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Lawrence Wilkerson: Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his generals put him in a corner on Afghanistan

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you today from our studio in Washington. President Obama spoke on Tuesday night, announced 30,000 more troops on their way to Afghanistan.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future. To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan: we must deny al-Qaeda a safe haven, we must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government, and we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

JAY: To help us understand why he made that decision and what the consequences thereof might be, I’m now joined by Lawrence Wilkerson. Lawrence was the chief of staff for Colin Powell at the State Department for four years, and before that, when Powell was the chair of the Chief Joints of Staff, he was his assistant there. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: First of all, let’s just start with President Obama’s stated reason for sending these troops to Afghanistan. Do you think this is the reason for sending thirty more thousand troops? Al-Qaeda?

WILKERSON: I think you have to examine the decision that he made in all of its dimensions. You didn’t mention that I also teach. You didn’t need to. What I teach is presidential national security decision-making—”fateful decisions”, I call them, decisions to send young men and young women to die for state purposes.

JAY: I thought there was a moment there when President Obama came out and looked at the audience and saw he’s talking about kids. I’m not sure that was the best place to make this speech, a room full of 22-year-olds.

WILKERSON: Yeah. There were some good aspects to it and some bad aspects to it. But it did, I think, mean he had to give a somber, sober, and sane speech that had lacked rhetorical flourish. He does not have the bona fides for speaking with rhetorical flourishes. I applaud him for recognizing that. Some have criticized the speech for being too realistic, too practical, too low-key. It’s exactly what he needed to give. I’ve talked to that audience two, three in the last two years, staff, faculty, and cadets.

JAY: At West Point.

WILKERSON: At West Point. And it’s been a sobering affair for me. They are concerned about where they’re going. They’re not happy in some respects about where they’re going. This is not the conventional wisdom. They’re not at all happy about where they’re going [inaudible]

JAY: Yeah, there weren’t a lot of hurrah-hurrahs going on there last night.

WILKERSON: A lot of the staff and faculty there are not happy about what they’re seeing happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan or generally with their armed forces. Now, let’s face it. The land forces have been at this now for seven, eight, going on nine years, if we count Afghanistan exclusively. They’re about broken. The bill for repairing my army, your army, America’s army, its probably upwards of $100 billion right now, just to replace the equipment—the airplanes, helicopters, and so forth—that we’ve destroyed or gravely damaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a different military right now. I daresay that it probably couldn’t fight a conventional war, because we’ve got artillerymen being infantryman, we’ve got MPs being infantrymen. We’ve got different kinds of enemy out there, and when you spend this much time after that enemy, you change your ethos, you change your training, you change the way you feel about conflict. It’s a very different military right now.

JAY: So what’s the vital national interest? The argument’s been made that even if you were to have some success with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, they have other places they can operate from, even Hamburg, if you want to plan an attack on the United States. So is it really about this organization called al-Qaeda? Or are there much bigger geopolitical objectives here that aren’t being talked about?

WILKERSON: Let’s go back to the dimensions of the decision-making. I’ve studied Harry Truman all the way forward, from World War II forward. I see a little bit of Harry, a little bit of LBJ, a little bit of JFK, but I don’t see in any of the previous presidents the combination that I saw impact President Obama’s decision. What do I mean by that? Well, he, like JFK about Cuba, had some rhetoric in his campaign that elevated Afghanistan to the point where he had to concentrate on it. So to a certain extent he’s hoist on his own petard, as JFK was with regard to Cuba. What did JFK get? He got the Bay of Pigs, because he accused Nixon of not having a plan about Cuba, and he won, and then, lo and behold, he found Nixon did have a plan about Cuba, and so he had to execute the Bay of Pigs. It turned out to be a fiasco, almost ruined his presidency. Obama’s got that kind of personally created campaign rhetoric that locked him in to a decision about Afghanistan. He also has the pressure of his generals in the field. Harry Truman had that. Harry Truman had to fire General Douglas MacArthur. General McChrystal, and General Petraeus to a lesser extent, Petraeus being the more politically astute, I think, put Obama further into the corner.

JAY: But before they put them in a corner, Obama appointed McChrystal, and he knew what McChrystal was made of.

WILKERSON: But Obama was here listening to the ultimate company man in the administration, Robert Gates. Bob Gates has been a Cold War warrior, director of the CIA—the only man to make it up through the ranks of the CIA to the director’s position—for his entire life. Bob Gates doesn’t know anything but that way. I like Bob Gates. He’s a good guy. But Bob Gates couldn’t think outside of the Cold War box if he tried. Bob Gates is a company man. He is captured by the environment that he grew up in. Bob Gates was one of the ones who—for example, when Colin Powell was speaking about the bear being dead in the Soviet Union because he knew Gorbachev was serious, Bob Gates was one of the ones saying, “You’d better be quiet. The bear’ll be back. The bear’ll be back,” because Bob Gates couldn’t surrender the Soviet Union as a threat. So I know how Bob Gates thinks, and Bob Gates gave Obama McChrystal, and to a certain extent gave him other bureaucratic pressures about the decision he had to make. I’m sure Bob Gates was not advocating withdrawing from Afghanistan. I’m sure he was advocating at least the political decision to add some forces. All these pressures plus more impacted on the president’s decision. So he did not make a militarily strategic decision. This also probably concerned some of the faces at West Point. He made a decision that was pure politics because you can’t do what he wants to do or what he is professing to do with just 34,000 more troops.

JAY: Certainly within 18 months.

WILKERSON: Yeah. If you put a Ken Shinseki template on Afghanistan right now, given the murderous terrain, given the size of the country (one and a half times the size of Iraq), given the composition and size of the population, given seven, eight years of under-resourcing and neglect by the Bush administration, if you put a Shinseki template on there, a quarter of a million more soldiers and Marines would give you a 50/50 chance of fighting a successful counterinsurgency over the next five to ten years.

JAY: And by Shinseki template you’re talking about General Shinseki, who talks about how many troops you really need for Iraq [inaudible] one of those objectives he turned out to be right.


JAY: So pressure from the Pentagon and the bureaucracy who probably don’t agree with the 18-months-and-out business and probably think he’s never going to be able to do that. Once you’re in, how do you get out if the conditions on the ground don’t allow it?

WILKERSON: I remember General Shalikashvili saying that we would probably be in the Balkans for six or eight months to my Marine Corps War College seminar, and we all smiled. It was about five years later that we begin to draw down troops.

JAY: This is classic television 800 sales. You know, we’ll give you this for $4.95; we’ll upsell you once we get you on the telephone.


JAY: The other side of it, though, is president Obama’s own conception of foreign policy. When he campaigned—and I don’t know why anyone’s surprised by any of this now—it wasn’t just that he said Afghanistan was the war we must fight. He also rooted his foreign policy in Truman. He called himself a pragmatic, a believer in pragmatic US foreign policy, which in fact believes in this thesis that US needs to be the superpower. And he seems to have that very ingrained in him that the United States needs to be dominant in all of the key places in the region. [inaudible] beliefs coincide more or less what the Pentagon wanted.

WILKERSON: Well, Dick Cheney certainly doesn’t believe that about President Obama. That’s been one of his major riposts, if you will, that the president doesn’t agree that America should be number one, that it should be the most powerful country, that it should be feared before it’s loved. And I think there’s some reason—although lately I’ve been hard pressed to find any reason in Dick Cheney’s remonstrances, I think there is a touch of reason in that, that this president thinks more practically, more realistically about power, and in particular about American power. I don’t mean that he bows to the Japanese emperor or that he does other simply magnanimous, polite, diplomatic maneuvers, that he gives speeches in Ankara or speeches in Cairo that tell the Muslims we essentially—1.4 billion of them—that we don’t want a war with them. That’s important. But what’s more important is I think I see in this president a recognition that we are not the extraordinary power that Dick Cheney and George Bush preached that we were, that we were indeed the hegemon of the world, the new Rome. I think he sees us as a country that needs to increasingly get along with the rest of the world, that needs to do things like work on global challenges that can’t be met by a single nation, not even one as powerful as we are.

JAY: But isn’t that more or less—if you take out certainly the first four years of Bush, it’s not that far [from] what 50 years of US foreign policy has been. This, the Bush first term, was more the anomaly.

WILKERSON: I would agree with you, although I could paint a picture to Bush all the way from the 1947 National Security Act, the creation of the CIA, the creation of the Pentagon as it were, the unification of the Armed Forces, and the National Security Council, the three institutional creations of that act, I can paint you a picture to George Bush. It’s one route, but I can show you that route. I can show you how we have gone militarized. I can show you how we have a trillion-dollar annual budget for the Defense Department—nuclear, VA, and everything else—and we have a $35 billion for the diplomatic department, the State Department. I can show [inaudible] military, George Marshall said to President Truman, “I feel what we have done is militarize decision-making.” He was absolutely right.

JAY: But we see, other than the unilateralism of George Bush, first term, junior, George Bush [inaudible]

WILKERSON: George Bush just took the wraps off of it.

JAY: But where was Obama differentiating himself, either on the budget, certainly with this Afghan policy? There’s a difference in tone, but is there a difference in substance?

WILKERSON: I’m waiting for that. He hasn’t had that long, if you think about it. I’m waiting for it. The soaring rhetoric needs to be backed with words—I mean with actions. The words need to be backed with actions. And I will tell you—.

JAY: Action number one here, Afghanistan and 30,000 troops.

WILKERSON: Well, [inaudible] as I said, I don’t think he had any choice. I do not think he had any choice. He deliberated over it, and I’m glad he did. He didn’t pull out his .45 and shoot it like George Bush did all the time, with Dick Cheney putting ammunition in the gun. He deliberated over this decision. And as he deliberated, I think he had arrayed for him all the bad choices—there were no good choices—all the bad choices. I think last night we heard him pick the least worst choice. That’s the political reality. That’s the strategic reality. The barrel is empty on land forces. The generals are in the field. That’s the reality of it. What I really found comforting last night, in a sort of counterintuitive way, is his reference to Eisenhower, who constantly said things like, “Our strength and our security and our power is not in tanks and airplanes; it’s not even soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines. Our strength is our economic base. Our strength is in the caliber and quality of our citizenry. Our strength is in our Republic.” “When we forget that,” and Eisenhower said to his granddaughter, Susan, “I fear for the day when someone sits in this chair”—referring to the Oval Office—”who doesn’t understand the military the way I do.” Eisenhower was the quintessential warrior, five-star general, but he understood where our strength really lay, and he also understood, when you threaten our economic base, you threaten our existence. And I heard that last night from President Obama.

JAY: But it went with something else. He said last night, he said that our domestic economic and intellectual people’s strength—but he said it’s the base of the foundation of our power.


JAY: Clearly it is. But is he still not, in terms of Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex—.

WILKERSON: I know what you’re saying. I don’t think his vision for that power is hegemony. I just don’t think that. I may be wrong.

JAY: Then why, other than—I mean, other than the pressure coming from the bureaucracy and the Pentagon, why buy into the Afghan expansion if—? This is where I get back to my first question. Is it really about al-Qaeda? Or is it about America’s role in the region, and he’s buying into the concept that America has to have this military dominance, political dominance, in this resource-fabulously-wealthy region?

WILKERSON: I don’t think this is an expansion. I know that sounds strange, but I don’t think this is an expansion. Thirty thousand more troops, thirty-four thousand, whatever it is, plus another six or seven, perhaps, from NATO, that’s hardly an expansion.

JAY: Well, if it ends there. I mean, we said earlier in the interview, if the Pentagon has a—.

WILKERSON: I don’t think it can go any further. First of all, you’ve got 400 million feckless Europeans who are not going to let it go any further. I’ve talked to a number of capitals in the last five days, and I’ve had trouble from keeping myself, my soldier side, from being angry, because I’ve listened to the Dutch, I’ve listened to the French, I’ve listened to the Germans, and here’s the issue: we can’t spend anymore; we can’t send any more. They’re all thinking about how we’re going to get out. Gordon Brown’s thinking about how he’s going to get out, who’s probably our most staunch ally. The Dutch have been—they’ve been tremendous throughout this whole process of fighting the war on terror, and they’re a tiny little country, but they’re all thinking about leaving.

JAY: And Canadians [inaudible]

WILKERSON: Yeah. Yeah, when I hear the director-general say, “Oh, 5,000 troops and maybe 6,000 or 7,000 troops, so maybe even more will be going,” I think, that’s not even a division. You’re 400 million strong and you had a $16 trillion GDP last year, and you can only send—? Your point about NATO. NATO is moribund in most respects if it loses in Afghanistan. And this is another pressure on the president’s decision. If NATO loses in its first real excursion into outer-area operations, which is the only raison d’être it has, NATO’s finished. It may stay around for another 20 or 25 years, but it won’t be an effective political or military alliance.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s just dig in further: why go there; what’s at stake. And let’s talk about what I think is the elephant in the room is this growing Indian-American alliance and what that means for Pakistan. And all of this had to be part of the deliberations—certainly one hopes it was. So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Lawrence Wilkerson.

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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.