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Col. Lawrence Wilkerson: Israel needed Obama to broker Turkey deal as Netanyahu’s policies and unstable region put Israel in a precarious position

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

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

Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: So President Obama visited Israel and he sat next to Prime Minister Netanyahu as he phones the prime minister of Turkey and apologizes for the killing of Turkish citizens on that flotilla that was bound to break the blockade of Gaza. What do you make of the visit and American President Obama’s objectives there?

WILKERSON: This is realpolitik par excellence, Paul. Israel is in a very untenable strategic situation right now. The Lebanese government just walked out. Lebanon is increasingly dominated by Hezbollah. The Syrian civil war is raging with apparently (unlike what the president said about Assad’s limited days) no end in sight, not any time soon, anyway. Iraq is a major Iran ally. The Sunnis interact–do not like that at all and are getting ready to remount the civil war and drive the Shia out. The Saudis, of course, are funding the Sunnis. The Saudis are funding the war in Syria, as are other members of the GCC. Iran is sitting in a strategic position of preeminence, mainly created by our having taken out their enemies Iraq and the Taliban. Israel is confronted on the other flank by an Egypt that no one knows where it’s going.

This is not good for Israel. They are probably in as dangerous a situation as they’ve been since 1948 and their founding. So opening up, apologizing to, and trying to reestablish a strategic link with one of the most, if not the most powerful countries in the region, Turkey, makes a lot of sense.

JAY: So when President Obama says, I’ve got your back, it’s not so much about the Palestinians he’s talking about. He’s talking about regional politics.

WILKERSON: Absolutely. And you’ve got to nurture and teach Netanyahu, because the man seems to be a strategic fool. And he’s great at rhetoric about defending his country, while at the same time he is taking actions that actually make his country’s defense more tenable [sic]. So I’m sure President Obama, having been instructed by his own military and security elite, has been lecturing Mr. Netanyahu and essentially telling him, hey, look, pal, you’d better look around and see what’s happening to you; your isolation is dangerous, and you’re backing away from, by these stupid acts, countries like Turkey, who otherwise have some vested interest in your survival and your stability, is just ridiculous; so let’s start fixing some of these problems. And hopefully, Mr. Netanyahu listened.

JAY: Now, from Turkey’s angle, the anti-Iranian rhetoric–and if that ever came to an actual Israeli attack on Iran, that could not play well in Turkey. It was only a short time ago the prime minister of Turkey was calling Israel a terrorist, and that was received with great popularity amongst the Turkish population. So this whole aggressive posture towards Iran cannot be helping Israel in places like Turkey.

WILKERSON: No, it can’t be helping Israel amongst 1.3, 1.4 billion Muslims in the world, period, whether they’re in Indonesia, India, or Turkey. So as I said, I hope Mr. Obama gave Mr. Netanyahu a little lecture in geostrategic realities. We need to start making friends if we’re in Tel Aviv, not continue being isolated and making enemies. And in that regard, I hope this tamps down Mr. Netanyahu’s desire to attack Iran. Nothing could be more catastrophic in regard to the situation I just described.

JAY: Now, I saw one or two news reports that Netanyahu was supposedly pushing President Obama that the United States should directly or militarily get involved in Syria. Is that true? And it’s hard to imagine the United States actually wants to do that. On the other hand, I can imagine perhaps the Americans might want at some point the Turks to do that.

WILKERSON: I think probably if Mr. Netanyahu was doing it–and I almost could say I could see him doing anything, I think he’s so strategically inept–it would be because he would hope that America would do it decisively and conclusively and take out yet another one of Israel’s enemies. Otherwise, I can’t see any way in the world that Israel is interested in a destabilized and a sustainably destabilized Syria, which is what we’re possibly looking at.

The Turks doing something in Syria is a good point. I think Iran and Turkey are absolutely essential to a resolution of the situation in Afghanistan that might be more or less positive, and ultimately a resolution in Syria. If you don’t have the Turks’ buy-in, if you don’t have them helping you locally to bring about this stability, prosperity that will be necessary in both countries, then you’re not going to have a solution. The Turks are essential. They’re critical to a solution in both Afghanistan, ultimately, and to a solution in Syria.

JAY: Now, the thing that doesn’t get talked about hardly at all in the American media is the role of Saudi Arabia in all of this. The Saudis are pouring oil on the fire in Syria. As you just mentioned, they’re funding Sunni militants in Iraq. They’ve been funding forever schools in Pakistan that are creating new Taliban fighters. Yet they’re treated like the great friend of America.

WILKERSON: I think you have to be somewhat prudent, cautious when you talk about, quote, the Saudis. Yes, there are some Saudis who are doing what you’re saying. I’m not sure it’s all blessed in the House of Saud, as it were, that is, by the king, by the crown prince. But, yes, they are funding things. And I remember something a very high level official once told me who knew the Saudis well. They will bet on at least five horses, maybe six. They’ll continue to put their money on all those horses until one or more pulls well out in front, and then they’ll consolidate their money and dump in on the one or ones they think will win. That’s the Saudis–ultimate realpolitikers.

That said, I do think they are doing things in that region, and for that matter in the world, with regard to funding madrasas and what I would call radical Islam or the education of radical Islamists, in a way that is detrimental to the interests of not just the United States, but ultimately the entire world. And someone sometime needs to take a little harder look at that and perhaps bring a little pressure to bear on those who might be able to curb that a bit, stop it, and understand just what it is doing when it does what it’s doing.

JAY: I mean, it seems like the Saudis play some of the same game as the Pakistanis do. You have, you know, sort of the official policy over here, which, you know, has its relations with the West and kind of plays within a conventional game, and then they have their relations over on this side, where they use various kind of terrorist organizations almost as a lever of foreign policy in some ways.

WILKERSON: Yes. I remember one time, Paul, when I was sitting at a dinner table with Turki Al Faisal, when he was at that time head of the intelligence service in Saudi Arabia. And as he was talking to me quite eloquently in English about various and sundry issues in his region and in the world, I couldn’t help but think: where is the truth, if there is any truth? And that pretty much sums up my appreciation of Saudi Arabia.

JAY: And again I go back to this issue of the American media [incompr.] in the 9/11 reports, particularly the Senate committee Bob Graham led, you know, they came out–essentially, they had in their report a whole list of names from Saudi royal family that they thought had been directly involved in 9/11 events, both in funding and other kinds of things, and the White House forced them to redact it. And Graham complained about it later. And, again, not a heck of a lot of media reports. You know, the odd investigative journalist picks up on it, but, I mean, it’s almost like the Saudis get a bigger pass than Israel does.

WILKERSON: Right. And I think, you know, part of that is understandable, at least from a realpolitik point of view, the oil and so forth and their influence within the oil circle, if you will, OPEC. We often call upon the Saudis or request that the Saudis do things within OPEC to stabilize oil prices or whatever. That’s becoming less of a power the Saudis have as oil and gas proliferate. But nonetheless it’s part of the relationship in the past.

And the other aspect of it, of course, is they buy an enormous amount of U.S. arms, which kind of all set some of the huge transfers in hard currency we’ve made in order to keep up with the oil and gas needs of this country. That’s one reason we sold so massively to the Shah of Iran, for example, was to try and offset some of those transfers of hard currency.

The Saudi complicity in 9/11 or this lack thereof or the proof thereof, what worries me about that particular issue is what wasn’t unclassified and probably will remain classified for some time in the 9/11 Commission’s report. I think one of the reasons, if not the premiere reason that that report was made classified–and it will be so for a long time–is because it had some information in there about the Saudis. I hope I’m wrong, or if their information is in there, I hope it’s not as bad as I think it could be.

JAY: Bob Graham’s report, you know, people that have seen that, the part that was redacted, they say it was explicit. There was an actual list of names of Saudi royalty that they say were involved.

WILKERSON: You know, I have to say I would not doubt it.

JAY: So let’s go back to President Obama in Israel. No real move, though, from President Obama to pressure Israel on the settlement issue. No real move to stop this completely one-sided support for Israel. It is all about I’ve got your back and you should like me.

WILKERSON: That’s true. I forgot one thing I’d like to go back to, Paul, and then I’ll comment on this.

Remember who one of the best friends of Saudi Arabia is in the United States of America, intimate, close, buddy-buddy: Richard Bruce Cheney, former vice president of the United States. So he was the vice president, and many would say the co-president, when this 9/11 Commission report was written. So don’t forget that.

To Israel, the situation, as I said before, is bad right now for Israel, as bad as it’s been since ’48. So I don’t blame the president for attempting to shore that up, both in terms of the bilateral relationship, telling Israelis that we’ve got their back, but also in terms of speaking to this tumultuous and dynamic situation around Israel, which one by one seems to be occurring, resulting in, manifesting itself as inimical to Israel’s long-term interest, not least of which is the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Frankly, if Israel and the Palestinians cannot come together and form some sort of solution, whether it’s a two-state solution the way we typically think about it or some split-off therefrom, that Israel is doomed to being an apartheid state that 15 or 20 years from now, or perhaps even earlier, ceases being Jewish, ceases being democratic, becomes increasingly autocratic, and disappears then from the face of the earth. That’s the inevitable outcome of this attitude of settlements, settlements, settlements, Jerusalem is our capital, we have no one we can negotiate with, the Palestinians are not dependable, they’re a bunch of bums. If we don’t get a two-state solution basically in accord with what our policy has aimed for for several decades now, Israel has no future.

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.