Wilkerson: Trump a ‘Diplomatic Fiasco’ at the UN
Col. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, talks about Trump’s speech before the UN General Assembly and explains why Ambassador Nikki Haley’s remarks on the Iran nuclear deal scare him
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. This week the world leaders will be gathering in New York for the UN General Assembly. President Donald Trump shall be giving his first speech to the UN Assembly. According to his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, Trump will be focusing on sovereignty, democracy, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism. He will also be focusing on the efficiency of the UN itself. We will have to wait and see whether the disturbingly hawkish views espoused by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley will be reiterated by her boss.
Also, here for the omnibus UN meeting is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will meet with Donald Trump on Monday to push the U.S. to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Iran, something that he was not able to do under the Obama administration.
Joining us today to discuss Trump’s upcoming speech before the UN General Assembly, along with Nikki Haley’s recent address at the American Enterprise Institute, is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff to the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is now a distinguished professor at the college of William and Mary in Virginia. He’s, of course, a regular contributor here on The Real News Network.
Larry, as always, good to have you with us.
LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be here, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, you recently wrote an article, which we published on The Real News Network site, and it’s titled Here We Go Again. In it you describe Nikki Haley’s remarks on the Iran nuclear deal, which you said “scared the bejesus” out of you. We have today Netanyahu meeting with President Trump, and he will present a similar argument to President Trump, which is that America’s adherence to the Iran nuclear deal cannot solely depend on Iran’s compliance with the agreement, but also whether Iran and other policies challenge U.S. national interests and, of course, Israel’s national interests.
REX TILLERSON: Well, my view on the nuclear deal is they are in technical compliance of the nuclear arrangement.
That’s why all these sanctions were lifted. But since the nuclear deal has been concluded what we have witnessed is Iran has stepped up its destabilizing activities in Yemen. It’s stepped up its destabilizing activities in Syria. It exports arms to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. And it continues to conduct a very active ballistic missile program. None of that, I would believe, is consistent with that preamble commitment that was made by everyone.
SHARMINI PERIES: Can you explain what you meant by, first, “Here we go again,” and second, by this very disturbing view to undo Iran’s nuclear agreement?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think there’s a real disconnect between what the previous administration saw with regard to Iran and what, for political reasons or perhaps even national security reasons, one has a hard time telling with this administration, are very different for the Trump administration. That said, let’s look at it for a moment from our allies, our friends, and even our enemies in the world, and those who might fall somewhere in between. The United States negotiates in supposedly good faith a diplomatic agreement, signs that agreement, does so in consonance with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany, and with a lot of facilitation by the European Union, and buy-in by the Union. And the next administration looks as if it’s going to abrogate that agreement with no real reason that the rest of the world, predominantly those powers I just enumerated, can understand.
Who in his right mind as a state in today’s world would want to do any diplomatic business with the United States when one administration can say one thing and the other administration can come in and negate that thing and take its own course with regard to such a serious action as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and Iran’s abidance thereby? This is incredible what is happening.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, let’s listen to Ambassador Haley, a short clip of her speaking at the new conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
NIKKI HALEY: The truth is the Iran deal has so many flaws that it’s tempting to leave it, but the deal was constructed in a way that makes leaving it less attractive. It gave Iran what it wanted upfront in exchange for temporary promises to deliver what we want. That’s not good.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, there’s various positions coming into convergence here. The position of the U.S., of course, and Israel second, and Saudi Arabia third in terms of pushing back on Iran’s nuclear deal and trying to get Iran in a position where it feels threatened in the region and, of course, threatened by all kinds of measures, including more sanctions. Tell us what’s going on here. Is the Israeli interest, U.S. interest, and, of course, the Saudi’s interest all converging here?
LARRY WILKERSON: We are looking at a more sophisticated and perhaps more subtle, after all, even pigs learn when they do find some acorns, attempt to do the same thing that was done in 2002 and early 2003. To wit, to convince the American people, we don’t even care about the international community anymore, but the American people or at least the majority of them or at least the base that voted for Trump, that Iran is in noncompliance with the nuclear agreement even though we’ve certified its in compliance, or, and this is at the same time, that the other activities of Iran, some of which are explicable, very explicable, very rational, very reasonable even, and some of the activities that are not so reasonable and explicable but are nonetheless inimical to the United States are in fact reason to abrogate the most important aspect of a security agreement, nuclear weapons. That’s all the diplomacy was about was nuclear weapons. We never would have achieved the diplomacy and a non-nuclear weapon state in Iran if we hadn’t limited to just nuclear weapons.
The other issues, like it’s constantly said, as Haley did, support for terrorism. Iran does not support terrorists of any great width and breadth like Saudi Arabia does or like, for that matter, other members of the GCC do. Iran supports one group. That group is called Hezbollah. We don’t like Iran’s support of Hezbollah because Hezbollah is the principle enemy, perhaps the most capable enemy, of the state of Israel. So Iran’s support of terrorism is pure hokey. Iran supports Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization is a determination that we have made and we have made it based on certain principles, which are reasonable and I can agree with. But let’s call a spade a spade. Iran supports Hezbollah. It doesn’t support terrorist organizations, plural.
The other thing we’ve talked about is ballistic missiles and Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, which is entirely reasonable, entirely explicable, because Iran went through one of the most brutal wars, if not the most brutal war, in the region in the last millennium. That was the Iran/Iraq war. The only way Iran was able to defend itself in a decisive way was with ballistic missiles. Iraq, we must recall, whom we were supporting, rained ballistic missiles on Iran. So I wouldn’t fault them at all for developing the only weaponry they can in that sense to defend themselves. Most of the other things with which they might defend themselves, we have sanctioned in terms of their ability to keep them up, to maintain them, to train on them, to use them, and so forth. So it’s quite explicable why Iran is doing this.
The other thing, of course, Iran is doing is it is becoming a major power in what remains of Syria. It is also contesting the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, which we’re supporting the Saudis in, I must say to my disgrace and shame as an American. So you have to look at this from a much more nuanced point of view, a much more sophisticated point of view, which is not what the George W. Bush administration would do with regard to Iraq in 2002 and ’03. Instead, we looked at it as possessing weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair said 45 minutes warning time. We said that it was a threat to its neighbors and a threat to us. We insinuated it was an existential threat. It was no such thing.
So while Nikki Haley and her gang have learned to be a little more circumspect and a little more sophisticated, they still are distorting the facts, lying outright. They still are trying to march this country to a position where it does not necessarily need to go. Maybe some day we will. Maybe some day there’ll be no choice but a war with Iran, but we don’t need to go there right now. We certainly don’t need to abrogate the only success that we’ve had with regard to Iran, which is to stop their nuclear weapons program in its tracks.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, in your article you write, “Here we go again.” This is the title of the piece. You are reminiscing on these moments in the past administration of George W. Bush. Now, who is advising Trump that you think is problematic here? I did mention off the top that Netanyahu is here. He will be meeting with Trump just prior to Trump’s speech tomorrow at the United Nations. Is this a lot of what determines US foreign policy, Israel?
LARRY WILKERSON: It is. As we discussed within the group that helped President Obama work the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran, through the U.S. Congress, we worked with them, we validated our work often with members of Mossad, of the Israeli Defense Force, of the different political parties in Israel, and other experts retired and active within their intelligence and their security community in general. What we found was that in a tone and tint way, and oftentimes in a very straightforward way, these people, even if they were on active duty so to speak, were in agreement with us and not with Netanyahu about the benefits of the nuclear agreement with Iran.
They did have some reservations. They wanted to see what we were going to do in the interim. That is to say, when we reached the 15 and then the 20-year point and so forth what plans we had for going beyond that, how we were going to make sure that there was a follow-on agreement perhaps, a follow on adherence to the NPT, but by and large they recognized the nuclear agreement as what you might call on the hierarchy of bad choices, in other words they were all bad, as the better of the bad choices, and they were for the nuclear agreement. Of course, they couldn’t in many cases be public about this, because they could be defying their own government.
So here we have Avigdor Lieberman, the minister of defense, and maybe Netanyahu, is really the ultra right-wing Israeli politicians who are trying to hold on to power in their own country and see Iran as an instrument of political use in that regard and want to make Iran the bugaboo, the security bugaboo. Let’s look at what Netanyahu’s done with his policies so far. His policy has been to help the United States and others create chaos in the region. That chaos strategically would mean that Israel was safe, at least for an interim period of time, because all the countries that might bring some kind of harm to Israel, Syria, Iraq and so forth, would be involved in this chaos. So Israel would be safe.
Well, look what he got with that strategic objective. He’s got Israel into a position where it’s in more danger now than it’s been since probably 1948 in its founding. He’s got countries all around him who are ready and willing, possibly, to challenge him. Not least of which is Iran, which has gained a very much cheek and jowl chokehold on Syria. Hezbollah in Syria helping Iran. Syria itself, which has just beat off a terrible insurgency, and did so largely because of the Sunni, not the Shia, the Sunni members of the Saudi military. And he’s got the Kurds surrounding him seeking autonomous nature, a state, seeking to be independent in Iraq, independent maybe in Syria and Turkey, looking at all of that with aspirations of maybe leaving NATO, making Russia its principal supplier of weaponry and becoming a neutral country. I mean, Netanyahu’s worked a miracle in southwest Asia.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Larry, one thing that’s very interesting is that UN, of course, is supposed to represent all of the nation-states involved, and yet more and more it is responding to the United States’ demands at the UN. You’ve been there. You’re a diplomat. You served, and you dealt with the United Nations a lot. How much weight does the United States have in order to overturn these kinds of multilaterally-negotiated deals like that of the Iran nuclear deal?
LARRY WILKERSON: The United States can walk away from the agreement any time it wants to. There’s no question about that. It’s within the president’s prerogative to do so. He’s got the support of, I think, the majority of the legislature. Some democrats, mostly republicans. Most of that is based on Israel, too. Don’t ask me why Chuck Schumer would be against the deal, except that I would answer in one word: Israel. Israel. Israel. That’s three words, but the same one thrice. So there’s no question that the president can say: I’m out of this agreement.
What that does within the UN community and within the global community in general, though, particularly to our allies, is tell them not only are we untrustworthy, not only do we not adhere to agreements that previous administrations have engineered, not only do we feel that Article 5, for example in NATO is no longer is relevant, if it’s relevant at all, certainly not as relevant as it was, not only do we want to make America great again but we want to make it great again without anyone else’s help and without providing any help to anyone else. But we are also a diplomatic fiasco in all respects. We essentially aren’t going to adhere to an agreement that others are signed up to and that we signed up to in good faith. We’re going to do it. We’re going to back out for some reasons that the rest of the world’s not going to understand.
The United Nations is, in some respects, what Donald Trump has alluded to it as being, it’s a talking shop. It’s a place where people come together, mostly diplomats from all the countries in the world, and they sit down and they talk. But as Winston Churchill said, jaw-jaw is a lot better than war-war. That’s what it was intended to be. One of the things the American people don’t understand about the UN is the UN for years from its creation on has been a tool of the United States in many respects. More often than not, we get what we want from the UN, and we get it either by criticizing the UN when we want to and when we know why we’re doing it, or we get it with compliance from the UN. But the UN has been as much a tool of American diplomacy in the world and American nefariousness in the world from time to time as any other tool in our toolbox.
So to disparage the UN is one thing in terms of political purpose in the United States. It’s quite another thing when it comes to the real purpose of the UN and how the UN has been used by the U.S. from time to time from the Korean War on for its own purposes.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Larry, before we go we’re going to take a look at a clip of Donald Trump today at a ECOSOC meeting talking about how bureaucratic the United Nations is and how it needs reform. Let’s have a listen.
DONALD TRUMP: Yet in recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement. While the United Nations on a regular budget has increased 140% and its staff has more than doubled since 2000, we are not seeing the results in line with this investment. We must ensure that no one and no member state shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden. That’s militarily or financially. We also ask that every peacekeeping mission have clearly defined goals and metrics for evaluating success.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, you’re a diplomat, or you were one under the Bush administration. You know the workings of the United Nations fairly well. Is Donald Trump correct here? Is there a big large bureaucracy at the UN that’s highly inefficient?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, it sounds like Ronald Reagan without the skills, diplomatic, political, or otherwise. Many of the things he said are true, and are true of the United States as well, and also true of the European Union and true of Russia and true of China, true of any great state entity or international organization. Bureaucracy is not a pejorative, Mr. Trump. It is not a pejorative. You can call it the deep state. You can call it the meritocracy. You can call it whatever you want to, but it’s what makes the world go around. Not you and your real estate business, not you and your deals with Russia, not you and your deals with the rest of the world building hotels and so forth. That’s an important part of the commercial relations of this country and the world. But it’s not a part of what keeps war from happening. It’s not a part of what keeps nations talking to one another rather than in conflict with one another.
I don’t care where you do that or how you do that, you’re going to need a bureaucracy. You’re going to need people who actually make the trains run on time day after day. You’re going to need resources. Is there corruption in expending those resources? Is there misuse of those resources? Of course. There’s the same thing in Washington, the same thing in Moscow, the same thing in Beijing and so forth. It’s the nature of man. If we were angels, we wouldn’t need governments.
So to criticize the United Nations, it’s not very productive. What’s productive is doing the right kind of talking, bringing the right kind of leverage, bringing the right kind of incentives, doing the right kind of operations, whether they’re peacekeeping operations under Chapter 6 or under Chapter 7. I must differ with Mr. Trump. When you are a country as gifted as the United States is or as China is or as Japan is or some of the other countries that run down that spectrum of OECD countries and countries that are called developed and have more money than they know what to do with sometimes, which is why they have so much corruption perhaps, you owe something back. You owe something back.
I remember when Ronald Reagan restored the UN arrears or paid the UN arrears that the United States owed. That was a dramatic moment. It was a good moment for Ronald Reagan because he was reasserting the United States’ support for the concept that is the United Nations. As corrupt and inefficient as that concept may be, it’s the only one we’ve got. So Ronald Reagan was saying I’m going to restore the U.S. arrearage. I’m going to pay our dues. It is excessive in terms of the percentage that the US pays as opposed to other countries, but then we owe that back to the world. After all, that’s where we made that money in the first place.
So I don’t see anything wrong with that. I do think efficiency should be attempted. I do think corruption should be rubbed out and so forth. But I think the basic concept of the United Nations as a talking house is solid and sound and has been more in the past half century-plus since its founding to the benefit of the United States rather than to its detriment.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Larry, I thank you so much for joining us today. Lots of things to think about there.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thank you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.