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Vijay Prashad and Lawrence Wilkerson comment on Presidential debate on US foreign policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On Monday night, President Obama and Governor Romney held their last debate, this one, supposed to have been mostly focused on foreign policy.

Now joining us to give us their take on it is, first of all, Vijay Prashad. He’s a professor of international studies at Trinity College. He’s the author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and, more recently, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

Also joining us, from Washington, is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He was 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, regular contributor to The Real News Network (as is Vijay).

Thank you both for joining us.


JAY: So, Larry, kick us off. I mean, give us a bit of a comment on the debate. But we’ve heard most of all of this before, and in my opinion (I’m guessing you share it), the level of discourse is pretty banal. So give us a quick take on the debate. But I’m more interested in hearing from you what do you think is the real questions that people should be debating about American foreign policy.

WILKERSON: Paul, I think the level of banality is the kind of thing you come to expect with people running for public office, particularly national public office, because, let’s face it, a goodly percentage of the American people want that or, I think, probably only will accept that.

The real question that loomed in my mind when Schieffer asked it was: what is America’s role in the world? That’s a hell of a question when you think about it. Is America’s role in the world to make war? Because for the past thirteen or fourteen years, that’s very much looked like what our role is. It looks like it’s [incompr.] our reason for existence, to make war.

Or is America’s role in the world more or less like George Kennan expressed it in that famous strategy document that supposedly started containment, a policy we pursued for almost half a century vis-à-vis the Soviet Union? And I think Kennan would agree that his original intent was that we set our economic power and our example—our democracy, our freedoms, our civil liberties, and so forth were like stone against the Soviet opposite, and we defeat them over time. We don’t roll them back. We don’t hurl armies or nuclear weapons at them. We stay strong, of course, in case they do something that we need to stop, but basically, by our example, by our democratic example and our leadership in the world, a leadership that cooperates and engages and creates institutions to make the world’s standard of living higher and so forth, by that we defeat an enemy like the Soviet Union.

JAY: I heard you make a speech once, Larry, in fact, and we carried it on The Real News, and you said, you know, the question facing America now is: defend, maintain an empire, a unipolar superpower world, or actually become a country amongst many and start to manage that process? Of course, one won’t hear that during an election campaign, but is that what you think is the debate?

WILKERSON: I think that should be part of it. Mitt Romney, obviously, by his rhetoric, at least—and one has some difficulty determining where Mitt Romney stands based on his rhetoric, but he seems to think that we are (and the president even said this, too) the indispensable nation. That’s pure bullshit. We are a nation amongst 193 others—or 192 others. We are more powerful at the present moment, militarily. We have residual financial and economic power, even with the Great Recession and such, that affects almost every country in the world. The mayor of Beijing at Yale University once said that he should have a vote in our elections, and he wasn’t kidding, because as Colin Powell said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we’re probably the only country in the world that touches every other country in the world, and every other country touches us.

That said, our power is not what it was in 1945, 1946, when we stood like a colossus astride the world. It’s diminishing. It’s diminishing because we’ve managed it badly and because others’ power is rising, largely or at least in part because of policies we implemented after World War II.

So as we become not primus inter pares but more pares inter pares, that is, another nation amongst others, we need to learn some of the things that we learned before we were first created back in 1775, ’76, ’77. We need to learn to do diplomacy. We need to learn to talk. We need to learn to deal with others, to cooperate with others, to lose occasionally, to create win-win situations where both sides in the negotiations actually win. That’s a situation that could happen with Iran right now.

But does it even look like it could be that? We have to change our whole modus operandi in the world, not overnight, but we certainly have to change it in the next quarter century, or this empire’s going to go away very, very rapidly.

JAY: Vijay, a bit of your take on the debate, and more what you think should be the debate.

VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Well, I mean, the debate was not serious, because it didn’t actually raise this question, which is the fundamental question, of how the United States has to be part of a planet structure. Very great changes are taking place. You know, there has been a real shift over the last 30 years, you know, of power on the planet.

And it appears almost that there is a kind of anachronism of the space of discussion. So when President Obama turned to Mitt Romney and said, you know, you are essentially articulating a position from the 1980s, that was only half true, because the truth is the entire debate was structured, you know, as if the United States was indeed in a position of primacy and as if a kind of Americanism would be willing to and would be willingly taken as it sweeps the planet. You know, the assumption that there are so-called moderates out there to be picked up through elections, you know, to be pushed by the United States and the moderates will arise—this vision that the world is ready to all, you know, become Americans is an anachronistic vision.

And, I think, precisely because the entire debate was structured around an anachronism, there was no ability to come to the most serious question. The serious question is that we have already entered a period of multilateralism and regionalism. And the question is: the hub and spokes method of understanding foreign relations, the United States as the hub and countries coming out as the spokes that are allies holding the rim of the rest of the world intact, that kind of, you know, spatial way in which people had thought about foreign policy is no longer applicable. It’s not the way things are going right now.

You know, if you take the Iran policy and imagine the rest of the world—you know, it was about four o’clock in the morning in Iran; it was about, maybe, six o’clock in the morning in India. I was watching on the Tweet world, on the Twittersphere people awake in many of these countries following the debate. I mean, imagine watching the debate through their eyes. What they see is a deeply sadistic foreign policy that kept trying to talk about crippling and stifling and holding down and forcing—you know, that’s really not the language even of diplomacy. That’s already a very aggressive tone. It sets the agenda that the—it’s either that—places like Iran either follow an American diktat or they will face the consequences.

There’s no understanding that on the other side, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, the regional partners are heavily engaged with Iran. You know, 50 percent of occupied Afghanistan’s oil comes from Iran. You know, that’s the reality. Those are the regional ties. Regionalism has already arrived.

And it’s unfortunate that the American leading political class has no sense of what are the germane issues for today. Instead, there’s still this kind of saber-rattling underneath the talk of peace. You know, you can say the word peace as much has you want, but if right behind that is a cruel grimace, it doesn’t come across as peaceful.

JAY: Larry, there was an interesting line from Romney where he says, you can’t just kill your way out of this situation, talking about the Middle East and Pakistan and such. Of course, he supported the drone strikes and all the killing, but he says you have to have diplomacy and economic development and all of this. It was a kind of a rhetorical center that I guess he needed to adopt to avoid being—looking like an extremist. But if you look at the foreign policy grouping, the people around Romney and the people around Obama, do you think there is a difference?

WILKERSON: I think there is. And that’s one reason why when I go into the booth, I’m probably going to vote again for Obama. I’m really frightened by the people who are around Romney. And by that I mean the John Boltons and the people who we characterize as neoconservatives who are ready to defeat every enemy in the world with other people’s blood—chickenhawks we call them in the military. They bother me. They truly trouble me.

I think, for example, the delisting of the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, the MEK, put into play another INC/Ahmed Chalabi group. Just as that group worked for war with Iraq, the MEK, now delisted and able to lobby in Washington, will work for war with Iran. This is the same road we walked down with Iraq, and I’m really amazed that the neoconservatives haven’t even changed the sheet of music. Most of the tune is the same. The road looks the same. The ruthlessness of their strategy looks the same. They want war with Iran, and they’re going to push for Romney, if he’s elected—I’m not sure he’s of this mind, but I don’t think George W. Bush was, either, when he first came in—they’re going to push for war with Iran. They’re going to make sure that the options all dry up and that the only option left is military. And then the president’s painted himself in a corner because he said all options are on the table.

Andy Bacevich—I mentioned this earlier, Paul, to you—Andy Bacevich had an article in Harper’s Magazine, and he really talks about how we have Israelized America. And what he means by that is we have more or less followed Israel’s model. Israel’s model is that of a garrison state. Israel’s model is: peace means we dominate everyone around us.

Well, that’s okay for Israel. I don’t think it’s tenable for their long-term security. In fact, I think it’s extremely dangerous, especially when they’re on the side creating an apartheid state. But for the United States it’s an impossible position. We are essentially saying that to us, peace, which was much mentioned tonight in the debates, means that we dominate—dominate—everybody else in the world, and if we don’t dominate them, we’ll kill them. And that is not a position that is sustainable into the future.

JAY: Vijay, your take. Is there a significant foreign policy difference between the two candidates?

PRASHAD: I mean, there is a difference in tone, certainly. You know. And of course it’s the case that, you know, whispering in Obama’s ear is not Dan Senor and John Bolton. You know, one wouldn’t like to turn any military hardware or any command of forces to people like that. So there is that, there is a difference in tone.

But in terms of the broad strategy that they have utilized, you know, this idea that the United States is going to tail Israel, you know, into a kind of broader conflict with Iran is a very dangerous one. And I think whether the Republicans or the Democrats are in power, the political pendulum is part of the rite of humanity on the question of Iran. You know, they’re saying that there can only be [incompr.] talks with Iran if there’s zero enrichment. You know, this is a laughable position to take, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, given that the United States brings India out of the nuclear cold, which is a, you know, much more—has to answer for its illegal program much more seriously, and, of course, Israel’s nuclear program.

So when the United States makes these kind of claims, whether Romney in a kind of bellicose temperament, or Obama with a much more sober vocabulary, the danger is the strategy that they have followed in this, Iran’s case, tailing Israel all the way into war. This is a very dangerous position. And I fear that the day of early November isn’t going to settle the precarious position that this kind of strategy has placed that great, you know, place which Romney kept saying is tumultuous, and that is the Middle East.

JAY: Alright. Thank you both for joining us. We’ll obviously carry this discussion on many more times. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Retired Col. Larwrence 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 and Mary. And he’s a regular contributor to The Real News Network.

Vijay Prashad is a Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. He is the author of The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World , which was chosen as the best nonfiction book of 2008 by the Asian American Writers' Workshop. His most recent publication is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, and he writes regularly for Frontline magazine and Counterpunch.

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.