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Col. Lawrence Wilkerson and Paul Jay analyze why Saudi Arabia is getting away doing as it pleases and how this relates to Turkey’s role in the region

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

It was reported in the U.K. newspaper the Express that the British intelligence service MI6 had known about the planned attack on Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, and pleaded, begged, according to the headline in the Express, begged the Saudi royals not to go ahead with this. There’s apparently in that report no direct link in British intelligence to Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, the Crown Prince. But clearly senior levels of the royal family, as it’s reported. Of course, it was earlier reported that American intelligence also knew about a planned attempt to kidnap, to interrogate Khashoggi, that turned into a killing. In fact, in the British report it specifically mentions that the British intelligence heard the Saudis planning a Plan B, which had to do with something more than just an abduction if it didn’t go well, which suggested a plan for a murder. And we know that the Saudi prosecutor has now said that this was all a premeditated plan, which included the murder, if I understand it correctly.

So just what is the bigger geopolitical context of these events? Now joining me to discuss all of this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell; currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary, and a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.

PAUL JAY: So the British and American intelligence agencies knows this is coming. They don’t tell Khashoggi to be wary; don’t go for a visit to the Saudi embassy. For the life of me I actually can’t understand how he thought he could, but at any rate, he did.

And I would have thought, perhaps, that the Americans and British maybe wouldn’t have made such a big deal out of this after the fact. But maybe they had no choice once Turkey went so public, and had actual audio recordings. The Turks seemed to know this thing was coming. I know there’s some suggestion about his watch, but … You know, everyone’s listening to everybody these days. And it seems to me it’s a sign of the impunity the Saudis feel that they probably know they’re being listened to. They do all this stuff anyway, and think they’re going to get away with it. Why they thought they would get away with it in Turkey I don’t quite get. But talk about why the Turks decided to make such hay with this.

LARRY WILKERSON: Let me say, first of all, that those were very leading questions, which is a style to which I’ve become accustomed. But I have to say even with that qualification, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, period. You’re right on almost everything you’ve said. I would think that sources and methods might have something to do with warning the gentleman. That might sound cretin-like, but it is true that we would sacrifice an individual to revelation of sources and methods. And there’s no guarantee it would have adhered to it anyway. He probably would have perservered and gone anyway.

But to your question, your substantive question, the two real ideological enemies in that region of the world are Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey being, and Erdogan in particular manifesting this, the evolution now of the political Muslim Brotherhood; and Riyadh representing the very opposite, the Salafist, Wahhabist, the radical kind of Islam that brought about 9/11, for example.

So you’re really looking at the two ideological opponents when you look at Turkey, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia on the other hand. That makes what Mohammed bin Salman has accomplished here with his disastrous war in Yemen, which he is losing, at one of the kingdom, and his disastrous boycott of Qatar at the other end of his kingdom, which has lured thousands of Turkish troops onto Qatari soil, and brought Riyadh’s enemy cheek and jowl with him, if you will. Even more dramatic, if one wanted to say that Mohamed bin Salman was one of the worst strategic thinkers and executors in the world, I’d support that description.

PAUL JAY: Well, is that partly what this, in fact, is about, then? Lindsey Graham- who, to my mind, speaks for the military-industrial-congressional complex, as some people call it- Lindsey Graham said that MBS is schizophrenic, and has got to go. Now, if he speaks for arms manufacturers, and this is one of their biggest customers, Lindsay sticking his neck out to some extent, in the sense that it seems to me that that’s the plan, that MBS needs to go. And maybe that’s- they’ve all taken advantage of this opportunity to bring him down. And it’s not because they’re so worried about one journalist getting killed. They’re worried that MBS, and this, as you say, disastrous war in Yemen, and his, what he’s doing in terms of trying to completely consolidate power in Saudi Arabia, that he’s distracting from the real target, which is the American plan for regime change in Iran.

LARRY WILKERSON: That could be true. That’s one interpretation of some of these more complex events. Another interpretation is that Stalin was right when he said kill one person, it’s murder; kill a million, it’s a statistic. And what you have here is that phenomenon manifesting itself rather dramatically. We have been helping the Saudis prosecute this brutal war in Yemen which is killing thousands of people, bringing on a cholera epidemic the world has not seen the likes of, and creating a humanitarian disaster in terms of starvation that we haven’t seen since World War II. Really a brutal, tragic war.

And then we suddenly, and then the Congress- I’ve been lobbying the Congress now for almost six months on two pieces of legislation: House Continuing Resolution 138 now, and Senate Special Resolution 54, which essentially say to the president invoking the War Powers Act to get out of Yemen. Now. 30 days, get out. And explains why we have not to this point had much traction with the legislation because of the brutal war in Yemen, but now we have incredible traction because of this single murder.

So look at it the way you will; if you want to look at it is fate operating with its fickle finger, then that’s what’s happened here. You’ve had a confluence of interest in making this an issue. Turkey, the United States, ultimately, people like Lindsey Graham, for example, who want to get rid of MBS. You’ve had those come together, and now we have a real issue over this single murder.

PAUL JAY: It’s no surprise that MBS and the Saudi royals think they can get away with just about anything, because in the past they’ve gotten away with just about everything.

LARRY WILKERSON: Indeed. As I’ve pointed out to audience after audience, they may even have gotten away with 9/11; at least 15 of the 19 hijackers. And I think fairly definitive evidence even now, without our knowing- all of it’s in the archives, all of it’s in the testimony to the 9/11 Commission, that was the deal- without our even knowing that, we have pretty firm evidence that there was a connection with some part, at least, of the royal family and some of those hijackers who flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

PAUL JAY: Well, certainly Bob Graham, who co-chaired the joint congressional investigation into 9/11, came to the conclusion that the Saudi government- in fact, according to Graham in the interviews I conducted with him, he thinks the Saudi king was directly involved. Of course, the the man that stick handled it for him was the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Bandar. And Bandar clearly is in wiretaps, and other evidence connecting him with the hijackers. And we don’t need to go into the whole 9/11 story now, although we will again. But according to Graham, he thinks Cheney and Bush both knew it was coming, and knew in connection with Bandar that the Saudis were involved, and did nothing to stop it. But that’s another conversation, unless you want to take that up.

But I’m more interested in the- at this point- in imagining the rivalry between the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that this was what Europe was for centuries; you know, rising industrial capitalist powers, or even when they were more feudal powers, contending with each other. Slaughtering each other, waging wars against each other. The difference, I guess, in the Middle East with these powers that are contending with each other is it all happens under the rubric of American, you know, some people say hegemony in the region.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well that’s certainly a part of the empire’s periphery. And what damages the empire ultimately from that periphery. Broadly stated, all our alliances, tacit or otherwise, with dictators, autocrats, and just plain cretins, and all that implies for the value system that America is supposed to exemplify. Less so every day that goes by, it seems of late, from torture to this sort of thing right here.

So yeah, that’s a huge component of it, I think. It’s a huge component of this war in Yemen. And the difficulty in getting the Congress of the United States to do what anybody with a sane mind would think they should do immediately, which is to extricate the United States from it- let’s look at what we’ve got happening right now. We’ve got the Secretary of Defense. We’ve got a four-star general, General Votel, in charge of the Central Command, who are essentially- wittingly or unwittingly, increasingly I think wittingly- lying to the Congress about what the Saudis are doing in Yemen.

I recently had an email conversation with people I had met just recently in Oklahoma City, and they got on the telephone with the junior senator from Oklahoma, James Lankford. And he was maintaining that the Saudis were doing essentially what Pompeo and Mattis have testified to, which is trying- rather incompetently, but trying- to restrict their bombing to targets that we say their bombing should be restricted to. Military targets.

Well, when you present the Senator with a list that shows about a third of those targets, over some 15,000 airstrikes, have been civilian targets, clearly civilian targets, from school buses to hospitals to weddings, and so forth. And then you suggest to him that precision-guided munitions are supposed to allow you to hit the target you aim at. It’s pretty difficult to then argue that Pompeo and Mattis haven’t been lying to the Congress and to the American people; that in fact they know the Saudis are targeting civilian targets, waging a brutal war against food, against medicine, against anything they can hit with their bombs, in an effort to bring the Houthis to bay.

They should go back and look at Nasser’s Egyptian forces in that same country, Yemen, back in the ’60s. Most of the veterans of that campaign who are still alive will tell you that was Egypt’s Vietnam. So that’s the other aspect of this, is we’re supporting Saudi Arabia in this brutal war, and they’re losing. They’re losing badly. And they’re ultimately going to lose the whole thing. They’re spending a fortune on it. It’s a real drain on their treasury right now. And this is being called increasingly in the region MBS’s war. Worse for the United States, it’s not seen as an American proxy war in the sense that we’re involved in it and the Saudis are our executioner, except with the people in the region. And that’s what’s happening right now that helps Al-Qaeda and other groups like that recruit. And it also is increasing the ranks of terrorists all across the region, because they see this war as the U.S. war against Iran, with the Saudis as our proxy.

PAUL JAY: Well it’s no wonder, then, Lindsey Graham wants MBS gone, because if what you really want to do is target Iran, you don’t need Saudis distracted by Yemen.

LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah, that’s a very important point. What we’ve had happen here is this death of this Washington Post journalist, and the brouhaha that has developed around it has drowned out Iran and the administration, the Trump administration, John Bolton the National Security Advisor in particular is probably roiling, trying to figure out how to get the focus back on Iran. But as long as we’re looking at the Saudi chief prosecutor heading- I guess he’s arrived, now- in Istanbul, and other things associated with this, as long as Erdogan just sort of lets this out piecemeal, a little bit at a time, it keeps everyone titillated thereby. Then Iran’s off the screen. And it’s literally taken off the headlines by this series of events.

So it’s it’s damaging to the administration’s policies. As far as I’m concerned Iran can stay off the headlines forever. But it’s damaging for the administration, because the administration, particularly Bolton, wants to keep Iran right in the Klieg lights.

PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Lawrence Wilkerson

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.