Wilkerson: Trump Attack on Syria Driven by Domestic Politics
Former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, tells Paul Jay that the Syrian Government may not be responsible for the chemical attack and that Trump’s response was a violation of international law
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
The response to the American attack on the air force base in Syria, amongst the broad section of the American political leadership and elite, has been generally applause. The leadership of the Democratic Party, Republican Party, most of the mainstream media, even the supposed progressive media, for example, like Rachel Maddow, have all been encouraged and supportive of this attack. Vilifying, of course, the Syrians for committing this heinous crime against humanity of dropping sarin gas on a populated area.
The question of who actually dropped it is barely raised. We’re told by the American government that the Assad government did it. One wonders how they know so quickly. The one person that actually raised this question, rather seriously and straightforwardly, was in the United Nations meeting of the Security Council, Friday morning, and here’s what the Russian Ambassador to the UN had to day.
VIA: TRANSLATOR: Those who undertook this attack are in no way interested in an impartial investigation by a competent international authority, to find out exactly what took place in Khan Sheikhoun. And I will say even more, you are afraid of such an investigation. You are afraid of a real, genuine, independent investigation. What would happen if the outcome of this investigation would contradict your anti-government paradigm?
PAUL JAY: So, is the accusation of the Russian, I should say Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, is his accusation correct? Why did the United States act so quickly?
Now joining us to discuss this issue is Larry Wilkerson. Larry joins us from Falls Church, Virginia. He was former Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Currently an Adjunct Professor of Government at the college of William and Mary, and a regular contributor at The Real News.
Thanks for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: So, what do you make of the ambassador’s accusation? But the bigger question is, why did the Trump administration act so quickly? How could the intelligence be so definitive, so fast?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, I don’t think they cared. I think they were looking for a provocation, this one was suitable, and so they acted. I think the reason for their act, if I can attribute any rationality to it at all, was this, they wanted to use U.S. force in a very guarded, and it was, a very limited way, $70 million worth of TLAMS. But still, that’s a very limited way, given the circumstances, and to gain thereby, some leverage in the coming talks.
Because, after all, we have not done anything against the Assad regime, not really directly like this, and so this is a Trump-like move. This is a move to gain a higher ground, if you will, when the talks come along to give us more leverage. I think, personally, that the provocation was the Tonkin Gulf incident, or an Iraq failure to disarm by February 2003, at the United Nations Security Council. In other words, it was not exactly good intelligence.
In fact, most of my sources are telling me, including members of the team that monitors global chemical weapons, including people in Syria, including people in the U.S. intelligence community, that what most likely happened — and this intelligence, by the way, was shared with the United States, by Russia in accordance with the Deconfliction Agreement we have with Russia — that they hit a warehouse that they had intended to hit. And had told both sides, Russia and the United states, that they were going to hit.
This is the Syrian air force, of course. And this warehouse was alleged to have ISIS supplies in it, and, indeed, it probably did, and some of those supplies were precursors for chemicals. Or, possibly an alternative, they were phosphates for the cotton growing, fertilizing the cotton-growing region that’s adjacent to this area. And the bombs hit, conventional bombs, hit the warehouse, and because of a very strong wind, and because of the explosive power of the bombs, they dispersed these ingredients and killed some people.
And, incidentally, as Paul Pollard has pointed out in a good article that I just read, we have killed more people incidentally to our strikes, than were killed in this incident. And Assad has a number of ways, including his artillery — which by the way, a no-fly zone would not stop — of killing people, and killing people in much greater numbers than this, as he has demonstrated over the past years.
So, this is nonsense to call this the kind of provocation for what we did, unless one considers the rationale that I just suggested.
PAUL JAY: Now, there’s journalists on the ground that have gone there, western journalists who’ve been looking for the warehouse that it’s been spoken of. One, I think from The Guardian, had photographs of what was supposed to have been the warehouse and it looked empty. There was apparently, another story that this was all supposed to happen in some barn. And they went in there and found only a mule. Wouldn’t there be some evidence of such a warehouse?
LARRY KILKERSON: Yes, there would be, but I think this is probably the kind of speculation that takes place when something like this happens. And I agree with the Russian ambassador, that it would be good if we had an internationally sponsored, hosted, UN, for example investigation, and the forensic team that would accompany that. But I don’t think we’re going to get that. And, by and large, I would think that the people who perpetrated this, shall we say, hoax, would have the area cleaned up as much as possible before such a team got there. So, I’m not sure that would do anything.
As I said, in the bigger scheme of things, Paul, we kill more people with our airstrikes, incidental collateral damage, if you will, than this did, we did it most recently. And Assad has killed tens of thousands of people with his barrel bombs and his artillery and so forth. So, this is really not that significant an incident.
And yet, look what we did, Paul, we made it a Tonkin Gulf. We made it an Iraq WMD, so that we could make our strike. We had no concern with whether it was a genuine provocation or not. We just wanted something on which we could base our strike, and we got it.
PAUL JAY Well, here’s another clip from the Russian ambassador. ‘Cause they’re saying that this was a violation of international law, that these strikes were illegal. Let’s roll that clip.
VLADIMIR SAFRONKOV: …we describe that attack as a flagrant violation of international law, and an act of aggression. We strongly condemn the illegitimate action by the U.S. The consequences of this, for regional and international stability, could be extremely serious.
PAUL JAY: So, what do you make of that, that this was illegal?
LARRY WILKERSON: He’s right. I mean, but let’s look at what he’s talking about. I mean, we did the same thing to Iraq. Iraq was a sovereign state that we recognized as such, and we attacked it in 2003. Let’s look at what we’re doing with drones right now. My information tells me, and I think it’s pretty accurate, that we’re flying drones right now across the borders of seven countries. Six of whom we’re not at war, or even under AUMF. And we’re killing people across those borders in those countries. So, when you talk about violation of international law, we’re leading the world in that respect.
PAUL JAY: The report comes to Donald Trump — I’m speculating here — the intelligence agencies come to him, and they say that they have evidence that the Syrian government has attacked. I mean, in the normal course of things, one would think you would take your evidence, and you’d go to the Security Council. And even if you think that the Russians are likely to veto and so on, you would at least create a world moral stage where you would show your evidence.
They didn’t do any of that. You’re suggesting the reason to go ahead and just strike is really for political objectives, it has nothing to do with really being concerned about the chemical attack, or the deaths of the people. But there’s more to the politics too. There’s these coming talks you were referring to, which, at some point, there’ll be these talks to discuss the political outcome of the Syrian situation, one assumes, at some point.
But in the shorter term, isn’t it more even just domestic politics? Now, all of a sudden, Trump has stood up to Russia. Trump is taking on Assad. Trump gets to shut down the whole conversation in Washington, which is all about his connections with Putin and Russia, and now he’s stood up against them. It seems so obvious that it’s unbelievable that it isn’t more of a talking point on corporate media.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thank you. You want to come and teach my seminar? That’s what I teach every Monday for three hours. Domestic political context, international circumstances, those are all elements of my framework. How those things impact fateful decision-making. Decisions to send young men and young women to die for state purposes.
They do affect that decision-making; anybody who thinks they don’t is naive as hell. And they’re affecting Trump’s decision-making in much the ways you just suggested.
PAUL JAY: The things you have heard from some of your connections within the intelligence community, and some of the agencies that look into these issues, this had to have been presented to the Trump administration as well. That, you know, there is the possibility that this was created by the anti-Assad opposition, and certainly in terms of political gain, it’s just days after Trump announced that Assad would not be the target.
The U.S. was not trying to overthrow Assad. There should be a, if you want, a broad front to fight against ISIS, and several days later this happens, the whole thing gets turned around. It almost makes you wonder if it isn’t an extension of his war with the U.S. intelligence community, that, in fact, he was kind of cornered into doing this, rather than it being his plan.
LARRY WILKERSON: I wouldn’t be surprised if there were an element of that. But I do see an element of Trump in this too. And I see an element of Trump taking advantage of the moment. And that is to say, pressure’s on him from a number of different directions, which you’ve suggested some of, and all of a sudden there comes this provocation. And he can go on TV, and he can show pictures of babies, and he can lament the fact that this is a horrible way to die and everything.
I would suggest for him, that any way is a horrible way to die, whether it’s an artillery round or a chemical weapon. And he can use it. And this is what this guy’s principle forte is, is using the moment, reality TV, if you will, in order to impact for a moment the political landscape. That’s what he does, that’s what he’s good at.
PAUL JAY: It’s also a kind of curious coincidence perhaps, perhaps not, that Steve Bannon leaves the National Security Council, what, two days before this happens? I wonder, was there some kind of fight over this issue, or were they getting rid of him so that he wasn’t part of the decision-making process that led to this?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think we’re seeing probably some of H.R’s influence, H.R. McMaster’s influence in trying to settle down the situation in the White House, and get it to be a little more cerebral, a little more rational. I don’t know why Bannon left, but I have heard, and this sounds rather odd, I think, from what we heard before, that Bannon’s influence, at least with regard to the use of force, might have been positive, rather than negative. And having him leave, left that use, and its determination, mainly to the military types.
PAUL JAY: Now, I’m told that there was a somewhat parallel apparatus set up under Eisenhower, in the White House. I’m not sure of the name of it, but it was something to do with the strategic planning group, which had to do with the same kind of issues that the National Security Council deals with.
And that group continues to report to Bannon. And Bannon has talked often about; we’re in the beginnings of a global war against, what he calls, “Islamic fascism”. And he’s said over and over, “This is going to bloody.” Is this bombing a part of an increased presence of U.S. troops in Syria, and part of this strategy of unfolding this war against what he’s calling Islamic fascism?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, I certainly hope not. But, you talk about something that I think others who know them better than I do, are fearful of, particularly the group that has this kind of Islamophobia as its mantra. The Frank Gaffneys of the world, if you will and some of the neo conservatives. I don’t think that John Kelly, Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, or any of those people who might be more sane, more sober, particularly with regard to the use of military force, are in that group, however.
But I do think, and this worries me, I do think that all of those people, H.R. included, are exponents of our imperial power, and of the military instrument as a necessary component, even maybe a first component of that imperial power. And especially right now that, particularly Southwest Asia is so roiled, Russia looks like a threat. North Korea looks like a threat, and China as well.
It concerns me that these military men, and people associated with them, and others as you’ve suggested, have this much influence on national security decision-making at this crucial point in time. Because the last thing we need, is another war, especially one with a peer power. We might be putting the end to this imperial reign, if we start something like that. And I’d rather see us go out a little more slowly, if you will, than precipitously.
PAUL JAY: And Nikki Haley at the UN, the U.S. representative to the United Nations–
LARRY WILKERSON: Right, individual from my home state. Embarrassing to have her there. Of all the Trump appointees, and all the people who are wandering around pronouncing on behalf of my country, she embarrasses me the most.
PAUL JAY: Well, she went out of her way at this UN meeting Friday morning, to connect Iran to these events. That Assad can only do such horrible things, because Iran enables Assad. Yesterday on CNN, James Woolsey, the former CIA Director, who’s now apparently an advisor to Trump, Woolsey’s on saying that we should use this moment to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
And while we’re at it, and, I quote, and on the way back, we’ll take out the Syrian armed forces or infrastructure — something to those affects. I mean, are these guys outliers, or is this part of the real thinking going on here?
LARRY WILKERSON: Woolsey left the CIA Directorship, you may recall, because President Clinton wouldn’t see him. He had a real good reason, Clinton, for not wanting to see Woolsey. Woolsey is a dyed in the wool Bill Crystal, Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney neo-conservative. I wouldn’t pay any attention to Woolsey if he was telling me to get out of the way of a proceeding Mac truck. Woolsey’s an idiot.
PAUL JAY: Well, there may be others that are advising this policy.
LARRY WILKERSON: We’re talking about people like Michael Ledeen, and Richard Perle, and Frank Gaffney, and Douglas Fyfe and a host of these other people.
PAUL JAY: Dick Cheney.
LARRY WILKERSON: Dick Cheney. These people lie, cheat, steal, they will do anything to get what they think is necessary. And at the bottom of most of what they think is necessary, is protecting Israel. I got news for them. They’re setting up… we are setting up, we are creating in the Middle East, and I’ve said this, and I’ll say it again and again, until I go to my grave, and that won’t be short time away.
We are setting up a condition where Israel is going to cease to exist — along with Netanyahu, he’s giving us a lot of help — we’re creating the most dangerous possible situation for Israel in that region of the world. Because at the end of the day, when Israel is sinking, we are not going to her rescue, because we will be in the process of sinking ourselves.
PAUL JAY: All right, thanks for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.