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Larry Wilkerson: Obama policy to fuel civil war but avoid military intervention in Syria; Neo-cons pushing for direct intervention as lead up to Iran

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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 Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who now joins us in the studio in Baltimore.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: So I think everybody knows Larry’s introduction, but just in case, Larry was chief of staff for Colin Powell for many years and now teaches at William & Mary College and is regularly on The Real News and other places.

So I wanted to ask you a question about where we’re at in this debate that’s taking place in Washington and, I guess, in military, diplomatic circles. And we’re starting to hear the debate about Iran and about Syria and whether to intervene or not. We’re hearing kind of these things coming up through The New York Times and op-eds, The Washington Post. And on Syria what’s being said is it’s time for the U.S. to find a way to intervene. They’re not quite defining what intervene means, but The Washington Post yesterday said find a way to intervene to end the war as quickly as possible. It’s not clear if that means shifting the balance of power to give a lot more arms to the rebels or does it mean more than that. Then you’re also starting to hear talk about Iran, that Iran really couldn’t hit back very strongly if they were hit. There’s–they make reference to the way–what was supposed to have been a nuclear facility in Syria a few years ago, and the Israelis hit it, and the Syrians never did much about it, and they’re saying, oh, look, the Iranians after making all this noise can’t afford real counterattack, ’cause it would invite an onslaught against them, so it’s safe to attack Iran. It’s–all sounds like pre-Iraq War. Even the people on both sides seem very similar.

WILKERSON: I think you’re right. I think it does sound like a lot of what I heard in 2002 and early 2003 before we invaded Iraq. And it’s the same choir singing off essentially the same sheet of music.

There are some nuances, though. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for Hillary Clinton at the State Department, has put out a piece that is almost Samantha Power like, that is to say, we must, we must, or we’ll have another Rwanda on our hands, we must intervene in Syria. Anne-Marie doesn’t specify exactly how we should do that.

Robert Hunter, Ambassador Robert Hunter has a piece out saying we shouldn’t. And I think Ambassador Hunter has the better part of the argument, because there is simply nothing the United States can do that will stop the killing in any meaningful way. Probably what we’ll do is exacerbate it.

This is a civil war. This isn’t Rwanda. This is a civil war. And we’ve got Alawites, and we’ve got Sunnis, and we’ve got the Saudis backing the Sunnis, and we’ve got others backing the Shia Allawite. We’ve got Iran, of course, heavily involved inside Syria. We’ve got China and Russia standing on the sidelines waiting to see what’s going to happen with regard to U.S. intervention or not.

This is a very different problem from Rwanda, a much more serious problem in its military and strategic ramifications. Perhaps Rwanda shines a light on a lack of humanitarian action when one group of people is committing genocide against another group of people, but that’s not what’s happening here.

What’s happening here is a lot of brutal death, but it’s a civil war. It’s a civil war with lots of elements. And so it’s extremely difficult to imagine how U.S. military power, which is not the cure-all for every disease in the world, would intervene in a way that would not make the situation worse than it already is.

JAY: Daniel Pipes, who is usually allied with the neocons and speaks for or echoes a lot of what’s said in the right-wing Israeli circles, right-wing Likud circles, he wrote a piece the other day that says, let them all kill each other. In fact, right now he’s saying American policy should actually favor shoring up Assad ’cause he seems to be weakening, and it’s in Israel’s–actually, I don’t think he used the word Israel; he said America’s interest (excuse me, Mr. Pipes), America’s interest to let them all kill each other.

WILKERSON: I think that’s a fair approximation of what you might look at if you were looking at it ruthlessly, brutally as a strategist and you were saying, what would be best in order to terminate the killing swiftly and to put some kind of stability back in place. And I could understand someone saying that in that event, if that’s your objective, then the best thing to do is to shore up Assad and let the stability he brought be restored and see how long it’ll last.

JAY: Well, Pipes wasn’t quite arguing that. Pipes was: shore up Assad until Assad looks too strong; then shore up the rebels and let them go strong.

WILKERSON: Yeah, let them all go ahead and kill each other.

JAY: In other words, let this civil war go on forever. And one can see, if one’s looking at this, certainly, from right-wing Israeli interest, that’s not such a bad situation, ’cause now there’s such chaos and disorder and Assad’s so weak, any time you want to blow something up on–a shipment on its way to Hezbollah–.

WILKERSON: Just the way the Israelis just did.

JAY: Yeah, and you get away with it.

WILKERSON: I would not want to be in Israel’s position right now. I’ve said this before. I’ll say it again. I think Israel is in as dangerous a position strategically, geopolitically as she’s been since 1948. That’s pretty bad. Look around Israel. Brutal civil war in Syria. Egypt, no one knows. Big question mark over what was the bastion of Israeli-Arab peace, Egypt. King of Jordan making public statements saying he might not want to be king any longer. Lebanon’s government walks in and out of a revolving door, and Nasrallah of Hezbollah is gaining more and more political control. Iraq is in the hands of Iran. Nouri al-Maliki might as well be Persian. The civil war in Iraq is heating up again as the Sunnis realize Maliki’s bent and our funding the Sunnis inside Iraq to reclaim their power in Baghdad. The Kurds in the north are about to declare their own independent state and tell the rest of Iraq to go to hell. This is a true mess, largely started by the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the incompetence of the occupation afterwards. This is a real mess.

And Israel is looking at the only ally it has on the face of the earth in Washington. Everyone else in the region is against it.

JAY: So it seems to me the drumbeats for intervening in Syria can’t be disconnected from the drumbeats for an attack on Iran.

WILKERSON: No, it’s a backdoor.

JAY: And if you go down that road, you’ve really got to go down that road. And are these people serious?

WILKERSON: They’re serious, but they don’t understand what they’re serious about. Some of them do, but very few. Let’s face it. None of them have ever been in war in their life. So what we’re looking at here is people who are neophytes at this sort of thing, just as they were in 2003. And look what we got in 2004 and ’05 and ’06. What they’re looking at is bombing Iran.

I agree that the Iranians would probably not do very much in retaliation. What could they do, after all? Unleash Hezbollah? Send it around the world? These can be some pretty dire things in the long run, but they’re not strategically game-changing things.

So what could Iran do? Well, I’ll tell you what Iran’ll do. They’ll make a decision to build a nuclear weapon as the bombs are dropping, and they’ll build that nuclear weapon, and then the only thing the United States will be able to do is invade, occupy, $2 trillion to $3 trillion, ten years, and the results at the end of that decade will be just like the results in Afghanistan and Iraq today. So sign up to that, baby, if you want to be derelict in your duty again.

JAY: That bombing Iran leads to the decision that every intelligence agency so far has said Iran hasn’t made, which is to build a bomb. But you start bombing, then they make the decision.

WILKERSON: Absolutely. And what Bob Menendez and John McCain and Lindsey Graham and others like them are really after is regime change. And the only way you’re going to change the regime in Iran is to invade.

JAY: Now, the Obama administration does not seem to be on that page, both the appointment of Hagel and the rhetoric from President Obama. They don’t seem to want to do that.

WILKERSON: They don’t, and I’m glad for that. I voted for President Obama, and I began to wonder why. The Iran issue, as you just pointed out, may be the reason why. He doesn’t seem to have a predeliction, even a desire, to go to war yet again in Asia and squander American blood and treasure on something that is unsolvable by American military power.

JAY: And does he stand up under this pressure? I guess we don’t know the answer yet. But how much is this pressure building? As I said, we saw op-ed in The New York Times, The Washington Post. You’re starting to really see these forces gathering in a way they weren’t in the last two, three years.

WILKERSON: You’re right. As with Guantanamo Bay, the president has helped some of those forces to gather beneath him. His use of the phrase red line, for example, with regard to chemical weapons, was an inept use of that term. I would say presidents should never use the term red line, myself.

But he also has a red line with regard to Iran. What is it? No option is off the table–repeated, repeated, repeated. That means that when you get to the point where your diplomatic track is not working–and the Republicans and others will be all over him to make sure they identify that point really well–then you’ve got two options. You either step down from your rhetoric and say, I didn’t mean it, or you exercise the military option. So the president himself, by his own rhetoric, as has been the case with him in other instances, has trapped–has painted himself into a certain corner with regard to Iran. I can only think that he probably hopes he can get out of the second term in office before this rhetoric comes home to bite him.

JAY: And the people that want regime change, the people that are driving for, you know, real–we hear calls for military intervention in Syria from these forces, Lindsey Graham and those circles. And they’ve been, you know, bomb–John McCain’s been bomb, bomb, bomb Iran for many years ago. What drives them? They must see themselves the kind of chaos that this is going to create. Do they want that? I mean, and how much? I’ve asked you this question before, but I don’t know how to discuss it without asking it again. How is this also–how much of this is just about banal wars? A lot of people make a lot of money out of this kind of war.

WILKERSON: A lot of it is about that, Paul. The military-industrial-congressional complex is alive and thriving well, even in this age of sequestration.

The Greeks had a saying: old men send young men to die in war. That’s John McCain. He’s an old man. He’s over the hill. In many respects it’s the same with Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez and others like them who are constantly calling for war. You don’t see their children going to these wars. You don’t see anyone related to them going to these wars. I’m constantly amazed at how many times I meet congressmen and others in the leadership who want to use the military instrument, but their family is nowhere near that military instrument. Sign up again, John. Get on over there and do your thing. I think old men ought to go to war.

But it’s bigger–as you intimated, it’s bigger than that. Lots of people are invested in this war machine now. Lots of people have heavy investments in it. Lots of people make big, big money off this war machine.

It’s not just that. It’s other things too. It’s American hegemony. It’s we have been defied. We have been shown that our superpowerdom now exclusive to us post Cold War can be challenged, people can say they don’t want to live under the kind of regime that we absolutely insist they live under. That can’t happen, that can’t happen, because the smallest little crack in that facade of American power would be delimiting. It would be utterly, utterly failure for the United States.

That’s the way these people think. They’re strange people, in my mind. They don’t understand that there’s a big world out there, and there are a lot of people in this world, and the way to get along in this world is not with military power, it’s with economic and financial and diplomatic and political power. Military, keep it in your back pocket if you need to use it, but don’t use it all the time.

We’ve become a state, we have become a state that lives for war. We’ve been at war now for over a decade, and I don’t see an end to it. The authorization for the use of military force, the AUMF, James Madison would’ve said that is the top rung on the ladder to tyranny. That’s what James Madison would have said, the father of our Constitution. We are on the top rung of the ladder to tyranny.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

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.