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Larry Wilkerson: This may have more to do with getting ready for war against Iran than fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

And we’re continuing our special programming for our spring/summer fundraising campaign. A generous donor has contributed $50,000 as a matching grant. So now’s the time. If you click that “Donate” button, for every buck you give, you’ll trigger another dollar. This is critical for us, ’cause, like you know, we don’t accept government funding, corporate underwriting, we don’t sell advertising. We depend on viewers, which means you. And now’s the time. We need to get—program through the summer. We need to prepare for coverage of the U.S. elections. We have to continue our international coverage from Israel-Palestine, from Cairo. And we’re going to be expanding in the summer to Bolivia. And also we’ll be covering the Venezuelan elections, and, of course, increasing our domestic coverage, which is part of the reason we’re digging in in Baltimore, so that we can take up local issues and then expand those into national answers and systemic look at these questions. So we need you to donate now.

And now we continue our conversation with Larry Wilkerson. Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired colonel. He’s a former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government and policy at the College of William & Mary. He’s an often-contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us again, Larry.


JAY: So in the first segment of this series—and if you haven’t seen it, you might want to go back and watch it—we talked about the whole issue of the Armed Forces, the NDAA, this piece of legislation that is going to allow—or now does allow, I should say, the army to arrest people and hold them indefinitely. And in this segment we’re going to talk a little bit more about why now. And, Larry, let me ask you the question. Nine/eleven was ten years ago, more than ten years ago. This legislation wasn’t needed all during that period. Why now?

WILKERSON: There were some legal reasons, I think, Paul. To keep things out of the Article Three courts, you either need to create another system of court or use the other alternative you have, which is the military. When I say courts, that includes prisons, imprisonment, interrogation, all the things that they want out of the limelight, out of the Article Three courts, and under the umbrella of the military. You can get rid of it that way.

And another aspect is what you and I have talked about before, and that is that if you’re going to go to war with Iran and Iran’s going to respond asymmetrically, i.e. terrorist acts all over the United States, you want the military all ready to handle that.

JAY: And that’s my thinking. If you’re talking to people in Congress and you’re trying to persuade people to—Congress to vote for this, there’s got to be some overriding issue. But they’re not telling the American people that’s the issue, that the possibility of war with Iran is potentially so imminent that they pass what many people think is a draconian piece of legislation that essentially eliminates constitutional rights.

WILKERSON: I agree with you 100 percent. I think we’ve been playing with the Constitution since Harry Truman went after the steel strikers and essentially had the Supreme Court turn him around. But since George W. Bush in 2000 and his election to the presidency, and ultimately 9/11 in 2001, we have really begun to play with the Constitution in ways that, while we may have from time to time in our past done this or that thing in order to accommodate security needs, we now are doing it almost wholesalely. And that’s very frightening, in the sense that I think the Constitution’s a pretty resilient document, and when you play with it consistently like this, you’re not just incarcerating some Japanese in concentration camps while you wage World War II; you’re essentially doing it for the rest of time, because when do you ever declare this terrorist threat over, this war against terror over? This imprisonment of U.S. citizens without due process, killing of U.S. citizens without due process, when do you ever declare it over?

JAY: Well, part of this special programming we’ve promised is that we’re going to ask your questions, that is, viewers’ questions. And now we’re going to go to a video question that we were sent. This was sent to us by Jeremiah G. (And we’re not giving everybody’s last names here.) And here’s his question, which has to do with potential war with Iran.

JEREMIAH GOULKA, WRITER, PUBLIC POLICY SCHOLAR: My name is Jeremiah Goulka. I’m a writer in Washington, D.C., and a former analyst at the RAND Corporation, where I wrote a report on the Mujahedin-e Khalq. My question is that polling suggests that a majority of Americans think that Iran already has an ongoing nuclear weapons program, even though American and Iranian officials deny that Iran has an ongoing weapons program. What do you think explains that perception? And how do you think our domestic politics is shaping our saber-rattling towards Iran?

JAY: So, Larry, what do you make of that, that the American intelligence agencies have said that Iran has not decided to have a nuclear weapon? There’s no evidence of it from the IAEA. But the polling shows American people, most people think there already is a committed weapons program. So why is that, and what do you make of it?

WILKERSON: One of the reasons, I think, is exactly what you saw in the run-up to the Iraq war. If the leadership in the country tells the American people, either directly or indirectly through its surrogates like the intelligence agencies, like the unofficial people out there—Richard Perle comes to mind from the Iraq War times—if you continue to tell the American people, continue to give them a message, they’re going to believe it. Seventy percent upwards, depending on the poll, believes Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. So that’s part of it.

And part of it—and this young man probably knows this—is the MEK. The MEK, which he said he’d written a paper on, is essentially the equivalent of the Iraqi National Congress/Ahmed Chalabi. So you’ve got them delivering the message whenever and wherever they can, and you’ve got, indeed, very established figures in Washington, leadership figures, who are advocating the delisting of the MEK so they can do it more and with more credibility.

And then you’ve also got the press. One of my friends calls them the fawning corporate media—SCM. That’s a pretty apt way to describe them. They pick up on the latest and the greatest that has blood, terror, violence, whatever associated with it, headline it, and keep running stories on it. And it doesn’t matter whether they check their details or not. It doesn’t matter what the intelligence community said in some cases. They’re going to go with the spin that they think sells and the American people are going to buy.

And so you put all this together and it’s not hard to understand why Goebbels lives in the United States. I mean, Karl Rove in many respects proved that when he told Ron Suskind that the truth is what I tell the American people. I think Karl Rove believed that, and there’s some credibility for believing that.

JAY: There’s—the thing that’s kind of boggling my mind about all this is that nobody asks this question—and by nobody I mean in the media—which is if there’s—if even the Israeli intelligence are saying that there’s—and military intelligence is saying Iran has not decided, has not committed to a nuclear weapon. American agencies are saying that. But then why the sanctions? How do you justify this level of economic sanctions, which is essentially economic warfare, if there’s no evidence they’ve committed to a bomb and are still within the framework of the IAEA discussions and the IAEA has yet to have any kind of definitive or even serious opinion that they have violated this? Yet no one asks the question, why this level of sanctions.

WILKERSON: You have to go back, I think, in history to 1953 when we participated in the coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh, the elected leader of Iran at the time, and then lead all the way up through the time, rather draconian authoritarian time of the Shah, who was our man and we sponsored, CIA trained his secret police, up to the ’79 revolution, when we suffered the hostage crisis for, what, 444 days—and we essentially drove the president out of office, Jimmy Carter, with that crisis. And the relationship between Iran and the United States in all of that time has just gotten progressively worse.

And let’s face it, they probably do have an element, particularly in the IRGC, if not elsewhere, that really would like to work on a nuclear weapon, really would like to produce a few of them. They are just like any other state. They have various power factions within their government and within their polity, and there are some who would really very much like to have a nuclear weapon. There are some who really would like to have the United States attack them to solidify their control on their people and to give them another ten or 15 years of guaranteed power, authoritarian power.

So it’s not like Iran is a pussycat. It’s not like Iran is not a state that one has reason to distrust. So you put all this together, and it’s a pretty easy story to spin that Iran is going for a nuclear weapon, and have, you know, 70 percent of the American people believe that’s the case.

JAY: Right. Well, this viewer, Jeremiah, asks another question. It’s a followup. It’s an interesting one. He says:

What do you make of the media’s characterization of Ahmadinejad as insane and untrustworthy with a nuclear weapon?

And imagine that fellow with a nuclear weapon, I guess, is what he’s getting at.

Do you think this is a Cold War trope, or based on some reality?

WILKERSON: That’s like asking the question: what would you think if Joseph McCarthy had a nuclear weapon, you know, or Glenn Beck? It’s absurd to think that—

JAY: That would scare me.

WILKERSON: —Ahmadinejad has his finger on a nuclear weapon, utterly absurd. You’ve got all manner of echelons of power in Iran, ultimate power, of course, being the ayatollah, the Guardian Council, and other elements. There are, of course, potential rogue elements in the IRGC and elsewhere. But having your finger on a nuclear weapon, they are no more idiotic than we or the Israelis or the Pakistanis in that regard. In fact, I might be more worried about the Pakistanis than I would the Iranians. And they’re going to take a rational approach to control of nuclear weapons should they get them. And to say that Ahmadinejad could send a nuclear weapon toward someone is—I think borders on the absurd.

JAY: And, again, you hear this being said by Israeli intelligence and military leaders, who say the same thing that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, which is: on the whole, the Iranians are rational actors, they’re going to do what’s in their interest, and it doesn’t make any sense to go wild with a nuclear weapon. At the most, you could say it would be defensive, because they’re never going to have a capability of doing anything that would ever take away the possibility that the United States would simply wipe the place off the face of the earth. So the whole thing makes no sense, which is—I guess, goes back to something we’ve talked about earlier in other interviews, that a lot of this conflict and tension between Israel and Iran is less about the nuclear weapon than it is about Iran as a regional power and the influence it plays in the region and sort of counterbalances Israelis’ strength or dominance. What do you make of that?

WILKERSON: I think you’re absolutely right. I think it has economic dimensions, but it certainly has power mentions. And the power dimensions are in Riyadh and generally across the GCC, they’re in Tel Aviv and they’re in Tehran, and ultimately they’re back in Washington. They’re also elsewhere, like Ankara and New Delhi and Islamabad. But the principal ones are Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Tehran. It’s all about who’s going to be the hegemon in the Gulf, who’s going to be the power that must be listened to in the Gulf. Ultimately, of course, when we’re there it’s us, but we’re not there all the time, and we’re there offshore most of the time—at least, that’s been the history. So they’re fighting about who’s going to be the real power in the Gulf and who’s going to be allied with that outside power, us.

Israel is very, very fearful, I think, of a meaningful rapprochement with Tehran, because they see Tehran becoming more important to us than they are. And the same thing happened with Saudi Arabia. So Israel pays Riyadh off against Tehran, Tehran off against Riyadh, and maintains its own position of power in the region. And we just sit and watch that and intervene or interfere when we feel like we have to. That’s the nature of the balance of power politics, and that’s what is happening right now. The nuclear weapon is a facade to a certain extent. It’s a very fearful facade. It works well in regard to fear. But I think it is, as you just suggested, a mask for a basic power struggle.

JAY: That being said, it doesn’t mean this can’t spin out of control and into real warfare.

WILKERSON: Definitely. And it could spin quickly into a regional conflict, and even—no one thought the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 would spin into World War I—even into a reasonably widespread global conflict if you bring in people like Russia and China and, ultimately, Pakistan and India, perhaps Turkey. It could get messy fast.

JAY: So the issue of some meaningful rapprochement would be in the interests of the American people. But at the moment, American politics doesn’t seem to even have a crack in the door that would allow such a thing.

WILKERSON: Doesn’t seem to have it, Paul, for anyone—Cuba, Iran, North Korea. There doesn’t seem to be any space in American diplomacy policy in general for working with enemies much the way we worked with the Soviets throughout the duration of the Cold War, one way or another. We just seem now to say, okay, you’re an enemy? We’re going to change you. And ultimately that means regime change and means, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, [incompr.] boots on the ground, lots of money, trillions of dollars, years of potentially wasted lives, and so forth, and ultimately [incompr.] This seems to me the way we go about solving problems these days, which is very alarming. This is the way the Roman Empire went about solving problems in the last days of the empire.

JAY: And it was essentially codified in the Project for a New American Century document, where it essentially said, we’re a one-superpower world now, we’ll make the world as we like it, and we’ll use force to do it, which the Bush regime took up enthusiastically. But President Obama does not seem to have really departed from it. At least, I guess, Iran will be the test.

WILKERSON: Bush’s own speechwriter, and I think it was Marc Thiessen, too, in separate op-eds in The Washington Post over time, said that Obama has out-Bushed Bush.

JAY: Okay, we’re going to continue this discussion with Larry Wilkerson. We’re going to ask more of your questions in future segments of this.

Once again, we’re in the midst of our spring/summer fundraising campaign, a $50,000 matching grant. And my finger’s pointing over here because over here is the “Donate” button. And if you donate, we can do more programming like this. And if you don’t, well, we won’t be able to. So please contribute, as, just to remind you again, we don’t take funding from governments and corporations and such. We rely on you.

So please join us again soon for the next segment of our series with Larry Wilkerson 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.