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Cheney was the coming to power of the far right of the American elite; the Neo-cons wanted to “cash in” as they asserted US military dominance over the world – Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff and is depicted in the film joins TRNN’s Paul Jay to discuss the movie, “VICE”

Story Transcript

LARRY WILKERSON: Cheney was evil. And there should have been no attenuation of an attempt to display that evil.


PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The recent movie Vice tells the story of Vice President Dick Cheney, and also depicts the story of the roots of the Iraq War, 9/11, and more. It’s become a topic of a lot of conversation, and tells us something about contemporary American politics. And we’re going to be joined by a person who’s depicted in that film, Colonel Larry Wilkerson, in a few minutes. We’re going to talk about the film and more; about the context within which Cheney operated. Here’s a trailer from the film.


ADAM MCKAY: I was always intrigued by Cheney, and I was amazed by how much this guy had gamed the White House, how smart he was.

So what’s the plan?

Well, the plan is to take over the damn place.

ADAM MCKAY: Henry Kissinger called him the greatest combination of intelligence, ambition, and bureaucratic knowledge he’d ever seen.

What’s it going to be? Yes or a no?

It’s a yes.

You don’t even know what the question is, do you?

ADAM MCKAY: He learns very fast, and his belief was in consolidating power.

Are you even more ruthless than you used to be?

ADAM MCKAY: All these Shakespearean feelings come into play very naturally.

Like a puppet show, but much more enjoyable.

Who wants to be an anonymous source?

Make sure you work in the phrase ‘We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’ That focus grouped through the roof.

ADAM MCKAY: America had made a giant change from the late ’70s on, and Dick Cheney was always in the middle of it.

Thank you, Congressman Cheney. I hear you’ve been quite the ally.

ADAM MCKAY: This is the most mysterious character I’ve ever worked on. He operates within the realm of legal exceptions and he sees a longer game. He realized that real power doesn’t reside in the spotlight, and quietly changed history as much as anyone.

So we gonna do this thing, or what? I mean, is this happening?

Neither branch has oversight of the VP.

We can make this work.


PAUL JAY: So That was Adam McKay, who is the writer/director of the film Vice, leading us through it. Now joining us to talk about the film Vice is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired United States Army soldier, former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Larry Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary, where he teaches a course on U.S. national security, and often contributor to The Real News. Thanks for joining us.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.

PAUL JAY: So what was your–you went to see the film, I think on the opening day with your family.

LARRY WILKERSON: Christmas Day, actually.

PAUL JAY: Christmas Day. And what was your first impression?

LARRY WILKERSON: My first impression was that the attempt–understandable attempt–by those who made the film to achieve a balance, largely by exploring the Cheney family and some of the problems and challenges they had, but other things, too.

PAUL JAY: This is Cheney’s gay daughter.

LARRY WILKERSON: The gay daughter, lesbian daughter, and so forth. Make them look normal, if you will, at least in that sense, was overdone. I understand, as I said, aesthetically, artistically, why they wanted to do that. But it was overdone. Cheney was evil. And there should have been no attenuation of an attempt to display that evil.

I say that when I served chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Powell, and thought Cheney–and still do–one of the best secretaries of defense we’ve ever had, if not the best, in the short time that period’s been in existence, or that position’s been in existence. But being secretary of defense and having adult supervision–H.W. Bush, for example, a supremely confident President, Powell underneath him, Jim Baker over at State, being secretary of defense and being effective in that scenario is very different from being vice president of the United States with a president who doesn’t know his ass from the hole in the ground. And so Cheney becomes a very different individual, and a very evil individual.

PAUL JAY: And what do you mean by ‘evil’?

LARRY WILKERSON: I mean that his purpose, and his ability to implement that purpose in secret and in the open, his skill, as Kissinger well described it, as a bureaucratic entrepreneur was used for purposes that were deleterious to and even in some cases inimical to the extent of almost being existential to the democratic federal republic that America thinks it is, and using the national security state, essentially, to do that. And his knowledge of that state made it doubly dangerous for this country. I’m not sure we’re going to recover from this.

PAUL JAY: He was not unusual in playing that role, that kind of sociopathic-

LARRY WILKERSON: I think he was unusual.

PAUL JAY: How about–how would you take Nixon to deliberately extending the Vietnam War? We know this from the secret–the taped conversations of Lyndon Johnson, where he tells Senator Dirksen that Nixon’s virtually a traitor.

LYNDON JOHNSON: Some of our folks, including some of the old China lobby, are going to the Vietnamese embassy and saying please notify the President that if he’ll hold out to November the 2nd they could get a better deal.

SPEAKER: Uh-huh.

LYNDON JOHNSON: Now, I’m reading their hand there, but I don’t want to get this in the campaign.

SPEAKER: That’s right.

LYNDON JOHNSON: And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason.

LARRY WILKERSON: I will give you that Cheney brings it to an apogee. I will give you that Cheney is just one more element in a transition from what we might have been prior to World War II to what we are today. But I will also claim that he was not just the denoument of that transition. He was the maker and deliverer of that transition. It might have taken another 20 or 30 years for us to reach the point we have now.

Just imagine, for example, had Powell run, Colin Powell run for president in ’94, ’95, when he was contemplating it, and Cheney and George W. Bush and the 2000 hanging chad election never occurred. I think it would have put this off by a decade or two, at least. I think it’s inevitable we arrived at this point. But Cheney brought us to this point screeching at 70 miles an hour plus. And as a result of that I think we’re going to have a real hard time getting out of it, or maybe we won’t.

PAUL JAY: My critique of the film, and I appreciated a lot about the film, I think certainly there’s a whole generation of younger people that don’t know anything about this history. Which is kind of weird, because we’re so immersed in it. It’s almost like second nature that we know this history from 9/11 on.

LARRY WILKERSON: And my students now–remember, I started teaching about 14 years ago. My students had–you might say they were imbued with 9/11. Now my students were born or born after 9/11. And it’s strange to them. It’s a phenomena they don’t recognize the way my initial students did, the first five, six years. So it’s been very apparent to me what you’re talking about in terms of the the ignorance. That’s not a pejorative, it’s just a description of the ignorance we now have in this country about these times. And that’s part of the problem, too.

PAUL JAY: My critique of the film is the balance between telling this engaging story about this individual, Cheney. And he, without question, as an individual plays a very important role. But there’s also underlying forces going on, both in the economy, the politics, the geopolitics that Cheney represents these forces. And in the film itself it refers to this. Here’s a piece from the film. We got a bit of a problem. Because of copyright issues we can’t pull anything we want from the film, but we do have the script. So here’s–early in the film, here’s the basic thesis of the film. And it goes like this.

Narrator, a male in the late 20s: By all accounts of what people saw in the room that terrible day–that’s referring to 9/11–there was confusion, fear, uncertainty. But Dick Cheney saw something else that no one else did. He saw an opportunity. Well, we’re going to get into this 9/11 conversation a bit more with Larry in a minute. But the script goes on.

There’s a famous photo, the picture they show in the film. It’s a famous photo of men playing golf while the hillside behind them is on fire. The narrator continues: As the world becomes more and more confusing, we tend to focus on the things that are right there in front of us while ignoring the massive forces that actually change and shape our lives. Well, actually, that’s kind of my critique of the film, is that he doesn’t really explore the massive forces. It becomes the tale of Dick Cheney.

And there’s a context for Dick Cheney. Maybe the most critical piece of the context is the starting point. And this is described in a report that’s issued by the Project for New American Century in the year 2000. The report is titled Rebuilding America’s Defense: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century. And that’s, as I say, a report for the Project for New American Century in September 2000. And the people that founded Project for New American Century include people like William Kristol, Robert Kagan. Dick Cheney is a signatory, as is Rumsfeld, who is also in the movie Vice. And of course some other key people like Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, and others who were part of the Bush administration.

I think the starting point for understanding the context of Cheney is understanding where the United States is in the world where the Soviet Union has collapsed, and it’s essentially a single superpower world.

The report states this: At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should be to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far and into the future as possible. There are, however, potentially powerful states dissatisfied with the current situation and eager to change it, if they can, in directions that endanger the relative peaceful, prosperous, and free condition the world enjoys today. Up to now they have been deterred from doing so by the capability and global presence of American military power.

And the report calls for establishing four core missions of the U.S. military: to defend the American homeland, to fight and decisively win multiple simultaneous major theater wars. Perform the constabulary duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions, transform U.S. forces to exploit the revolution in military affairs, and most importantly, increase defense spending gradually to a minimum level of 3.5-3.8 percent of gross domestic product, adding $15-20 billion to total defense spending annually.

So Cheney emerges as a secretary of defense, and then later as the vice president, in the context of a call to arms to take advantage of the situation of being the single superpower to dominate the world in a new way. In fact, they use language that we no longer–and this is specifically in relation to regime change in Iraq, which is one of the main things they push in this report–is we don’t need to worry about a unanimous or majority vote in the Security Council. We can do it ourselves without the United Nations authorization. This is back in the year 2000.

So, place Cheney in the context of this call to massively develop arms expenditure. Cheney, before he’s vice president, goes to Halliburton, which plays a role in all this. Sort of help paint the picture for the context of Cheney’s vice presidency.

LARRY WILKERSON: What you’ve just described–and interestingly, what I was thinking as you were reading from the PNAC statement, if you will–Caesar Augustus dictating how the Roman Empire is going to be maintained and made even more powerful once he assumed the mantle. I think there’s a bit of that there, but it is long in the making. Long in terms of our history, anyway. It begins in 1947, and it begins with the Cold War, of course. And it begins with the apparatus, institutional and otherwise, commercial, too, that’s built up around that twilight struggle called the Cold War.

So what happens as we come to the end of that Cold War? Not only are U.S. intelligence interests wrong; not only is there this shock at the end of the war, because it comes screeching to an end with Gorbachev and Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Is we get a president who is a Republican, George H.W. Bush, and who is not in tune with this at all, much the way you might say from time to time we had presidents in the Cold War who weren’t completely attuned to what the people like Cheney at that time wanted to do. We forget, sometimes, that in the National Security Council we have archives that show us that people actually talked about operating on the dark side during the Cold War. They used Cheney-like language during that time. Most of the time they were deemed crazy and they were put to the side.

H.W. Bush does the same thing. Wolfowitz sends a strategy which reflects much of what you just said about maintaining American hegemony–indeed, increasing it–over to the White House during H.W. Bush’s term, from ’92 to–from ’88 to ’92. Bush says, apocryphally or otherwise, I can see H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft saying this: Send this back to the crazies in the basement of the Pentagon. They don’t want to have anything to do this. They realize that is imperial overstretch to the max, or at least it will lead to that. Well, that’s not Cheney’s feeling about it. He’s Bush’s secretary of defense, and he’s a very good secretary of defense. But he’s got a supremely confident president over him. He’s got Secretary of State Jim Baker, who can check him at any moment. And he’s got Colin Powell beneath him. So he’s got adult supervision. He can’t stray outside of that supervision.

Once he becomes vice president, and all of these forces you’ve just briefly described then find a fruition in his finding them to be coincidental with his own interests at that time, he becomes extremely powerful. And he’s extremely powerful not so much because of what Kissinger described as we were listening to the trailer. Those talents are there, sure. But he’s powerful because he has a president who is a dilettante, is a president who doesn’t know the first thing about national security. He has a president who takes four, some would say five, years–he finally fires Rumsfeld, for example, in November of 2006 before he figures out what the vice president has been doing to him.

So this is a confluence of events and personalities and characters, if you will, that hasn’t occurred in the whole length and breadth of the Cold War, and suddenly occurs as it’s ended, and becomes the principal developer of the national security state, because it is there and it has Cheney to do that. And I think it brings the national security state to an ultimate fruition; a fruition that now says we’re an empire. We will have perpetual war, just like Rome did, in order to maintain that empire. We will have mostly a volunteer force to do this, because we won’t call on our own people to do it. Oh, my God, they wouldn’t want to do that. And we will have the accoutrements of that war, the military-industrial complex, people making money off of the war, people making billions off of the war. Halliburton makes, for example, by one estimate as much as $40 billion off Iraq and Afghanistan during the period from the beginning to roughly the end of Iraq in 2011 or so. So that’s what we’ve got today.

PAUL JAY: That’s another very important point, that Cheney goes into being vice president after–lead a company that makes a killing at a killing; a fortune at a war.

LARRY WILKERSON: Yes. Yes. It’s stunning how much that has taken over this country now.

PAUL JAY: And I don’t think the film tells that message nearly enough.

LARRY WILKERSON: No, it doesn’t go into that message. Look at the figures that were just released for the last 10 years on how many four stars, how many admirals, full admirals, full generals, how many three stars, vice admirals and lieutenant generals, and others have left the Pentagon and gone straight into six or seven-figure salaries with the defense contracting business. It’s astonishing. We have built a state that survives on making war, on killing other people for state purposes. And it makes a lot of people very, very wealthy, and Dick Cheney was one of those people who finished–put the finishing touches to that state, and put it, put those finishing touches to it in a very accelerated form, and made a fortune off it himself. I mean, I’m told by some who saw his financial disclosure forms that he went from somewhere around $4-5 million in personal wealth to over $70 million. His protestations-

PAUL JAY: This is at Halliburton? Or after he’s vice president?

LARRY WILKERSON: This is after he’s vice president. So his protestations to the contrary, Halliburton’s success in all of these wars–Afghanistan, Iraq, and so forth–did, in fact, benefit Dick Cheney.

PAUL JAY: Now, when we first started interviewing–and this goes back now to I think 2010, we started, the first time we started doing interviews–you said something which always stuck with me, is that … You know, we were talking about your own progression of your own thinking. And with the Iraq war it really hit home for you how banal the motivation of much of this is. You know, it’s just about moneygrubbing. It’s about getting rich, of course about power, but power to get rich. You can’t separate the two.

LARRY WILKERSON: My students sometimes have trouble with this. Which comes first, the money or the power? And you’ve just described it, I think, fairly accurately, in that they are concomitants.

Powell said to me, standing on his front porch after he had left the chairmanship–and we are standing on his new front–his new multimillion dollar home. We’re staying on the front porch. And I said, What next, boss? And he said, Well, I’m not sure. And I said, you know, cabinet secretary, state, defense, maybe president, or whatever? What are your plans? And he said, Well, I’m not planning on running for president, but I do look at Secretary of state or secretary of defense, and I have to make a lot of money. I said, What do you mean? He said, in order to be a cabinet officer in the United States today you have to be a millionaire or better.

And I thought about that in terms of a black man, and I said, well, maybe it’s because he’s looking at it from that perspective. But then I thought about it in general terms, and he’s right. He’s right. We don’t make people who aren’t either going to be millionaires or who aren’t already millionaires cabinet officers.

PAUL JAY: Because they have the right thinking, because they’re defending their wealth.

LARRY WILKERSON: Yes, yes. They’re defending the realm. They’re defending the system that we built up, which has, sadly enough, become almost dependent on constant war in order to keep those billions rolling.

PAUL JAY: OK. In the next segment of our interview we’ll talk more about the film Vice, and we’ll start getting into more of the story of the film, which takes up the question of 9/11 and the Iraq War. So please join us for a continuation of our chat with Larry Wilkerson 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.