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The massive military expansion in the US and China could lead to absolute disaster – Larry Wilkerson joins Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. After President Trump was elected, and he talked about no more stupid wars, and he was saying the same thing during his campaign, there was once where he said a little aside. He said well, don’t you guys worry. Our military manufacturers and such, there’ll be plenty for you. Well he certainly delivered and over delivered on that promise. His new military budget of $760 billion–and that’s only on the face of it because it’s probably already over a trillion when you really put all the various kinds of defense and military expenditure in a budget. At any rate, it’s a big increase for things like more aircraft carriers, a Space Force, more money into nuclear weapons development, and then some. When Patrick Shanahan, the Acting Secretary of Defense in a meeting in January 2019, he’s been quoted by an official who was at that meeting who was asked about the big increase in military budget and what justified it. He said three words: China, China, and China. Well, on Thursday of last week, he testified in front of the Armed Services Committee. Here’s a clip from that.

PATRICK SHANAHAN: China’s defense spending approaches that of the United States when we take into account purchasing power and the portion of our budget going to military pay and benefits. That, coupled with China’s organized approach to steal foreign technology, has allowed China to modernize its missile, space, and cyber capabilities, as well as project power far beyond its borders. Russia, for its part, continues to compete asymmetrically with United States, modernizing and developing its own missile, space, and cyber capabilities. Simultaneously, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles remain a pressing concern. Iran’s missile and cyber threats and malign aggression across the Middle East and beyond threaten U.S. national interests.

PAUL JAY: Now joining us to talk about this military budget and who it’s aimed at is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the retired United States Army soldier, former Chief of Staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, teaches at William and Mary College, and a regular contributor to The Real News. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Paul.

PAUL JAY: So, a couple of billion dollars for a Space Force but even much more money for this two Ford-class aircraft carriers. They’re going to be about fourteen billion dollars apiece in this budget. Although, I think this is a continuation actually of a commitment Obama made, but they’re planning as many as a dozen of these big aircraft carriers. And when you look at a lot of the hardware that they’re putting new money into–everything from new tanks to a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons–it all seems to be essentially, in an offensive posture. It’s all part of maintaining this global world order with hundreds and hundreds of American bases all over the world. When you look at China and Russia’s posture, and Iran for that matter, it seems mostly defensive. Do you think that characterization is correct?

LARRY WILKERSON: I think it is, yes, and it has some implications. Let’s face it, the empire is maintaining its imperium. We are maintaining the empire. No one even comes remotely close to us for overseas bases. The rest of the world might have anywhere from 70 to 80 bases in the world, which are countries like Russia and so forth. We have over eight hundred bases in the world, costing the American taxpayer close to a hundred billion dollars a year. And, I might say, in some places like the Middle East, making us more apt to be hated and making us more apt to get engaged in conflict that is not in the national interest. So, we are the only power in the world that is militarily–in terms of the globe now not just a region or another state–positioned to go to war with that world at the drop of a hat and with the offensive panoply of forces out in the world necessary to do that.

PAUL JAY: When you look at the budget and what it’s going to buy, if the objective–even if it’s to maintain America’s dominant position globally–it seems like overkill. I don’t get what you do with all this stuff and how much…

LARRY WILKERSON: It is overkill. 6,000 M1 Abrams tanks, for example; 3,000 of which I’m told were in mothballs. The Army doesn’t even want this buy that Donald Trump went to Lima, Ohio to extol the virtues of. The Army doesn’t even need those tanks. Yes, it is way more than we need. I would estimate that it is over the next ten years of projected spending, more than a trillion dollars more than we need. And in any given annual budget, a hundred billion at least over what we need. But it’s what we do in this country. We respond to the needs of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Brahman, and all the rest of the merchants of death, the defense contractors. We respond to the needs of the chairman of the Armed Services Committees who need that money in their PACs to be reelected constantly. We respond to the need of the Koch Brothers and others who need the kinds of assets we’re building in order to make their fortunes. We have this incredible war machine in the United States now that fuels and funds so much else and has become, as a result, so powerful that no one dares stand up to it except a few people who occasionally risk their whole lives or political careers to do so.

PAUL JAY: And, when you go back to Shanahan’s “China, China, China.” The United States already has a dominant position, militarily. The Chinese and American economies are quite intertwined. China’s already making tremendous advances in terms of developing its own markets and influence around the world, I believe. I don’t know if that might change but up until the recent election, China was Brazil’s biggest trading partner. I believe Argentina’s biggest trading partner. Certainly, in Africa China vies with the United States. All of this military hardware is not going to change that. So, what do they think they’re heading towards? The Chinese influence is not spreading because of their military might; it’s because they are smartly using their money.

LARRY WILKERSON: The realist would say, and I’m a realist from time to time, that that money is the very prospect of increased, accelerated, and much better military power. And only look at yourself, the United States, in order to justify what I just said. When you create a complex like we created right after World War Two, and then you let that complex go unchecked for years and years, in our case well over half a century, and you allow it to become the reason politicians exist to some extent, then you’re going to get a much more powerful military. And, as it becomes more powerful, it’s going to become more aggressive. So, if I were sitting in the politburo right now, having energized this military-industrial complex that now exists in China, this rush for high-tech weaponry and so forth, I’d be worried. I’d be worried that in ten or fifteen years, the generals and admirals will come in and be as powerful with me, the ruler of China, as they are with the president of the United States this minute today. All that said, the difference between the United States’ military ability and its offensive posture and China’s military ability and its defensive posture–with the exception of Taiwan, it’s offensively positioned with respect to Taiwan–is an order of magnitude, in proportion. So, the people who are trying to play China up as this incredible threat and so forth, are just wrong but they’re wrong because that’s what we do these days in order to justify all the money that we spend on the defense budget.

PAUL JAY: When I interviewed Daniel Ellsberg, he made a point that there’s the same type of people. I guess you’re saying it, as well. You have the same arms manufacturers in Russia. You have arms manufacturers in China. And, they love this stuff. This rivalry is making a lot of these people very rich.

LARRY WILKERSON: Yes, it’s what happened. It’s the reason Graham Allison talked about, to a certain extent, the Thucydides Trap, the inevitability of the U.S. and China fighting. It’s the reason John Mearsheimer and others, who are real realists, talk about the inevitability of a war with China. And to a certain extent, given human nature, given the nature of the complexes we’ve just described in both countries, and what they do to civilian leadership, they may be on to something. We may indeed. I’ll tell you about a discussion we had in our own administration early on when President George W. Bush really decided to give the China portfolio over to Colin Powell and keep it away from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld right after the incident in April 2001. The EP-3 and the Chinese [J-8] collided and we had an emergency crisis. The decision there was to do two things: to, in a sense, adapt to, pursue, and even accelerate a competition with China that included everything, high-tech, computers, you name it–economic competition. And you look at that as a healthy competition, a competition that will ultimately benefit lots of people in the world besides the U.S. and China. The [Belt and Road] Initiative is an example of that and that competition will be our principal policy but we hedge their bets. That is to say, we will try to form an alliance with India. We would keep our alliance with Japan and with Korea. We would try to open to Burma, Myanmar. We will try to keep the 7th Fleet robust in the Pacific. We would try to keep our relationship with the Philippines as warm as we could, and so forth. We were hedging our bets. But, the main strategy was peaceful competition. I don’t think that’s a bad way to look at it. You just have to make sure you don’t let your hedging strategy become so visible and forceful that your enemy, in this case China, your competitor China, suddenly thinks that you’re intent on war and begins to build its own apparatus to counter that, to include offensive weaponry. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that Mearsheimer and Graham Allison and other realists would say, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s inevitable. That’s the relations of nations. That’s the nature of international relations. I don’t subscribe to that completely. I think if you work the competitive angle well enough, you can keep the peace for a long time, if not permanently.

PAUL JAY: Because if the other turns out to be true, there’s no limited war with China.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well every exercise, Paul, I’ve ever played whether it was based on the Taiwan scenario, the South China Sea scenario, or some other like, we did one one time based on oil disruption and punishing China with that disruption, and China got angry and started doing things. Everyone I’ve ever played was civilians, former government, academics, and others. I think if I remember right Bill Perry played the president in one of them. We had no recourse once we had shot conventionally at one another. One of my marines actually invented a metaphor for it. He called it the shark and the elephant. The elephant is not coming into the ocean to bite the shark and the shark is not about to go ashore to bite the elephant. So, you wind up with half your military destroyed, mostly air and sea, and you’re looking at how to influence the conflict from there on and you go to nuclear weapons. And generally, the civilian leadership in those war games would stop the war game at that point.

PAUL JAY: Because that’s the end of life as we know it. Not just as we know it; it’s just the end of life. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.

PAUL JAY: 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.