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Larry Wilkerson: Six big arms monopolies profit from tension and war; promote a strategic vision that favors their short term commercial interest

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Wilkerson Report with Larry Wilkerson.

Larry was the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: So let me just tell you a little story to start off, and then I want to ask you about it. I was at a dinner the other night. I was invited with some other journalists. It was a new sort of think tank or strategic consulting firm of some kind based in the Gulf Cooperation Council. They’re based in Dubai. They were opening their Washington, D.C., office.

And I was talking to some people at this dinner, about 100 people, including the ambassador from Qatar. And there were various officials from different GCC countries. And the person I was chatting with and a couple of other people at the table were talking about how the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, want the United States to attack Iran. And I said, you mean the same as Israel wants. And they nodded, yes. And the argument given was because of the Shia populations in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia. They think the Iranians are pushing their influence in the region through these Shia populations. And, of course, in Saudi Arabia, the Shia area is where most of the oil is. And generally speaking, there’s this long-term rivalry anyway between these Sunni countries and the Iranians. And they said this Shia-Sunni thing does matter to these people.

At any rate, the dinner was paid for by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and some of the other largest American arms manufacturers, and that’s who seems to be major funders for this outfit. And this is to a large extent about helping guide foreign policy in the GCC countries–and, obviously, sell them weapons. So my question, Larry, is: to what extent do these big arms manufacturers and their, you could say, narrow commercial interest influence, push, guide the foreign policy of countries like the GCC, but even more, foreign policy of the United States?

WILKERSON: Paul, I think they do quite a bit. It’s not as if the president of Lockheed Martin or Boeing or Raytheon is out looking for war. What it is is that they’re out looking for profits, and the more profits, the better. And so if you find a line of conversation–for example, Iran presents a decided threat to the Gulf Cooperation Council–then you can push that line and you can sell more armaments. I think we’re up in the $50 billion or $60 billion right now contemplated in just missile defense alone to the GCC countries. So this is an enormous influence on U.S. foreign and security policy, because ultimately what it does is it sets the conditions, intended or not, wittingly or unwittingly, for a more contentious, more tension-filled standoff between, in this case, Iran and the United States.

JAY: And I think back to Eisenhower’s speech about beware of the growing power of the military-industrial complex. And I went back and reread his speech. It wasn’t that Eisenhower said we shouldn’t have a massive military-industrial complex. He says the country needs that, given the current world situation and all that. But he says that they have inordinate power and people have to find a way to balance their power.

And I’m wondering: are we seeing some of that in today’s debate about Iran, where you see the Obama administration–and I think the Hagel appointment is further indication of this–does not want to go to war with Iran, sees the war of Iran as kind of a distraction from the big geopolitical picture facing the United States, the same way President Obama said he was against the Iraq War? Not because he’s against war. He made it very clear he’s no pacifist. He’s not against the United States as being the dominant military power in the world. He’s not against projecting U.S. power. But he sees, as he said when he went to Australia [incompr.] this Asian pivot strategically the United States has to maintain its military dominance in Asia, its Eurasia oil and gas. I mean, Obama seems far more Brzezinskian in his view of the world, that it’s about Eurasia, not about Iran. But that may be at odds with the shorter-term commercial interests of this sector.

WILKERSON: Well, you’ve just fallen into one of the traps that a lot of my esteemed colleagues fall into. Iran is in Asia, and Western Asia, but it’s in Asia.

I think one of the problems we have today that has magnified Eisenhower’s warning is not just the passage of time, in which we have become more of a national security state and thus more subject to the influence of the military-industrial-congressional complex, but also the fact that in ’92 or so, at the end of the Cold War, we went from having quite a few military contractors who battled each other in the typical American competitive spirit for contracts with the Pentagon down to about six really big ones.

And today what those six do is create monopolies. They collude. Lockheed Martin’ll be the prime, and Boeing and Raytheon and General Dynamics will be the subs, and so forth. And this influence has become more like a laser, and it has become more motivated by profits, because the profits are enormous–Lockheed Martin’s shares, for example, went from something like $25 a piece to about $125 a piece with the Iraq War–that they exercise an inordinate amount of influence over U.S. decision making. And your point that they might be something the president needs to counter is exactly what Dwight Eisenhower suggested.

But I will caution too that I think if you reread that speech, you’ll see the main point Eisenhower brings out is about, as he says, an alert citizenry. And that’s a direct phrase from the speech. And we simply don’t have an alert citizenry in this country today. He said that was absolutely essential to balancing the power of this complex. And we simply don’t have that today. And I think that’s a huge problem.

JAY: Now, if you–by the way, I know Iran is in Asia. My point was that in the view of the Obama administration, it seems the thesis is it’s all about China, which is more or less what Brzezinski talks about, and of course the oil and gas of the whole region.

But what I’m asking you, I guess, from when you were inside: how much pressure comes from those forces? I mean, we had the Iraq War. I mean, how much–to what extent was that a war that was the product of this kind of pressure from this complex? To what extent is Cheney, who we knew was–who was at Halliburton, how much does that represent a kind of a more banal commercial motive?

WILKERSON: We elected a defense contractor as vice president of the United States. That’s the bald-faced fact of the matter. We could be a Third World country in that regard. That defense contractor came from one of the most influential entities in the military-industrial complex. And to say that it didn’t have any influence on his decision making would be naivete in the highest degree, in my view.

Now, Dick Cheney didn’t say, go out and get me a war so Halliburton can make money. But if one thinks that does not have influence on the decision-making associated with the Bush administration, I think, as I said, one is just being totally naive.

JAY: And so when you look at the potential for some conflict with Iran, and in if in fact this is true that especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are pushing this alongside Netanyahu in Israel–and I guess it wouldn’t hurt the Saudis if the price of oil were to skyrocket, although it’d certainly hurt the American economy, and I think the Saudis don’t want to torpedo the American economy. They’ve tried to mitigate–.

WILKERSON: Yeah, and the Saudis have–essentially their oil ministry people have told me this. My figure’s a little old, but I doubt they’re too much out of date. About $88 a barrel for West Texas Intermediate or Brent crude, the benchmarks, is good for Saudi Revenues and not good for incentivizing alternative energy research. So they like that. But they need about $115 to $120 a barrel to continue and even increase their patronage levels so that they don’t get a lot of uproar in their own country, to buy people off, to buy the opposition off, if you will. So they’re sort of caught. They’re hoisted on their own petard, if you will. They’re caught between those two figures. At the same time, I think the Saudis are very, very concerned with not letting oil get too expensive, because then you do exactly what I just said, you incentivize other ways of creating energy.

JAY: And you could help trigger an even deeper recession globally and the United States, which is going to dry up a lot of demand. So it’s–. But I said this to the people I’m sitting around this table with. I say, I mean, how do they want to open this Pandora’s box, you know, the chaos that could emerge economically through the oil prices? Who knows what Iran does in terms of counterattack and such. I mean, do they really want to go down this road? And at least the people at the table are saying, yeah, that’s how much they want this. And three tables over are the representatives of Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and so on and so on.

So I guess what I’m asking you is, you know, during pre-First World War, there was this guy, [‘zArIkOf], I think his name was, and he was called the merchant of death. And he was taking ads out in the German papers, telling the Germans how the French had this new weapon that he–and doing the same thing on the French side, and he was selling machine guns to both sides and all that. I mean, how much of this stuff still goes on like this?

WILKERSON: I think a lot of it goes on. I think the question is: how much influence does it have on presidential decision making, and ultimately on the decision of a country like the United States to go to war? I think that influence has grown markedly since Dwight Eisenhower rendered his warning. And as I said, I think we’d all be naive if we didn’t realize that. And I think the American people are naive. They’re not that alert citizenry that Eisenhower called for to check and balance this kind of force.

And the second part of it, Paul, is: do we continue to have a threat in the world, an existential threat like the U.S.S.R. certainly was, that warranted, as Eisenhower said–very balanced speech, if you reread it–warranted the continuation of this establishment so necessary to fighting an enemy like the Soviet Union, whether you’re cold or hot?

I say we don’t have that kind of threat today, so why the devil are we still maintaining this huge military-industrial complex, which is so counter to all of our founding principles, when we don’t have that kind of an existential threat? We’ve created this military-terrorist-industrial complex, as Colin Powell has said, in order to sustain what we had vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. That’s wrong. We shouldn’t be doing it. We’re going to bankrupt ourselves [crosstalk]

JAY: And we are because of the political power of this sector?

WILKERSON: I think that’s part of the reason. They want to sustain themselves. We want, the president wants to maintain the jobs they create. And you go about doing this in various ways, one of which is making sure that you exploit the politics of fear sufficiently so you can continue to make all those high-dollar items–the F-35s, the F-22s, the LCSs, and other things that look to me like they might not be applicable to the threat in the world today. The only thing they’re applicable to are the profits of these essentially six giant defense contractors.

JAY: But one of the arguments given is that in order to be able to have such continued commercial dominance in the world, the United States needs such military dominance. Is there truth to that?

WILKERSON: Well, there’s truth to it if you think like John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, who, for example, plotted the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, essentially for the company that Allen Dulles, as I recall, was the director of, United Fruit Company, monopolizing bananas all throughout the region.

But I think it’s more complicated than that today, Paul. I think it’s hooked up in big oil. It’s hooked up in, as you said, the military-industrial complex. It’s hooked up in a combination of strategic theories that are battling each other right now, one being basically engagement and multilateralism, and the other being unilateralism and U.S. dominance, even U.S. hegemony. And we still are suffering from the conflict that that’s created.

It is also hooked up in the fact that we don’t seem to be able to get out of being what we have become, a national security state whose raison d’etre, to a certain extent, is war and more war. That’s scares me more than Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex. Though it’s a part of that problem, it is not the only problem. There are far more complex and other incentives and other motivations for maintaining this national security state.

And the only way to disestablish this national security state is for the American people to get extremely angry about it and demand it. And I just don’t see that. Instead, I see their acquiescence in everything from national security letters to maintaining Guantanamo to increased surveillance. They just don’t seem to be alert to the threat that this presents to our democratic federal republic.

JAY: Alright. 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.