Ex-State Dept exec: US leadership is inept & incompetent, incl. president
America stands in first place among the world’s great powers. Its influence can be felt everywhere, whether it’s the Arab Spring or turmoil in Ukraine. But the decisions taken in Washington are seen by many as questionable - even unwise - bringing even more conflict and violence. What governs decision-making in the White House? Who is listened to there? What goal does Washington pursue? Does it even have any particular goal? We ask these questions to a former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Сhief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us today. So, when President Obama took office, he wanted to reset the U.S.-Russia relations. Today they are at the lowest point since the Cold War. Now, this confrontation with Russia - is it in the U.S. interest today? Or, why is it in the U.S. interest?
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson: No, I don’t think it is in the interest of Washington or Moscow. I think it has a lot of components, it’s complex, it goes all the way back to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin, President Putin - Prime minister Putin at that time - taking over from him in terms of leadership, and it has many reasons, and there are faults on both sides. There’s fault on the West side, principally Washington, and there’s fault on the Moscow side; it’s a complex relationship and it needs to get better, not worse.
SS: So, you’ve said President Obama did not fully comprehend the potential fallout from American involvement in Ukraine, quoting “he did not realise what may come about from what we were doing” - what did you mean by that, exactly? And, also, isn’t it President’s job to know?
CLW: Of course, it’s leader’s job to know what it is happening in the world and to take his nation into that circumstance with some wisdom. But let’s face it - we have not had a really experienced chief executive in a long time. Arguably, the last one was George H. W. Bush. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama came with very little, if any, experience in the international relations to the White House. So, what I meant by that, was in essence that he was continuing the policy of William Jefferson Clinton, the president before him by one, and expanding NATO and looking as if he was considering things like Ukraine. The machinations in Kiev, mostly perpetrated by the U.S., gave President Putin, I’m sure, that feeling profoundly. So, it’s quite understandable to me, as a geostrategist, as a strategist in my military career for example - quite clear to me why President Putin responded in the way he did, although I think there’s a lot more to it, than just provocation.
SS: But the bigger question is why aren’t people like you, or strategists who are actually aware of what’s really going on and what the consequences could be like, people who can plan and analyze things, why aren’t they present at the White House, or why aren’t they there at the foreign ministry?
CLW: Well, there are some there, but their voices are not often listened to, believe me - I’ve been very close to the White House for three administrations. First, with General Powell, when he was Сhairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and then later, of course, as Chief of Staff in the State Department. I have to say that what I call “realist voices” - that is voices that see the world as it is, see power as it is and respond accordingly - are very,very seldom listened to in the White House. More often, the ideological, the neo-conservative, as we call them in this country now - they are not conservatives by any stretch, they’re radicals - more often their voices or voices like them are listened to. We’ve had throughout American history, this messianic desire to spread, first, Christianity around the world and now to spread democracy, freedom and liberty around the world - and at the point of the gun and bayonet if necessary. This is the kind of ideology that dominates American decision-making in these days.
SS: I want to talk about current issues in foreign policy right now. Obama promised to lift sanctions against Cuba and Iran, while hardening the response against Russia. Now, if they didn’t work with Cuba or Iran, what makes Washington think it will actually work against Moscow in the long-term?
CLW: In the first place, Obama has said many-many things that flurried it in the field of what I would call “high rhetoric” - that is to say, his speech in Cairo, his speech in Turkey, and so forth - and then he has not followed up on that high rhetoric with actions, so I’m really waiting to see if anything happens with regard to Cuba. I heard him speak, I was in Havana, when he spoke, I listened to Raul Castro, I listened to President Obama, but I want to see some action. So far, very little action has followed what President Obama said. I think that’s the case in a lot of instances with this President: his rhetoric is fine and wonderful, and his actions belie that rhetoric. So I think that’s part of the problem we had. Speaking to sanctions, in particular, there are negotiations ongoing right now with Tehran, in which Russia is an important part, and one hopes that those negotiations succeed, so the sanctions there, participated in by Russia, have been working, I think, and if negotiations produce a satisfactory agreement, they would have worked to everyone’s credit, the P5+1, Russia, U.S., everyone. As far as sanctions against Russia, I don’t necessarily agree with those, so it’s difficult for me to comment on them in terms of whether it’s good policy or not. So, I think we should be working hard, Moscow and Washington, to better our relations, not to make them worse than they already are.
SS: Well, sanctions against Cuba and Iran lasted for decades, and like you’ve said you have to see them lifted, in practice. So, are the new anti-Russia sanctions to stay as well?
CLW: I’m not sure, but I would say that if you’re look around the world, there’s something happening that is far worse than the sanctions, at least in the short term - and that is the falling price of light sweet crude, affecting the entire oil market, and the price of oil. We’re looking at $40 per barrel, when we were looking at $150. I would suggest that that’s doing far more damage to Russia, to Putin, to his plans for the economy, and so forth, and any sanctions, all those sanctions can, and in some cases are hurting; and this price of oil is something that I wouldn’t put past the U.S., Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and others to be orchestrating either - so if you want to look at something that we’re doing, possibly, that is damaging Russia worse than anything - look at the price of oil.
SS: I want to talk about something that’s huge problem for everyone in the world, but especially for the U.S. - now, in his State of Union speech, President Obama said “instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we’re leading a broad coalition to destroy Islamic State” - but with ISIS still strong, can the U.S. really be sure it won’t be dragged into war?
CLW: I don’t think that’s going to happen for a number of reason that are too complex to go in here, we don’t have enough time, but I would say that I’d take exception to your statement, or your implication that the Islamic State is a formidable force or that it’s growing more powerful - it’s being defeated, it’s being defeated in Iraq rather swiftly, much more swiftly that I thought it would be, as a matter of fact, and that’s a combination of Iraqi effort, Kurdish effort, and Iranian effort in concert with Iraqis. And in Syria it’s not ever going to be defeated, not wholesalely anyway, unless we come to some accommodation with Bashar Al-Assad, and of late, I’m hearing rumours, and I hope that they’re true, that we’ve accepted that fact and we’re beginning to deal with the people around Assad to try and effect some kind of agreement, so that we can achieve a political solution to that really terrible civil war in Syria.
SS: We’re going to get to Syria just a bit later, but staying with Iraq, let me ask you this - does the U.S. have to take responsibility to what’s happening in Iraq today and deal with it?
CLW: I don’t see how the U.S. can escape that responsibility. After all, much of what is happening in the region right now, in Western Asia, in the so-called Middle East, is a product of our very disastrous strategic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the lousy, totally lousy execution of that decision that followed. Much of what’s happening can be attributed to that, when we, first of all, destroyed that balance of power in the Gulf - the only way that balance could be restored was by our staying there for a while and trying to insure that Iraq came back up to some balancing posture, if you will. So, that’s kind of what we’ve been doing, very ineptly, very incompetently, but it looks as if now, because of the situation devolving mostly in Syria, but also in Iraq, that we’ve been called back in to the point where at least the effort we’re making now looks a little bit more pragmatic, a little bit more skilled, a little bit more competently executed, and of course, will require the Iraqis in Iraq to accomplish success, and will require, ultimately, the Syrian in Syria to accomplish success. In other words, external powers will eventually have to be pushed out - Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, the U.S. - and let the Syrians solve Syria for themselves.
SS: Just one more thing about Iraq today - you feel like the U.S. has the capability to deal with it?
CLW: I think it can only deal with it, if it deals with the regions, and that means Iran, that means Turkey, that means Jordan, it means Lebanon - it means the entire region has to be cooperative. By the way, you’re not going to ever get any stability in Afghanistan - something Moscow should want too - and you're not going to get any stability in the region at large without Iran as a major player in achieving that stability, so that makes these negotiations, and what they might suggest in terms of closer relations between Tehran and Washington, and ultimately between Ankara and Tehran and between Moscow and Tehran, all that more important. We need all these players, but particularly in the region we need Iran to achieve any kind of stability in the region, and give people a better hope for the future.
SS: Graham Fuller - I’m sure you know him, an ex-CIA operative, wrote that the U.S. did not deliberately nurture ISIS, but created ISIS, nonetheless with its actions in Iraq. Now, sometimes, when you look at it, it does seem like Washington wants to create problems for itself, because it needs to be at war at all times - does it? What are your thoughts on that?
CLW: I think I would attribute most of what Washington has done in the last 20 years in particular to incompetence and ineptitude, rather than conspiracy, rather than an attempt to keep Lockheed-Martin and Grumman and Boeing and other defence contractors in money. That’s a part of the influence on decision-making process, no question about it - for example, the reason why Bill Clinton wanted to expand NATO to countries like Poland and so forth is because Lockheed-Martin wanted to sell weapons to them. So, that was an influence, but it’s not a determining factor. I do think that there has been an inordinate influence in a combination of things: everything from big oil to big defence, to big pharmacy, to big business in general - but the same thing happens in Moscow with the oligarchs and the state-owned enterprises and so forth. So, it’s not a phenomenon exclusive to Washington that these people have enormous influence on what should be a national security-slash-foreign policy decision-making process, and not a process making a very select few people more and more money.
SS: But did the U.S. not see ISIS coming at all?
CLW: I think there were some who did, there were even some - and I have this on a very good authority - even some who predicted it in the official intelligence community, but there were, as usual, ignored. It seems of late, last couple of decades, that when the intelligence community stumbles on the truth or on facts, they’re most often ignored by the policy-makes, so this doesn’t help. When you say “the U.S. created ISIS” - I agree that it created it in a sense that it created Al-Qaeda, with the mujahedin in Afghanistan; but that’s something happens in the normal course of actions, it’s not conspiratorial. You can say that “well, you know, I didn’t see 20 years ahead when this group that we were supporting them, would be an enemy then.” - that’s 20/20 hindsight, that’s pretty difficult to do, when you’re in the Oval office in the crisis trying to make a decision, so I don’t attribute as much conspiracy, if you will, to this kind of decision making as some people do. I think it’s failure to look ahead, it’s failure to look at all the possible consequences, it’s failure to take advice from the real experts in the room, and so forth, but it’s not something that anyone intended to happen.
SS: Now, you’ve mentioned civil war in Syria in the first part of the show, and you said that there were rumors in a backstage of the White House that Washington may be changing it’s take on Assad’s regime - do you feel that it lost there, in Damascus, considering Assad is still in power?
CLW: I think it was a terrible, terrible move when President Obama was advised, I’m told, primarily by Samantha Power and Susan Rice - a national security advisor now - that Bashar Al-Assad was another Mubarak, and that President Obama better get on the right side of history instantly and denounce Bashar Al-Assad. Now, I’m not defending Bashar Al-Assad, he’s got quite a track record of draconian authoritarianism, but I will say that he has lots of support in Syria - he has the military, he has lots of the business sector, he has lots of elites otherwise, and certainly the Alawites, who probably would be killed to a man, to a woman, if he would fall from power and the Shia forces that are right against him would take power. So, Bashar Assad is going nowhere. President Obama got bad advice, I think he understands that now, and I think, as I said, the Administration is moving to try and talk to Assad’s people at least, and, eventually, probably, Bashar Al-Assad himself, and to try and come to some political solution that would no doubt have to continue Bashar Al-Assad in power, at least, for an interim period. I am sure Moscow would be happy with that. I hope Moscow would be happy with that, if it ended the civil war.
SS: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say, I think the important thing is for the civil war, it doesn’t really matter who is happy and who is not outside Syria on that regard.
CLW: Well, it does matter, it does matter, because they’re going to keep messing around in it. You’re going to have Quatar money, you’re going to have UAE money, you’re going to have Saudi money, you’re going to have lots of people playing around in it, unless they, like you’ve just said, decide that this is all about the Syrian people, and let stop the civil war.
SS: But you do see Obama having second thoughts about that and seeking Assad’s cooperation in the future?
CLW: I do. I don’t know if that forthwith yet, but I think they’ve come to the conclusion that he’s going nowhere and they’re going to have to deal with him politically.
SS: So it turns out, like, 3 years of civil war in Syria just all for nothing, just came to that?
CLW: It’s not for nothing. We all forget how this got started. This got started because of the far more existential challenge we all confront in this century: it got started because 200,000 Syrian farmers had no water. They had no water for their crops, they had no crops - they had no life. This is the future, this is planetary climate change, this is the greatest challenge we confront in the XXI century, and the sooner Moscow, Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Washington and other capitals in the world, Beijing too, figure this out and begin to do something to deal with it - the better off we all will be. If it doesn’t happen, we’re all going to be talking about Syria and Iraq and other problems in the world, while the world collapses around us.
SS: About something we can do - a whole program on. But back to the Middle Eastern affairs, and you’ve mentioned another player in the region that’s pretty important - Iran - and you believe the U.S. needs a relationship with Tehran, since it’s the most stable force in the region. Do you feel that the U.S. establishment is moving in that direction as well?
CLW: Yes, but there are mighty, powerful forces right against that movement, and they’re led by people like senator Lindsey Graham and senator John McCain, and then the Democratic party senator Robert Menendez and others, who, I would say, are more warmongers than they are supporters of diplomacy or genuine security of Israel or the U.S. in that matter. I don’t know what motivates these people other than their love for interminable warfare. I simply can’t explain it any other way, but I must admit, they are powerful force right against the success of the ongoing negotiations with Iran.
SS: So it makes you wonder, who really decides that at the end of the day - the Congress or the White House, because Congress is threatening to impose new sanctions on Tehran despite President’s opposition. So, this is a way to sabotage a potential diplomatic breakthrough, right?
CLW: Yes it is, and it’s presenting this two-faced foreign policy to the world. Look at the issue over Bibi Netanyahu being invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress - this is preposterous, the invitation should never had been issued, and PM Netanyahu should have enough sense and wisdom for his own country’s security to refuse to accept the invitation - and I still hope that he will refuse. This is nonsense, having two sets of foreign policy for a great power like the U.S.
SS: Colonel, we’ve heard several times, coming from President Obama and from Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia and the Islamic State are the top foreign threats to the U.S. security. What should the priority of the U.S. foreign policy be in your opinion?
CLW: Well, we’ve just heard newly-elected senator Tom Cotton saying that Iran was the foremost threat to the U.S., this morning, in the press. What a preposterous allegation! These are absolutely wrong, even unwise pronouncements; there is absolutely no reason why the U.S., or the West in general, and Russia should be enemies - we have our differences, we have our similarities and our common interest. We should be working on the common interest, using our similarities and our common cultural aspects, for example, and we should be working on the problems. You can solve Ukraine tomorrow morning, all you have to do is to declare it neutral in all the capitals that are relevant, including Ukraine - and let them work their own problems out and the get all the foreign powers out, get everyone out and let the Ukrainians solve their own problems, which are huge. Ukraine is bankrupt, it is just riddled with corruption, it’s worse than Washington or Moscow in that regard, and I’d say they are riddled with the corruption too, and so is Beijing, but Ukraine made some look like pikers. So, what happens in Ukraine should be up to Ukrainians, and everyone should get out and quit interfering - that’s the only way you’re going to get Ukraine that develops in the way that the majority of its people, russian and otherwise, have a decent future.
SS: You know, I’ve lived in America for almost 10 years, and from my experience, general public doesn’t really care that much about the outside world, and is much more interested in taxes and size of the government, wasteful spending, gay rights, etc. Obviously, they vote on internal issues, rather than foreign policy - does this really leave American foreign policy essentially unchecked?
CLW: Well, it does leave foreign policy to what I call “national security elite”, just as in Moscow it’s left to Putin and “siloviki” and some of the oligarchs. It’s dangerous on both accounts, because as we see with President Putin, what he’s doing is more or less to keep his poll rating up above 80% so he can maintain power, because his power was slipping before he began to stand up so abruptly to the West. On our side, it’s happening partly because of the domestic political reasons, and partly because we have really made a mess of various regions and situations in the world. I don’t think Russians and I don’t Americans care very much about foreign policy until their leaders stir them up to care about particular issue, and unfortunately the leaders usually stir them up to care about issue in concert with leader’s views and not the truth - and that’s the case all across the world, but it’s particularly the case with great powers who tried to propagandise their own people all the time.
SS: I just wonder, who do you see as America’s next President? Would you vote for Hillary Clinton, for example?
CLW: I have a real problem with Hillary Clinton because she often speaks as if she were a chicken-hawk like the rest of the chicken-hawks in this country, and chicken-hawks, by the way, are people like Dick Cheney who talk about the war interminably, but have never participated in it themselves because they’re too cowardly to do so. I have a problem with Hillary Clinton from that perspective. I know that she’s tacking to the right, because she has to maintain the national security bona fide that have finally been re-gathered around the Democratic flag, but still, I have a problem with her on that basis. On the Republican side, I don’t see anybody that I would vote for - and I am a Republican.
SS: So, I guess we’ll just wait and see, but I feel like a lot of people in America feel the same way as you do.
CLW: I think they do too, and that’s why the fastest growing group of people in the U.S. now, by some polls as high as 50-55%, are independents - not Democrats, not Republicans.
SS: Colonel, thank you very much for this interesting interview and the insight into the colours of the American foreign policy. We were talking to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. We were talking about how the U.S. is dealing with its foreign policy challenges across the globe. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.