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“I have grave concerns about Senator McCain and I’ll give you evidence of those concerns by saying I probably will not vote for him–and I’m a Republican.”

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ZAA NKWETA (VOICEOVER): Retired Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson is a Washington insider. A close aide of former Secretary of State Colin Powell since 1989, he served as his chief of staff from 2002 to 2005. Wilkerson remains an outspoken critic of the administration he once served. Real News senior news editor Paul Jay spoke to Wilkerson in Washington.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: Thank you for joining us for part 3 of our interview with Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff of the former secretary of state, Colin Powell. Larry, John McCain has presented himself in two ways over the last few months. The first was the John McCain of bomb-bomb-bomb Iran. The second was the multilateralist. Of course, one day the multilateralist wants to forget the United Nations and create something called the League of Democracies outside the UN. But who is the real John McCain? And does he really represent a change in US foreign policy? And let me just add to that his advisers, people like James Woolsey and Randy Scheunemann from the Committee on the Present Danger, does not suggest that much of a difference from Vice President Dick Cheney.

COL. LAWRENCE B. WILKERSON, FMR CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: I don’t know Senator McCain anymore. I thought I knew him fairly well in terms of his iconoclastic views, iconoclastic in terms of the base of the Republican Party and his maverick views. I like to think—and I hope I’m right—that John McCain is tacking left and right and down the middle or wherever he needs to be because he understands that he’s in a very untenable position, being a maverick within a party that increasingly, as Karl Rove likes to say all the time, needs its base in order for its candidate to be elected. I think what we’re going to see as we go forward is John McCain getting further and further away from that base and closer and closer to what I call the radical center, which is 70 percent of America. He’s going to have to do that in order to have any chance of winning in November.

JAY: But what he does in the election campaign and what he intends to do as president—.

WILKERSON: Are two different things, probably.

JAY: And the thing I ask is—the person who practically lives on his shoulder these days, Joe Lieberman, is very connected with a very aggressive policy towards Iran.

WILKERSON: I have grave concerns about Senator McCain, and I’ll give you evidence of those concerns by saying I probably will not vote for him—and I’m a Republican. Enough said.

JAY: I guess enough said. Senator Obama has talked about going back to the traditional principles of foreign policy, even with Bush I. He hearkens back to Roosevelt. But wasn’t it traditional US foreign policy that gave us al-Qaeda? Wasn’t it traditional foreign policy that gave us the arming of the jihadists in Afghanistan? Didn’t traditional US foreign policy give rise to Islamic extremism, which in some ways you can say helped nurture the neoconservative extremism in the United States? What I’m asking you: doesn’t there need to be a rethink of the fundamental principles of US foreign policy?

WILKERSON: That’s a very good question, one that I wrestle with with my students on both my campuses almost every seminar. I think the answer to your question is yes and no. Yes, there does need to be a solid rethink, and this should have happened long ago. It should have happened, for example, when Colin Powell and I were working in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff offices, the chairman and I as his assistant; should have happened with George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft and a host of other people who should have thought more strategically about the end of the Cold War and how we changed our foreign policy to reflect that. It didn’t happen. As often happens in democracies, more often than not, it takes crisis to make these sorts of things happen. Unfortunately, the crisis of 9/11 made us go, I think, way off the scales, and I hope we reverse. What do we need to do when we reverse, as it were? We need to go back to traditional and political cultural values and principles about foreign policy. That doesn’t mean everything we did during the Cold War was right. Hell, no, it wasn’t right. The overthrow of Mosaddeq, the first democratically elected prime minister in Iranian history in ’53 by the CIA was wrong. We’re still suffering from the blowback of that. The ’54 coup in Guatemala was wrong. The Allende affair was wrong. I mean, I can point out event after event in those half-century of foreign policy that was bad.

JAY: Does it concern you that when Obama talks about hearkening back to the good old days—?

WILKERSON: I hope what he’s hearkening back to is multilateralism, concerts of power rather than coalitions of the willing, fixed and steady and solid alliances like NATO and the US-Japan and US-Korea security relationships. I hope what he’s talking about is all the good parts of the Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, and so forth regimes rather than those bad parts. I think, listening to his rhetoric that that’s what he’s talking about. Whether or not he can effect the change necessary to bring that about in terms of real foreign policy on the ground is another matter altogether.

JAY: Did it concern you, his confrontation with Reverend Wright and this whole thing? I mean, Reverend Wright was fundamentally attacked, not what he said about race, it’s what he said about US foreign policy. And it was the chickens coming home to roost. You just mentioned the words blowback, which is essentially a theory of blowback. And Obama distanced himself so significantly with Wright’s comments, maybe for tactical reasons in the campaign or maybe not. Do we know what Obama really does believe on these issues?

WILKERSON: That’s another good question. I’m waiting to see whether I vote or not, whether I write in, whom I vote for if I don’t write in—I’ve written in before; I wrote in Colin Powell, for example—before I actually cast my vote. And that’s one of the reasons I’m waiting, because I need to hear more substance and less flourishing rhetoric, though I know, as most people who study the American presidency know, that the real tool of the American president, the powerful tool, is the bully pulpit, and we’ve had a long time since we’ve had a president who could use the bully pulpit well. Obama presents himself as a potential president who could. There has to be some substance under that rhetoric, that bully pulpit talk, though, and I’m waiting to see that substance. I’m waiting to see it on two dimensions: domestically and internationally. I’m waiting to see it for foreign policy and for domestic policy. And I’ve got to see some real substance, some gravitas with this young man before I cast my vote. That’s my biggest concern about him right now.

JAY: So perhaps sometime soon, as the campaign unfolds, we can continue our conversation.

WILKERSON: I’d love to.

JAY: Thank you very much. And thank you for joining us. Once again, over my shoulder is a little ‘Donate’ button. And if you enjoyed this interview and would like to see more, please click on it. Thanks for joining us.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.