass and probably do surpass Saudi remains, I’d say it has more importance than oil. And it also has to do with the GCC, which the Saudi Arabians sort of tacitly lead, the Gulf Cooperation Council, because they’re the people who have the money to buy things like Lockheed Martin’s, a lot of subcontractors there too, but Lockheed Martin’s the prime on this medium and high-altitude air defense. Extremely expensive systems. Billions and billions of dollars. Tens of billions of dollars. And so this is crucial to the number one defense contractor on the face of the earth, Lockheed Martin. If it’s crucial to Lockheed, it’s crucial to us. JAY: When you were in the State Department, you were working with Colin Powell, you were also his chief of staff when he was chairman of the joint chiefs. How does the Saudi role play out when you’re in these kinds of deliberations? For example, after 9/11 you were there. And a couple of years later Bob Graham’s joint congressional committee in their investigation found that the Saudi government was directly involved in facilitating and financing the 9/11 attacks. Now, whether you think that’s a correct conclusion or not, it certainly, one would think, would be something that should be unraveled and investigated far more than it was. We’d certainly know about the Saudis’ role in Afghanistan and Syria, and place after place where they finance terrorist activities. So when you’re in the actual office, like in the State Department or at the joint chiefs, how cognizant are you of this special relationship, to a large extent about arms purchases? WILKERSON: Well, this is an interesting question, Paul. From other research, documentation, and my own efforts as an academic, and just on my own, I’ve discovered some of the answer to your question. But the answer to your specific question is that it isn’t talked about in the halls of government. Not at the levels where I operated, anyway. I don’t even recall talking about it with the secretary of state, except in very general terms. And I don’t recall reading a summary of, a transcript, summary of conclusions transcript, of any National Security Council meeting where President Bush, the vice president, Secretary of State Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld and others, Dr. Rice, were present, where any of them talked about it in the way that you’re referring to. I think this is part of the danger of it. We don’t talk about it. We just do it. Now, in private conversations with Prince Bandar, for example, in the Oval Office, or elsewhere, it probably gets talked about. JAY: Prince Bandar, your time, was the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Who, known as, nicknamed Bandar Bush, he was so close to the president. WILKERSON: Right. And I’ve sat at table, Paul, with Turki Al-Faisal and Bandar, and I’ve listened to the conversation. And the conversation never goes to that kind of detail. You don’t do these sorts of things, in my view, you don’t do these sorts of things except behind and underneath and aside from, and so forth. You won’t have them exposed in the official process, even in the NSC deliberations, where a transcript could come out and haunt you in the future. These kinds of conversations take place when Dick Cheney gets on a plane, for example, as secretary of defense, and flies to Riyadh, and gets the royals together in Riyadh and tells them that Saddam Hussein’s army is about to invade Saudi Arabia. In 1990, of course. ’91, I guess. And there is no intel evidence that that was the case. That might have been Dick Cheney’s surmise. It might have even been my boss, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at the time, Colin Powell’s surmise. But there is no intelligence evidence that I’ve ever seen that shows that they were getting ready to make that right turn and to go into Saudi Arabia, and threaten Ras Tanura. But we said they were so that we could get permission from the Saudis to begin putting troops on the ground in Saudi Arabia. And of course, we deployed the 82nd. These kinds of things just don’t get talked about except in very, very private circles and very private circumstances. I would even call them secret circumstances. JAY: You know, it’s funny, because it’s in secret circumstances it gets talked about. On the other hand, the relationships are so obvious it’s the emperor with no clothes. For example–. WILKERSON: Isn’t that the truth? JAY: If you’re in the leadership of the Pentagon and you’re about to retire soon, and you’re planning to get some cushy job at Lockheed Martin, and Lockheed Martin is one of the biggest sellers of arms to Saudi Arabia. And now when you’re still in the Pentagon you’re going to be deliberating on policy that might affect these Saudi customers of yours, and what are their interests. And it’s really, it’s actually so apparent, yet it’s so little commented on. WILKERSON: I agree with you. And it’s not just Saudi Arabia. I mean, you take any big contractor that operates with the U.S. government, and any country that’s associated with those operations, and you’ve got exactly the revolving door you just described. You’ve got exactly that happening. No greater example of it exists than the vice president of the United States, former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, who was so buried inside Riyadh and other places that Halliburton wanted him to be their CEO. And he was their CEO. In 1998 he’s ranting about how sanctions against Iran are terrible. How they will never work, and how they ought to be lifted so that Halliburton can do business there. And then all of a sudden he becomes vice president, and Iran is the anathema of the world. I mean, that’s the kind of foreign policy, security policy, you’re going to get when it’s being influenced not by the nation’s interests but by the personal and private interests of a lot of these individuals who are complicit with this relationship. JAY: All right, thanks for joining us, Larry. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul. JAY: 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.