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Larry Wilkerson: The appointment of Susan Rice as National Security Advisor and nomination of Samantha Power to the UN is a concern as both favor using military power to intervene in other countries affairs

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. And welcome to this edition of The Wilkerson Report with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He now joins us from his home in Virginia.

Larry Wilkerson was 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 again.

So President Obama has appointed Susan Rice as his national security adviser and has nominated for the new representative of the United States at the United Nations Samantha Power.

So, Larry, first of all, before we get into what you think of this appointment and this nomination, how important a job is the national security adviser?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: It’s a very important job, especially since we’ve made it the arbiter of foreign and security policy. Once the 1947 act created the National Security Council and we moved through several presidencies and several national security advisers–and incidentally, this position was not even mentioned in the act, not even contemplated by the statutory process of setting up the National Security Council. It just sort of grew. It is also not subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. It’s not elective, obviously. And yet it is one of the most powerful positions in the government, because security and foreign policy have increasingly been centralized in the White House. So it’s a very important position.

JAY: In this White House, he just appointed a new secretary of state, John Kerry, who’s a big high-profile guy, who I assume is going to expect to have some power. Is this going to change at all, do you think, first of all, how much foreign policy is being run by Obama, and then, two, the power that Rice might have?

WILKERSON: The secretary of state has been a less than potent cabinet member for a long time, certainly since Nixon’s era, when Nixon essentially pronounced the State Department–on tape mind you–as a bunch of commie pinko dogs. Unless you get a very special relationship between a president and his secretary, like Jim Baker and George H. W. Bush, you really don’t have a powerful secretary of state, and you certainly don’t have a powerful State Department.

As I said previously, the centralization of foreign and security policy and the White House derives directly from the creation of the National Security Council and the national security adviser. And in most presidencies–and this one in my view is no exception–foreign and security policy is really run out of the White House. That’s one reason why you see John Kerry and you saw before Hillary Clinton flying all over the world. That’s really their only panache, that’s their only impact on things, is to visit foreign leaders and talk with them and so forth. The real essence of foreign and security policy is done by the National Security Council staff in the White House at the behest of the adviser and, ultimately, the president of the United States.

JAY: When Susan Rice speaks, people will assume she’s speaking on behalf of the president. So in a sense she gets, you know, kind of a presidential authority.

WILKERSON: That’s true. I think Rice will probably be, as David Rothkopf said today in a fairly good piece in one of the magazines–I believe it was Politico–she will probably be a Brent Scowcroft type national security adviser–at least, I hope she is, because Brent’s image, Brent’s way of doing business was to be a coordinator of security policy, offer his own views when they were solicited by the president, but to be mainly behind the scenes, much the way Tom Donilon has been, not to be out on the TV, not to be out in the newspapers, not to be the visible front, if you will, of U.S. foreign and security policy. That’s the president’s job. So a good national security adviser like Brent Scowcroft, and like Susan [snip] purports to be, wanting to be like Brent and like Donilon, she won’t be very visible. She’ll be just the president’s person, the coordinator of that policy.

JAY: Now, but she will have a lot of influence, will she not? I mean, when he appoints her, he must appoint her, ’cause, one, he likes her counsel and trusts her and she runs the situation room, if I understand it correctly, during high times of crisis. And given all of that, what do you make of the Rice appointment substantively?

WILKERSON: Well, as David pointed out, Rothkopf pointed out in his piece today, you’re absolutely right about the power. But the power comes from the intimacy with the president and the orchestration of basically the principals meeting, which is the meeting directly below the statutory National Security Council meeting, principals meaning secretary of state, secretary of defense, secretary of Treasury, and so forth, which Susan will be chairing. That’s where the decisions are teed up for the president, and indeed often decisions are made there, if they can be made there, if they are not presidential in nature. So this is the principal point where the national security adviser has the impact that is often written about, that plus her intimacy with the president.

David also pointed out in his article how Dr. Rice, for example, Condoleezza Rice with George W. Bush, had spent far too much time with the president building her intimacy, sometimes six, seven hours a day. And so the national security adviser has to balance this spending some time with the principal, some times with her own staff, and then some times with the president.

It’s a delicate game. You can’t get too close to the president, but you don’t want to get too far away from him either, and you can’t get too distant from your staff, which now numbers, if David’s right in his article today, over 350, which I find just mind-boggling, that we have 350 people in addition to the 16,000 or so at the State Department and the some 24,000, 25,000 at the Pentagon and so forth. My question is: where does this end? Apparently, Tom Donilon thought that this number of people was adequate to the task, or maybe even not adequate to the task. Indeed, it kept growing.

So this is another facet of the bureaucracy, that we keep increasing the size of these staffs. And yet I think anyone looking at it from the outside, whether they were commoner or national security elite, as it were, would say, hey, I don’t say see the government getting any better, so what is [snip] growth all about?

JAY: I guess it’s part of the growth of what some people have called the imperial presidency.

But what do you make of–both Rice and Power are known as–some people call them humanitarian interventionists. Some people have called it humanitarian imperialism. Both of them are credited with being very influential in talking Barack Obama into the intervention in Libya. And we know that, you know, essentially violated the UN resolution. Even if one thinks the original UN resolution had any merit to it, it went way beyond to regime change, which they all claimed at the time of the resolution they were not in favor of, but to all reports regime change was clearly on the agenda of Rice and Power. Now he’s put them both in very influential positions. And what does that tell us about President Obama?

WILKERSON: I hope it just tells us that these are people that he trusts and that he’s rewarding them with positions that will be influential in his administration but not ultimately influential.

Samantha is the architect of the Atrocities Prevention Board, and as far as I know, she’s the architect and the soul behind this business of humanitarian intervention at almost any cost, which I think is preposterous. It wastes blood and treasure for things that you can’t impact. As James Madison once said, you really court tyranny when you start doing these sorts of things and you start using the military instrument to try and influence what are basically cultural and social issues.

I don’t know that Susan is that much of a mind with Samantha in that regard. I do know that I’ve seen evidence that she thinks that way from time to time.

But I think the retrenchment that’s going on right now basically because of our very precarious economic situation and because of two bloody wars that lasted a decade and are just winding down, one of them having wound down already in Iraq, I don’t think we’re going to be sticking our fingers anywhere. I see this president as ultimately a pragmatist, and I don’t see him doing any of these kinds of humanitarian interventions like Libya or like is proposed right now, Syria.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, he seems to be not wanting to do so in Syria. There’s some suggestion that Rice would actually like him to, but he seems that he’s not in favor of that, at least so far. But there’s been a lot of–. Yeah, go ahead.

WILKERSON: I would say that, you know, of late we seem to be creeping ever so slowly towards more and more actions that might lock us in eventually. But it looks like that might be the case, and it might be the case because there is a lot of pressure from the Congress and a lot of pressure from other entities that feel the same way with regard to getting into Iran through the back door of Syria.

Congress is hell-bent for getting into Iran. I mean, you look at the legislation that they’ve passed, the sanctions they’ve passed, the legislation that they’re contemplating, and it sounds and feels just like, say, 2001 and 2002 vis-à-vis Iraq, vis-à-vis Iran today. It looks like we’re walking down that same sort of roadway, with the president protesting all the way.

JAY: And Rice on this issue is very militant on Iran. I interviewed her in 2008 during the New Hampshire primaries and when she was out helping Barack Obama campaign, and I asked her, you know, does Barack Obama respect the fact that under the nonproliferation agreement, Iran has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes? Well, he acknowledged that. And she simply wouldn’t agree to it. And when I tried to pin her down about the–that in fact the nonproliferation treaty says exactly that, her answer was, well, maybe it’s time to rewrite the nonproliferation treaty.

WILKERSON: This is the attitude that some of these people have. I’m at a loss as to why they have the attitude. It bespeaks an arrogance about international relations that, frankly, seems to me to accompany the diminishment of American power. (Whether there is a causal effect in there I’ll leave for you to decide.) But it does seem to be that the more our power is diminished, the more arrogant we grow and the more interested we become in being a policeman all over the globe and doing these sorts of things.

It doesn’t make any sense to me, and it particularly doesn’t make any sense with respect to Iran, because even if Iran had a nuclear weapon, Iran would be deterred by Israel, if nothing else, and by the consignment of states around her, many of whom would probably contemplate some sort of action on their own. I’m sure the Saudis, for example, if Iran were to make a nuclear weapon, that is to say, create a bomb and be able to weaponize it on some sort of missile–which I think would take from this point right now, if they made a decision, anywhere from seven to eight years–but if they were to do that and if they were to do like North Korea did, for example, and test one and show the world that they have a bomb and that they can test it, Saudi Arabia’d probably buy 30 or 40 from the Pakistanis. I’m sure the contract’s already ready to be signed.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, the Iranians know all this. They–actually developing a weapon is just to put a target on their back. They’ve said as much and it seems rather obvious.

But just finally to go back to Rice, I mean, does it concern you that she’s someone that seems rather able to support the use of military force, and dressed up as intervention, but she’s not shy about recommending it?

WILKERSON: No. And as I said, with people like Samantha and Ms. Rice and others, that worries me, because I’m not for going around the world fixing other people’s problems, however they may be, however deep and profound they may be, with our military forces. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t think any of our founding fathers would sign up to that role either.

So we’ve come a long way in this world where we’ve decided that we’re going to let UN ambassadors and national security advisers and others tell us that we’re going to send our forces across the oceans to prevent atrocities–I think that’s the term of art now.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, unfortunately, most of these atrocities have a lot to do with the same kind of policies in the first place and in the sense of creating the conditions for them.

WILKERSON: Yeah. All you do is exacerbate. If you think about what would happen if we intervened in Syria and you unwind it and you roll it out, different scenarios of course could result. And I’m not saying I have a crystal ball, but I could paint you an Archduke Ferdinand moment, I could paint you an August 1914 moment with regard to military intervention in Syria right now. You have all the powers lined up from Turkey to Russia to China. You’ve got everybody lined up with an interest in this business, and you’ve got a big void in Syria right now that’s being contested by at least half a dozen different elements. And you’ve got all kinds of people supporting in various ways, some states even supporting more than one of those elements. So this is a quagmire of the first order. And these people want to go in and prevent atrocities. I’m sorry. All you’re going to do is make the situation worse.

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.