Col. Lawrence Wilkerson was present at the creation of the lies that dragged the United States into the war with Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11.
It’s a war that Wilkerson now regrets. Along with the death and destruction that resulted, he says that the disastrous Iraq invasion injected new life into the US military-industrial complex, which had been losing influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In this podcast, Wilkerson talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the cost of the revolving door between the Pentagon and military contractors, the complicity of the media, and the link between Vice President Dick Cheney’s lust for more oil and the chaos engulfing the Middle East, and beyond, today.
He warns against the consequences of global capital massing in the hands of a few — and points to thawing relations with Cuba and Iran as the only hopeful signs in the current geopolitical mess.
Wilkerson, a longtime Republican insider who has served several presidents and once sat at the highest pinnacles of American power, has a hard-nosed view of the world. But at times, he sounds like a wild-eyed progressive when he talks about the dangers of global warming and rising sea levels, the one percenters versus the 99 percenters, and the ongoing role of America as “the death merchant of the world.”
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Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Who What Why, I’m Jeff Schechtman. The foreign policy debate in this campaign or more specifically the lack thereof along with the recent terror attacks have brought into bold [?]. The simple fact that the world changed after 9/11 in ways that seem to create fundamental fissures in the international architecture that have been in place since the Second World War. Eisenhower admonished us about a highly industrial military complex. That complex and its intended institutions thrived during the Cold War. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union the need for that raw power and for American empire seemed to disappear. We were at what Francis [Fukiyama] called, The End of History. And then 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and events in Lebanon, Syria, Al Qaeda, ISIS, etc, all set up a chain of events that now has us seemingly at endless war in the Middle East. Add to this the fear generated by terrorism, and suddenly the need for American hegemony is rekindled. The need for more and more advanced weaponry is stoked. The revolving door between the Pentagon and defense contractors turns even faster. Generals now in bed with the media, and not the other way around. And presidential candidates openly advocate torture and violations of international treaties, and are applauded for it. In the words of Yates, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passion and intensity. My guest Colonel Lawrence Wilkinson is that rare specimen, one of the best that still maintains that passion and intensity. He was they say, present at the creation, as the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He helped Powell make the case for the overthrow of Saddam in 2003. Today he looks back on those decisions as a turning point not only for his view of the world but the world itself. Col. Wilkinson spent 31 years in the US army, he was a former army ranger who flew over 1000 combat missions in Vietnam he was national security advisor in the Reagan administration, and later served with Powell during his time on the joint chiefs and as secretary of state. He’s currently an adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary, and it is my pleasure to welcome Col. Lawrence Wilkerson to Radio Who What Why. Colonel thanks so much for joining us.
Wilkinson: Thanks for having me.
Jeff: When we look back it’s been 13 years now since we went to war and invaded Iraq based on what we know now to be cherry picked intelligence, and false premises, hidden agendas. As you look back at that, do you see clear threads, clear lines that go from those decisions to the problems and to the reality that we see in the world today?
Wilkinson: I do, and they disturb me greatly. They disturb not just for the livelihood and prosperity of this federal republic in which we live but also its influence on the rest of the world but ultimately the rest of the world. I think what we’re seeing today, your summary quite good, I think what we’re seeing today are the manifestations of the inability of the empire, if you will, we are an empire, different empire perhaps, not necessary an empire of territorial [?], although we have 900+ installations all over the world, but looking like the new Rome. But more of an empire of ideology, what I would call commercialism. We forget that very important commerce clause in our Constitution, which some have argued is the most important and self identifying clause in our Constitution. And so, the empire has spawned a lot of this mess by its own actions, its own inability to get its act together, if you will, post end of the Cold War. Think about it for a moment. We have not had a strategy since the end of the Cold War. If you want to say our strategy for World War II was to be the arsenal of democracy, we fulfilled that splendidly, [supplying] the Russians, the free French, the British, everyone on our side in the war. And then afterwards, containment, to keep the Soviet empire from dominating the world. Well, since the end of that time, now over two plus decades ago, we’ve had no strategy. And what’s still [then] for that lack of a strategy, for that lack of leadership, has been things like you just described, let’s look at what we’ve done with the reality of the situation since 9/11. We have spent close to $2 trillion combating a threat that has, as the [Katel] Institute has pointed out recently, the mathematical probability of killing one of us, that roughly equates to a lightning strike, or falling down a staircase. How do we get the American people to be so [?], so ignorant, so lacking an energy that they tolerate that kind of expenditure against that kind of threat. And yet, that’s what we’ve done. Complicit in that is our media, corporately owned and corporately directed. Complicit in that as you pointed out, awesome industrial military complex, which just makes huge profits off this. [Kellogg Brand and Root], Halliburton’s principle subsidiary in Iraq, Afghanistan, in those years of war you just described, made over $40 billion. When you have people making those kinds of profits off killing other people for state purposes, you’re going to have a lot more of that killing. So it’s a mess, and it’s a mess in many respects we have responsibility for, we and our allies, we have simply put this status quo power arrangement on fast forward and have no idea how to get out of it, how to escape from it, and how to redesign the world so it’s more peaceful, more prosperous and ultimately a better place for all of us to live.
Schectman: one of the ironies in all this goes to the heart of what you’re talking about with respect to no strategy, that even if the events that led up to the invasion of Iraq had some kind of hidden agenda, or as [Downing Street] memo points out, were things that were in the planning stages, the talking stages for so long. It is hard to imagine that given all that, that happened without any kind of strategy, without any kind of thought towards what happens after.
Wilkerson: I think you’re right. I would not, as a military person, professionally steeped in the terms, tactics, strategy, operation. I would say what we’ve been doing is tactical. We’ve had no strategy against which to place those tactics, and so anyone who wants to flow in, who has an agenda like the project for new American sentries or neoconservatives, whoever you want to point your finger at any given time, flows into that lack of a strategy, that lack of leadership, captures the system for a moment or two, and does what it wants to do with awesome power. Our power. And no one’s standing around saying, hey that’s not right let’s stop that. Look at the present political campaign on both sides. On my side, the republican side is an absolute circus. On the democratic side it’s more of the same. I’m not sure which is worse. I do not see leadership, genuine leadership, ready to confront the dire challenges that the 21st century is offering us, at the head of which is planetary climate change. I don’t see the kind of leadership that’s necessary to carry us through that, and bring us out over the other side, feeling pretty good about ourselves, and having a reasonably good decent life for the majority of our people. That’s what it’s all about. What I see is people flowing into the gaps, flowing into the lack of leadership, flowing into the circus for example that you see, people like Donald Trump on my party’s side of the campaign for the presidency in November. What I see are tactics and those tactics are not aimed much at anything except the amassing of wealth for a very select few people. And that frankly is not gonna do the rest of us much good at all. In fact it’s going to be harmful to us.
Schectman: Which also brings us back to the events leading up to Iraq, to events in 2003, in trying to understand what the underlying motivation was, what the underlying strategy or tactics were in respect to the administration. One of the things that you’ve pointed out over the years is really a change in position that took place with respect to Dick Cheney. If you go back to 1994, he was very much opposed to going into Baghdad. What changed, and what do we understand about that change and where it’s led us today?
Wilkerson: You’re right. If you listen to Dick Cheney in ’94, it’s almost stunning to think about Dick Cheney in 2001, 2 and 3. It almost looks as if something physiological happened to him, as if he went nuts. Believe it or not, I’ve had neurosurgeons actually email me and tell me that there are a lot of things associated with the kind of heart condition he had, and then a heart transplant so forth, it might corroborate that. If you want to look at it from the perspective that you’re talking about. I think Cheney had in mind the strategic objective which was a long term objective of the United States begun by F.D.R. when he met with the Saudi princes, and established essentially the foundation of the relationship we’ve had with Saudi Arabia and continued very, very vocally by Jimmy Carter when he proclaimed the Persian Gulf was a vital interest to the United States. All of that was about oil, all about oil, not just for us, but for Japan, for England, for France, for Germany, for our NATO allies and so forth. And that’s what Cheney discovered in his energy task force papers which we still do not have a copy of, they’re declared executive privilege and we don’t know what happened. But he met with all the leaders of the majors, the privates, the nationals, and others associated with the petroleum industry. And I think he decided that those 300 maybe even 400 billion barrels of oil buried under the Iraqi desert, second only to Saudi Arabia, maybe even surpassing Saudi Arabia once Western technology was explored in Iraq thoroughly. Or, that he couldn’t get the American people to do it, couldn’t get his president to do it without an eminent threat, and so he manufactured the threat. And people have asked me, well why didn’t the privates fall in on Iraq. Well, some of them did. The purpose of this action they misconstrued, most Americans misconstrued it. It’s not to grab the oil for Exxon Mobil or Royal Dutch Shell or any of the other privates. What it is, is to ensure access to oil at a reasonable price consistently over time. That’s what it’s been since F.D.R. met with the Saudis and that’s what Dick Cheney was continuing, I don’t think it was against a major strategy for running the situation, for managing power in the world, is the best way to put it. I think it was just more the same. And that’s what great powers do. They fight desperately to preserve the status quo. They want the legacy systems to continue to exist, World Bank, IMF, you name it, whatever we created post-World War II. Well, I’ve got news for them. There are many people out there who are writing very eloquently and thinking critically about these institutions being [?]. They’re not good enough for the 21st century, they need to evolve, we need new systems, we need new ways of global governance for example. One of the most precious people in this regard is Thomas Piketty the French economist who wrote the book, Capital in the 21st Century. He may be a little bit utopian, in the sense that he’s suggesting a solution is a global tax on capital. But I tell you what, I don’t see any way else to combat this massive accumulation of capital around the world which is going to no real economic purpose that is to say the middle classes, the lower classes. It’s going to no economic purpose other than to continue to fill the coffers of the filthy 1% or less than 1% of the wealthiest people in the world. When you have 400 people in the United States who have the wealth of the GDP of the state of Brazil you’ve got a real problem with concentrated wealth. Piketty’s solution might not be the one we adopt but we need to adopt something to get this capital back into the system, working to raise wages, to make meaningful products, to sell them, to have a system in the world it works for the majority of the people other than for a select few. These are huge problems that demand first-class leadership, first-class strategy for that leadership and first-class execution of that strategy. And look at what we have arrayed before us at this moment, to pick for leaders
Schectman: What you see then as the nexus between those issues with respect to the economic condition of the world as you talk about it and this constantly growing geometrically growing cost of endless war?
Wilkerson: It’s staggering what we’re doing to ourselves. What we need, two, maybe three, some have even said that, I’ve seen studies that would corroborate their thoughts $4 trillion to refurbish our infrastructure in this country. I’m talking everything from water to sewage to the roads to FAA facility; I’m talking about everything that makes this economy, in this country tick, that’s what I’m talking about. And I’m not talking about putting the same thing in place I’m talking about putting things in place that will be resilient sustainable and last of the end of the 21st century or beyond. I’m talking about an entirely new industrial base, agricultural base, you name it if there’s a major sag segment of what we do, it needs refurbishing and it needs pointing towards the future, not the past. Look at what we’re doing. We’re spending that necessary money on wars and wars with no real purpose. We’re spending it on things that make no sense whatsoever except in the old legacy sense, of well, empires have to protect their periphery they have to extend that periphery. They have to the fight all over the world is what brought Rome to its knees you’ve got to do that sort of thing that’s embedded in our heads and what should be embedded in our heads is take a look at the future take a look at what you gotta do take a look at things like sea rise for example. I belong to something called the climate security working group here in Washington. It’s a DOD outfit. The Department of Defense understands what sea rise is going to do this country over the next 50-60 years here. In my home state of Virginia, Norfolk, they’re gonna have to make a decision to build sea walls or to relocate the greatest shipyard building facilities and associated logistics in this country because they’re gonna be flooded if they don’t. these are the kinds of problems we need to be confronting this is where we need to be spending our money and placing our effort and we’re not instead were doing these silly ass wars all over the world. I’m sorry, my heart goes out to the civil war in Syria and the victims there are but largely we produce that with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now we’re talking about us having to put troops there and so forth that’s patent nonsense. We’re gonna bankrupt ourselves. We’re gonna wind up going the way Rome went, and for that matter where every empire in human history has gone. We’re gonna disappear.
Schectman: When we look back at the events that brought us into Iraq originally and our lax defense against Al Qaeda are not taking the threats from bin Laden seriously, at least the administration not paying attention to the threats that were out there it’s both easy to see how that happened and hard to imagine us getting out of it if something like that could happen even 13 years ago.
Wilkerson: I was just in Austin, Texas. I went out to Austin to premiere a film a documentary called, Embargo, about Cuban embargo. I’m at a house in Austin, fairly wealthy people and a good old Texas lady comes up to me, she’s about my age, she’s probably 68, 69, 70. She comes up to me and she says I want to ask you a question Col. I said yes ma’am asked me the question. She said, “I want to know why we are such cowards.” I said, “Ma’am?” She said, “I want to know why we’re such cowards. I want to assure you we here in Texas are not cowards. Why are we spending so much money going after these terrorist when there’s the chance of one of us getting killed by these terrorists is slim to none. And if it is going to come to Texas and they are going to kill me, by God, I’m gonna fight them here. And I’ll fight them at my house and I’ll fight them in the shopping centers. So why are we so scared?” Wow, what clarity she brought to the issue.
Schectman: You mentioned in the film you were involved in, Embargo, which really is about another throwback to the days of the Cold War and American empire, and that’s been our outdated policy towards Cuba.
Wilkerson: Well, I’m very happy to see that the work I’ve been involved in the last 10 years with some other very, very dedicated people has come to fruition, at least partly. We were conducting track [to] diplomacy with the Cubans, blessed by the US government, blessed by the government in Havana. And we were meeting in Buenos Aires, in São Paulo, Brazil, in Mexico City, in Toronto, Canada, and in Havana. We couldn’t meet in Washington because we couldn’t get any visas, which was laughable. And we turned our work over to Assistant Secretary of State for the Western hemisphere, and we now have close relations, and a president who actually traveled to Havana. I hope this signals the end to a very stupid foreign policy towards Havana. After the end of the Cold War, Havana stopped exporting revolution in the name of communism and started exporting doctors and medical technicians in the name of helping people in very impoverished areas. They were so successful in Pakistan for example during the earthquake in 2006, then president, Musharraf, asked them to establish an embassy in Islamabad. That’s the best public diplomacy anyone’s conducted in a long time. So we do need, it’s past time, to have better relations with Cuba, we need to lift the embargo. This is one of those legacy policies that I was referring to that makes absolutely no sense in the 21st century, and I hope we reverse a similar one, the joint cooperative agreement over Iran’s nuclear program with the U.S., the European Union, the permanent five in the United Nations, Germany. Iran is the most stable country in a very instable region, Southwest Asia. It has more democratic tendencies than any country in the region other than Israel. It has a 70+ million very homogeneous population. It is huge compared to Iraq. It dwarfs Iraq. It is the natural hegemon if you will, in the Persian Gulf region in Southwest Asia. We need to have better relations with it. Look and how my party in particular, but some Democrats are too, fighting that even. You come up with the same policy like Cuba, you come up with the same policy like some sort of [?] with Iran. And what you get? You get this almost creaking like Luddite like opposition from many in the Congress. There just isn’t any leadership in the city where I live, Washington DC.
Schectman: And yet those two things, the improvement of relationships with Cuba, the president’s recent trip there, and the agreement with Iran, both of those are very positive developments, even though there are as you say strong voices of opposition. Those two things alone should give us pause that progress can happen.
Wilkerson: you’re right and I got both my fingers and my toes crossed. I watch every day as the Congress tries to derail the Iran agreement right now they’re working on a sanctions package in addition to what’s already there that will be a break of the agreement and if I were the Iranians I would leave the agreement if the sanctions package actually passes the Congress and the president doesn’t veto it. And that’s why it’s so important who we elect next, we continue this or do we go back to the past again and with the same thing, though not as [virulent] with Cuba, we got people who are trying desperately to figure a way to fashion the way back to the past. But you’re right, basically these are helpful things. I for one hope that there are some others. We need to desperately get over the problems we have with Russia because Russia is so integral to other major policy objectives we have in the world. Whether it be some hedging strategy to deal with the China that comes off the rails or whether the Iran, Syria, the civil war there or Turkey or whatever. If we don’t have Russia at least with us on some of these things we have an impossible situation I think we’ve seen that in Syria to a certain extent although what Putin has done in Syria has as much as anything else that has been done there made possible the current prospects for a cease fire and political talks and maybe finally an end to the war in Syria. So Moscow and Washington need to cooperate more than they need to fight, and yet we see in regards to Crimean Ukraine and Georgia and so forth all of which basically is our fault. Most Americans haven’t a clue that George HW Bush, a president whom I served, and his Secretary of State, Jim Baker, promised Gorbachev, then the leader of the of the Soviet Union, Russia, that if he, Gorbachev, exceeded to the reunification of Germany and its maintaining it’s being retained in the NATO alliance, contemplating Georgia, Ukraine and so forth and along comes George W. Bush and actually goes to WC Georgia and tells the leaders there in open comment in the public that soon Georgia will be a member of NATO. What one understands why Putin would make a move in Georgia and then later make a move in Ukraine and in Crimea. We threatened him. It’s as if he had come to the Gulf of Mexico, maybe the state of Chihuahua whatever, said, “Well you know I think I’ll just foment a revolution here and I’ll make these people anti-US. It’s crazy what we’ve done. It’s absolutely insane what we’ve done. What we need is Russia to be cooperative in various and sundry areas that are far more important than some of the things we’ve done and then I throw this out too. If you talk about legacy systems, look at NATO. we’ve gone from 19 to 24 now I think we’re at 28 what American is going to really back a president who invokes article 5 which simply says in the NATO treaty, an attack on one is an attack on all, for to WC Georgia. What American wants to die for WC Georgia? It’s insane what we’ve done with NATO. It’s supposed to be a military as well as a political alliance. Well, if you don’t have people in the country that is the most powerful member of NATO to understand what obligations they’re taking on, then you’ve got a real problem when someone challenges that alliance.
Schectman: is there a positive rule for leaders in the military to play in beginning to turn this around.
Wilkerson: Oh, absolutely. Your opening comments resonated with me in that one of the big problems regarding the general officer corps the flag officer corps that includes admirals in the navy, the coast guard, who go through this revolving door and exacerbate the problem we have with the military-industrial complex and with the media. Lately some of them do both, they go work for a member of the defense contracting corp, at the same time they’re a consultant for CNN or whatever so that they have these maximum amount of dollars coming in to themselves being paid for these duties, but they’re also dangerous to Republic because they’re doing things like fomenting this warfare. That’s very disturbing. But in terms of leadership in general the younger officers in particular and I let that I would say has currently gone down particularly in the middle ranks, lieutenants, colonels, majors and captains, there is a real angst on their part about, one, this constant warfare; two, the senior leaders and who they don’t have a lot of respect for; and three, the fact that the military seems to be stuck in these legacy systems too. There’s a marine colonel, [TX Ham] who has just written an article that points at this. we have so many legacy systems out there, think about the of 35 lightning strike fighter the new aircraft carrier we just fielded 12 billion+ dollars think about the new bomber for the Air Force and think about Howell class and attack submarines and so forth. These are all systems that are incremental improvements on legacy strategies, That is to say you’re spending billions of dollars to add very, very, very small increments to your national security. Well at the same time all this is happening new techniques new technology like robotics artificial intelligence cyber warfare 3-D printing are permitting things to be made and to be accessible to small powers in the world. I’m not talking Chinas and Russias. I’m talking small powers, I’m talking about something like for example ISIS, and if they were to get their hands on one of these hundred thousand dollars cost 3-D printers that can actually make something overnight literally overnight that they can then put in the air put in the ocean or other atmosphere and they can take on your multibillion-dollar system and perhaps destroy it. We just had a drone for example drone underwater drone. They went from the East Coast of the United States to the coast of your underwater all by itself think about hanging some weapons or some mines, very sophisticated weapons and mines on that $100,000 drone and going after a $4 billion Howell class submarine or an attack submarine of a billion, and sinking it. This is the revolution in military affairs that people been talking about so long that it’s finally upon us with AI, with robotics, with nano engineering and so forth and so on. we’re not doing much about that we’ve got people working on the side we’ve got little groups here and there and so forth so we’re keeping our hand in but we’re still building these billion-dollar legacy systems that are going to be an anachronism’s if they aren’t already momentarily. And that’s going to be traumatic. Younger guys in the military, and gals in the military, they understand this and they sit back and look at the senior leadership which doesn’t understand it keeps going for these legacy systems and so forth and many of them are voting with their feet up the problem we were losing a lot of junior officers right now because of that.
Schectman: what does that say about how focused we should be then on terrorism and asymmetrical threats around the world?
Wilkerson: I wouldn’t put the name terrorism on it. I personally had real problems with that when we did in 2001 because I said how do you fight a method? You can’t find a method. And it’s like the drug war. I also argued against calling it the drug war to no avail but I said why would you want to have something be a war that you can’t win. If you can’t win the war against terrorism either. Terrorism has been with us four, five millennia. It’s going to be with us for another four, five millennia, if we survive that long. so what you want to do, you take things like drugs, you take things like terrorists, you want to push them down to a manageable level, you wanna push them down to where they aren’t haunting you every day, and the media doesn’t focus on them every day and so forth, and they’re not doing that much damage. But you’re never going to get rid of them. They’re always going to be there as long as someone is willing to take up arms in that name. I suspect there’s always gonna be someone. You need to focus on these bigger problems as you are creating the management process and keeping terrorism, other threats like that, drugs and so forth in check. if you don’t you gonna wind up one morning waking up with Wolf Blitzer on the Situation Room on CNN screaming and hollering about attacking terrorists, and attacking Beirut, you’re gonna turn around and your country’s going to explode. And it’s not going to be terrorists who do it. It’s gonna be something else that you’ve neglected. It was much bigger, much more of a problem, much more dangerous. And your focus on terrorism took your focus off that.
Schectman: Col. Lawrence Wilkerson I thank you so much for spending time with us today on Radio Who What Why.
Wilkerson: Thanks for having me, I really appreciated it.
Schectman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Who What Why. I hope you join us next week for another Radio Who What Why podcast. I’m Jeff Schectman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share it and help other people find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhat why.org/donate
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