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Lawrence Wilkerson on the strategic implications of the “end” of the war in Iraq

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. President Obama has announced that the last American combat troops have left Iraq. He has described this as essentially a successful mission. Here’s what he said to ABC News recently.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: I would describe our troops as having succeeded in the mission of giving to the Iraqis their country in a way that gives them a chance for a successful future.


JAY: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, thousands of American soldiers have died, thousands of Iraqis and Americans have been wounded and maimed, but set aside all of that for now. Just where does this Iraq War leave American geopolitical strategy? Now joining us to talk about all of this is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He was Colin Powell’s chief of staff. Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: What has this war told the world about American power? ‘Cause it seems to me that the United States did not succeed in regime change and creating a regime that would end up as a pro-American regime, which clearly was a Bush-Cheney objective. And it did undermine, weaken American military power extensively, did it not?

WILKERSON: It did to a certain extent, because it more or less, strategically speaking, put Iran in the catbird seat. Iraq, after all, was the regional balancer of Iran. Taking Iraq out meant there was no balancer other than our troop presence in the region for Iran, so it strategically benefited Iran. Let’s look at it from another perspective too, though. There is a consequence here that accrues to anyone in the imperial pursuit, as we are today. Most of the people–. I’ve just come back from Seoul, Korea; before that I was in Rome, Italy. Most of the people with whom I talk, elites and what I would call the substrata beneath the elites in terms of education, money, power, and so forth, they know why we went to Iraq. It’s a three-letter word. It begins with O and ends with L. That’s what they think the United States did in Iraq. And in that sense they see it as clearly an imperial move, a power move, and a move that’s understandable in that sense–not a move that’s loved or creates any friends in the world, but it’s a move that’s understandable. And they’re kind of mystified to a certain extent right now, as Dick Cheney would say and has said, as to why we haven’t left a serious troop presence in Iraq, because they feel like that oil needs that serious troop presence to protect it. And ultimately, at the end of the day, let’s see what rolls out. They might be right.

JAY: Well, I suppose they didn’t leave a serious troop presence ’cause the Iraqi says to get out. They couldn’t get an extension of the agreement, and I don’t–could the–America afford years more of a battle against the Iraqis? In this case they might even have had sections of the Iraqi government telling them to get out. Certainly Maliki maybe wanted to extend it himself, but he couldn’t get support for that in the Iraqi Parliament.

WILKERSON: That’s one reason why he’s so uneasy now, not to mention the fact that he’s psychologically predisposed to conspiracy theories. He’s uneasy because he has no U.S. force presence to protect him. So that’s one of the reasons he’s moving to consolidate power. You’re–again, you’re not going to get me to say that the U.S. presence in Iraq was a positive thing or that our invasion was a positive thing. But if I boil it down to the purest strategic ingredients, oil is the only thing that makes any sense. And since we have more or less made sure that that’s taken care of, in the short term at least, I don’t see it as being a strategic failure in not having troops on the ground. It could very well turn into that. What do I mean by that? I mean Royal Dutch Shell just got a multibillion dollar contract for the gas above ground. Through Chinese front companies and through other front companies, ExxonMobil, Elf, Total, everybody in the world in the private oil business and some in the public oil business is there and fairly content with the prospects for the future. Maliki himself has said he’s going to be at 13.7 billion barrels per day production–million barrels per day production capacity in seven or eight years. He may not make that, but that shows you what the potential is. And that potential will be protected by the world community as it turns out to be true and as it begins to send that oil into the oil market, because Saudi Arabia is drying up, frankly. I fully expect Saudi Arabia to render some reports here down the road a year or so away that are going to say, in essence, to OPEC and others, our production capacity is where it is and it can never get any higher again.

JAY: So in terms of the empire project, this sort of vision of United States as the dominant power, I take what you’re saying about the oil companies having succeeded in terms of the contracts, although they haven’t been able to monopolize the market as perhaps they might have. China and some of the other countries that were not part of the invasion are doing pretty well. But–.

WILKERSON: China’s been doing pretty well since we started occupying ourselves in these seemingly endless wars. The Chinese love it. They love it that we’re doing what we’re doing, frittering away our power, while they build their own power.

JAY: Right. And is there also not a message here that in spite of this enormous power, United States just can’t go in and shape countries as it pleases? One country tied down almost the entire military–American military.

WILKERSON: I hope that’s the lesson we learn. We didn’t learn it in Vietnam. We didn’t learn it in Afghanistan. We’re still trying to build–state-build in Afghanistan. We didn’t learn it in Somalia. We don’t learn it anywhere we go. We are not good state builders. In fact, if you look at the history of state building, the British perhaps could be hauled out as an exemplar of it. They succeeded only about 20 or 30 percent of the time. They failed the rest of the time, miserably in some cases. You just do not do very well state building at the point of a gun. The cases where we have done well, like Germany and Japan post-World War II, is where we utterly devastated our enemy before we started the state building. In other words, we were all-powerful. Whether it was Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo or General Clay and his boys in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, we had utterly defeated those two countries, and then we could pretty much build at will what we wanted. So we’re not very good at this. Why do we keep doing it?

JAY: Well, that’s a good question. And if you listen to the Republican Party, and to a large extent the hawks within the Democratic Party, which may probably–includes President Obama, they don’t–they seem ready to do it again. I mean, their attention is focused on Iran.

WILKERSON: They seem to be ready to do it in Iran, and Syria even. This is preposterous. I mean, if you think Iraq was a problem, United States, wait until you see Iran, 70-plus million, of whom about 55 percent are Persian, the rest are probably ready to adhere to that national aspect that is Iran. Wait till you see that one if you think Iraq was tough. Talk about 100,000, 160,000, 200,000 troops? Forget it. Take at least 500,000. I’d put 750,000 in Iran if I wanted to have effect on it after the conflict. Where are we going to get 750,000 troops? Because there aren’t going to be many people in the international community who will join us, and we’re not about to start conscription again. So this is a preposterous road we’re marching down towards war with Iran.

JAY: And who’s driving this within the U.S. political economic entity? Obviously, Israel or at least Netanyahu’s pushing it and the Likud and right wing are pushing it. But there’s got to be, you know, American forces behind it, I mean in terms of the political forces. Clearly the Republicans are at the head of this, but not only. Who’s driving this?

WILKERSON: I see behind it the same people who were behind the march to war with Iraq, the neoconservatives in this country, from Richard Perle to Bill Kristol to you name them. And they have various and sundry reasons for it. But a lot of the them are not so utopian, not so misty-eyed, as freedom-and-democracy, and so forth and so on. A lot of them are just based on money. They have a lot of interest in Western Asia, they have a lot of things they want protected, they have a lot of things they want to generate money for them, not least of which the military-industrial complex. They want to sell, for example, billions and billions and billions of dollars of low-altitude, medium-altitude, and even high-altitude air defense to the countries in the GCC and elsewhere in the region. That’s where they see their profits coming from in the future. You’ve got to protect that. You’ve got to have U.S. forces around to help you protect that. It’s a whole lot of reasons. But if you boil it down to the ultimate fundamental reason, it’s money.

JAY: And do they want war? Or they want perpetual instability and almost war?

WILKERSON: Perpetual instability and almost war is a good way to define what they want. War, though, if it ultimately comes to it, and particularly with Iran, because for them Iran having a nuclear weapon is not just unacceptable in rhetoric, it’s unacceptable in reality. And so they’re willing to use military force. Of course, none of them–this is–this must be pointed out, and I can’t believe that America doesn’t grasp this more solidly–none of them is willing to fight for that Iran.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Larry.


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.