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.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. 15 years ago this week, then Secretary of State, Colin Powell made his infamous address to the UN, selling the case for a war on Iraq.
COLIN POWELL: When we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction and provides haven and active support for terrorists, we’re not confronting the past. We are confronting the present and unless we act, we are confronting an even more frightening future.
AARON MATÉ: Now today in 2018, a former US official who helped Powell write that speech is warning of a repeat under President Trump. But this time he says the target is Iran. Writing in the New York Times, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson says, “The Trump administration is using much the same playbook, only this war with Iran would be 10 to 15 times worse than the Iraq war in terms of casualties and cost.”
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is a former chief of staff to Colin Powell and now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Welcome Colonel Wilkerson. So, the title of your piece, I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s happening again. How so?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think what you’re seeing with people like the UN Ambassador Nikki Haley a neoconservative par excellence and other people from the wings as it were, as we had during the march to war with Iraq, Richard Pearl for example was one of the most effective of those people from the wings. Like, the FDD, who are pushing what was the agenda originally with regard to Iraq and its being the first state to go. In other words, they wanted to do Syria. They’ve tried that, incidentally and they wanted to do Iran. They wanted to sweep the Middle East for various and sundry reasons, not the least of which was Israel’s security, oil and so forth, but they wanted basically to sweep the Middle East.
We’re seeing that influence on the Trump administration in terms of people like Haley and others, as I said. Very pronounced right now, and it worries me because the scenarios are so similar. The only thing different here is, as I’ve said in the op-ed, the outcomes are going to be significantly worse and at a minimum, a disastrous outcome of the Iraq war started in 2003, is very apparent to us now, the destabilization of the entire region, from Afghanistan to Iran and all the way over to Aden and Yemen. This is all part and parcel of our having destroyed the balance of power in the Persian Gulf by essentially invading Iraq in 2003.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you, Colonel, this warmongering that you’re seeing now against Iran, do you think it, in the Trump administration’s playbook, it winds up similar to Iraq, which is a direct US bombing and invasion?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think what we’ll see with the Trump administration is that the military people advising him, most prominently H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis, if they can’t stop this, will more or less try to constrain it, initially at least, to US air power. I don’t think it’s going to be much more than US air power. That will probably lead to a deeper involvement, as this sort of thing usually does. Look at Libya for example, and Libya was a much easier target than Iran.
And we’ll wind up being sucked into what will be an inevitable conclusion that the only way you assure yourself that Iran does not then, once it’s bombed have a clandestine nuclear program, one that’s deep underground, one that’s like North Korea’s for example, and one that is intent on building nuclear weapons, rather than what have now, which is through the nuclear agreement with Iran, an absolute halt to their building anything that even remotely resembles a nuclear weapon.
So, you’re going to have to put troops on the ground. You’re going to have to go into Iran. You’re going to have to invade. You’re going to have to probably sweep the country. This takes a half a million troops. Think full mobilization. Think the draft coming back. And you’re going to have to spend 3-5 trillion dollars and you’ll probably have to occupy for at least a decade and at the end of that decade, you’ll have even more destabilization of the region. Let’s look at the truth. Iran is one of the most stable countries in the region right now. We will totally destabilize that country and its neighbors, once again, and we’ll have a true mess on our hands.
I got an email from an individual today, former ambassador for the United States who said, “Right on, Larry,” with regards to the New York Times op-ed. He also said the future is the future of the collapse of empire. Well, he didn’t mean the British or the Spanish or the French. He meant the American empire, and I could see that happening and it’s by historians judged initial event being the invasion of Iraq but its seminal event being the subsequent invasion of Iran.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you, Colonel, I mean, you have experience with US invasions of foreign countries. You were there and helped make the case for invading Iraq. You also served under Colin Powell when he was chair of the joint chiefs of staff when US invaded Panama. In both Iraq and Panama, that’s a case where the US invades countries that it knows can’t really fight back. Doesn’t the fact that Iran actually would put up a fight act as a deterrent to a potentially US military action against it?
LARRY WILKERSON: I don’t think so. In fact, I’ll tell you that the military assessment of the Iranian ability to “fight” is pretty low, pretty, their ability is pretty poor. We saw that in the Iran-Iraq war. Let’s face it, they fought Iraq who we beat in a matter of hours and days, twice, they fought Iraq for eight years and it was pretty much a stalemate when they came to the end.
So, In terms of fighting the IRGC or fighting the Iranian professional military and all its branches and arms, we’d overwhelm them pretty quickly. It’s not that that gives me concern. What gives me concern is that Iran is not Iraq by any stretch of the imagination and look what a mess we made from 2004 to about 2011 in Iraq. Multiply that by 10 or 15 times. You got a country not of 25 to 26 million but of 80 million people, that is basically not divided into sects like Iraq was.
One could argue Iraq’s not even a national entity, but is homogeneous. It’s population is over 50% Persian. It’s fairly, what I would call national in its outlook and the quickest way to turn the young people who dominate in Iran now, population-wise, against the United States is to start a campaign against Iran where they’re bombed and they’re killed. This is a huge country with great strategic depth. Alexander the Great almost died in Iran. It will be very difficult, very time consuming, very treasury consuming, blood consuming.
It will be an extremely difficult situation, a guerrilla war and I will tell you that every marine, soldier, sailor, airman who goes into the region will immediately have a red bull’s eye on his or her back, not just for Iranian guerrillas but for every terrorist in the region who has a reason to kill a US soldier, sailor, airman, marine or what have you, and that’s a lot. It could, at the end of the day be over 400 million people who are so angry, so mad, so willing to take up arms, that they wind up being a part of this guerrilla war that will spread to the entire region.
AARON MATÉ: Speaking of the entire region, I want to go to a clip of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking recently where he announced, effectively, an indefinite US military presence inside Syria. He cited among the reasons, Iran.
REX TILLERSON: US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria. As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Rex Tillerson, speaking recently at Stanford University, citing Iran as one of the reasons why the US needs to remain in Syria indefinitely. On this front about Syria, Colonel, there was a report last week from Reuters called US says Syria May Be Developing New Types of Chemical Weapons and it quoted anonymous US officials, saying that the Syrian government may be developing new types of chemical weapons and President Trump is prepared to consider further military action if necessary to deter chemical attacks, senior US officials said. Now of course, these officials were anonymous and one of them said, “We reserve the right to use military force to prevent or deter the use of chemical weapons.”
So, I’m wondering your thoughts here. We’re seeing Tillerson openly say that Iran is a reason for US forces to stay in Syria, and now we have a familiar playbook, similar to Iraq where we have anonymous US officials warning about potential use of chemical weapons and maintaining the US right to use military force against it.
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, you answered your own question. Of course, this is a repeat of the very same kind of propagandizing of the American people, and to a certain extent, the international community, by forces within or working for or outside the US government to prepare the nation for war with Iran. Secretary Tillerson’s 17 January speech at Stanford was one of a high degree, I think of inexperience and even, I’ll say ignorance. Secretary Tillerson simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The Israelis are the most potent modern military force in the region. The very idea that Iran, either through Hezbollah or through its own IRGC or other military elements in Syria could threaten Israel is preposterous. It is a figment of Bibi Netanyahu’s political opportunistic imagination because that’s the only way he can hold his very difficult coalition, political coalition together. He has so many hard right wing, ultra-orthodox small parties in that coalition.
For example, they’re now closing Israeli businesses in various Israeli cities because that group does not want the bible violated in terms of working on the Sabbath. That’s how much power these people have but if anyone were to threaten the state of Israel in a significant way, Iran in particular, Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli military force would stop that threat pretty quick.
So, it’s preposterous to argue that way and it’s preposterous even more so to argue that the United States needs to stay substantially in Syria for purposes of confronting Iran when what we’re doing in Syria right now is further destabilizing the region. We’re illegal. Others there, like the Russians, are not. We are causing our ally and NATO member, Turkey to consider other options and very seriously consider other options. We’re causing them actually to fight and to be killed in northern Syria as they try to take on those people whom we’ve armed and they fear, the various Kurdish groups. This is a mess of the very first order of magnitude and we have largely made it and Mr. Tillerson’s prescriptions delivered at Stanford will simply exacerbate that mess.
AARON MATÉ: All right. So finally, what do you think accounts for this longtime desire to confront Iran in the bipartisan US foreign policy establishment because it’s not just Bush or Trump who has wanted to confront Iran. It’s received bipartisan support going back many years? The explanation given by someone like Noam Chomsky is that it’s not because Iran threatens anyone’s security but simply it’s because Iran acts as a deterrent in some ways to US and Israeli aggression in the region, through primarily its support of Hezbollah and also the Assad government in Syria.
LARRY WILKERSON: That’s the principle reason, longterm reason. There’s a psychological reason too, and that is that they beat us in 1979. They toppled the Shah and they threw us out. A lot of that was our own incompetence, but nonetheless, that’s how we view it, is that they did it. There’s that psychological umbrella over us if you will and it’s not a good one. It’s a self-defeating one. It makes us look at the Persians, the Iranians as something that we have to rectify, as a country that got us, so we have to get them back. Don’t discount that. That’s a big part.
AARON MATÉ: Have you witnessed that Colonel? Colonel, have you witnessed that, when you speak to US officials, policymakers, do they display that mentality to you, that we have to teach these people a lesson?
LARRY WILKERSON: Neo-conservatives in particular do. If you get them in a corner and get them down to the brass tacks, they’ll say, “Well, look what they did in 1979. You can’t trust them. You can’t count on them for anything other than disingenuousness and danger and so forth. So, you have to take care of them.” But you have to remember too, that when I was in the Pentagon in 2002, I was being briefed by stars in the Pentagon that we were going to go after Iraq. Then we were going to do Syria. Then we were going to do Iran. So, this all about in one sense, the messianic desire to bring democracy to all these people who don’t have it, and to bring freedom and liberty and the American way. And don’t forget American commerce too, but to more compliant people than currently are in charge.
So, that’s part of it too, and a big part of it is the very fact that that region presents us with a challenge which we have never really been able to handle. Not since the Shah left and was our man in Iran and handled it for us. So, though it’s been since Jimmy Carter declared it so, a vital interest of the United States and I would say, open parentheses, it no longer is, close those parentheses. Lots of reasons for that but it no longer is. But we have had this visceral, strategic interest in making sure no one who didn’t totally or near totally agree with us, never becomes hegemonic, never becomes very powerful, and so we do all manner of things to keep that from happening.
AARON MATÉ: And well leave it there. The piece in the New York Times is called, I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again, and it’s by our guest, Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel Wilkerson, thank you.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.