Interview with Winslow T Wheeler

Winslow T. Wheeler has worked on national security issues for over three decades for members of the U.S. Senate. He says America’s armed forces are in a grave crisis.

RT: Winslow Wheeler has got some advice for Barack Obama on how to deal with the Pentagon and defence issues in general. You should know he’s been dealing with national security issues for over three decades.

Mr. Wheeler, thank you so much for joining us today and chatting with us. Now, Barack Obama has not even entered the White House, but you’re already kind enough to give him some advice in this new report “America’s defence meltdown: Pentagon reform for President Obama and the new Congress”.

In the preface of the book you sort of say, ‘ok, everybody’s gonna hate this book, from Congress to the Armed forces to journalists’. So why should we read this book if we’re all going to hate it?

W.W.: Well, all the paragons of conventional wisdom are going to hate it.  The point is that we have serious fundamental problems in our defences in this country. We’ve had them for decades. And the products of the work of republicans, democrats, liberals, conservatives, moderates – the strain of thinking in this country that at ever increasing cost has made our armed forces smaller older and weaker. And it’s time for us to reverse that course.

The reason why I said that in the preface was that the people who caused all this deterioration at increasing cost are the ones who are despite President elect Obama’s campaigning on change. He is not bringing change to the Pentagon. And he’s bringing in lots of people who were responsible in the past for these negative trends.

RT: Barack Obama campaigned on change we can believe in, but according to you, the new slogan is ‘continuity we can believe in’. So, any reference that the decision to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, what do you think of that decision and on Mr. gates in general?

W.W.: Mr. Gates is a mixed pack. He’s done some useful things in the Pentagon. He’s fired three very senior people. My complaint about Mr. Gates though is that he’s not that enough. He only fired three senior people. Lots more really should be gotten rid of. And he hasn’t got into the fundamental problems that are causing us at increasing cost to be smaller, older and weaker in armed forces.

When Secretary Gates and President Obama make their decisions about the second and third tier positions in the Pentagon then we’ll see where they really want to go. It looks like they are headed towards just bringing back a lot of senior people from the Clinton administration. And that just means more of the same.

RT: What do you think about all this money that the U.S. spends on military and defence issues?

W.W.: In this country we have the highest defence budget we’ve ever had since the end of World War 2. We also happen to have the smallest Army, the smallest Navy and the smallest Air Force we’ve ever had in that period. Our defence spending is about equal to the rest of the world combined. If you take every single country that we have some sort of problem with or people think we might have some sort of problem with; if you combine China and Russia and Iran and Syria and Cuba and all the dubious or potentially unfriendly states and combine all of their defence budgets together, our defence budget is three to four times that size. Our defence budget is completely out of proportion to what it should be.

RT: Let’s get back to Barack Obama and his national security team. You have said that the U.S. needs to have a national strategy that “does not get America involved in these quagmire occupations in alien lands and seeks to defend us only when we have real threats”. So what are those real threats?

W.W.: Right now those threats really aren’t manifested. They are not all that serious in terms of conventional warfare. I say what I say about Iraq and Afghanistan because we should never again try to do that. We should never again try to interject ourselves into an alien culture that doesn’t welcome Christian Caucasian western occupiers. Russia knows that from its experience in Afghanistan. We are having right now the same experience in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We should learn that we can’t impose ourselves on these countries.

The conventional threat people in this country keep on pointing to China as a huge superpower threat that we need to prepare for. And they point to Russia as, well, maybe they are going to restore themselves to superpower status and we’re going to have a new cold war. The reason people in this country say that is not so much because as a great body of wisdom that this is the way things are going to go. This is their promoting a defense budget that can only be justified by another superpower confrontation with China or Russia or the two of them combined.

RT: Now back into the issue of Iraq and Afghanistan. And you said “a collapse of the grotesque American exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan is only a matter of time”. There are several people who would disagree with both of those statements on the matter of the fact that it’s a grotesque exercise and that it will collapse. So how do you respond to those people?

W.W.: It’s grotesque because of the hundreds of thousands of people we are responsible for the deaths of in Iraq. It’s politically accepted in this country to “support the troops”, and to be very supportive of the individual soldiery that we have in Iraq. Many of our troops are behaving honourably in Iraq, but some are not.

The reason why the insurgency against us has been so strong in Iraq and why it’s growing so much in Afghanistan is not just because of the fact that we are an alien culture and a different nation occupying them, but also because of the behaviour of some of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The doors being kicked down, the accidental and sometimes not so accidental shootings and bombings of houses – these are actions that Americans don’t pay much attention to, but the Iraqis and the Afghanis pay great attention to. And that’s the impression they are getting of America, not what we see on our television cameras every day.

RT: You are also the author of the “Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security”. So how does Congress sabotage U.S. security?

W.W.: Because it basically doesn’t care about the U.S. security. Congress cares about its own survival. The Congress’ and individual members of Congress’ job number one is their own career and their own political well-being. That translates into problems two ways: in the defence budget, it means that they add junk to our defence budget, programs that aren’t requested, programs that aren’t needed. But their programs that exist in the state or district of the member of Congress there for he or she can boast that he brought home the bacon to his congressional district and created jobs and spending even if it’s a really stupid idea. The other way it translates into problems is much more serious. We observed it in this country in October 2002 when Congress authorised the war in Iraq.

RT: So where do we go from here? Are you at all optimistic about the future of the Pentagon? Will things change then?

W.W.: I am not at all optimistic that Congress will change. There is an opportunity for things to change in the Pentagon. But I am not optimistic there too.

RT: Why not?

W.W.: Robert Gates has been Secretary of Defense for two years and he hasn’t done things to reverse the fundamentals of the negative course we’ve been on for a long time.

RT: So if Barack Obama doesn’t follow your advice it there going to be a meltdown in the U.S. defence and military system then?

W.W.: We are seeing the meltdown now. He has a chance to reverse it but our defences have been melting for a long time. This is not something brought to us just by George Bush. It’s decades old problem. And it’s now gotten so serious in our defences that we cannot even fight a war in two relatively small countries against two tiny folks. A few thousand insurgences in Iraq and a few thousand insurgences in Afghanistan has totally distressed out defences and it’s causing all kinds of problems.

These are forces that are a small fraction of the forces that we faced in Vietnam for example, and a tiny fraction of what we were preparing for against the Soviet Union during the cold war. And our forces are totally stressed out, they cannot cope with it.