‘We learned no lessons from Vietnam; why would anyone think we would later?’ —  Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson Reflects on Crucial Moments in US Foreign Policy Features
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‘We learned no lessons from Vietnam; why would anyone think we would later?’ — Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson Reflects on Crucial Moments in US Foreign Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired United States Army Colonel who held key roles in government, including serving as Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. Wilkerson played a role in preparing US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation in 2003 at the United Nations in making the case for a military invasion of Iraq. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, Wilkerson dedicated 31 years to the US Army.

Wilkerson spoke with JURIST’s Deputy Managing Editor for Interviews, Pitasanna Shanmugathas, about his insights on crucial moments in US foreign policy, including the complexities of the US response to 9/11, reflections on conflicts like the NATO-led war in Afghanistan and the US-led invasion of Iraq. He also shared his thoughts on the country’s role in exacerbating the Israel-Palestine conflict, and his perspectives on NATO enlargement and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

JURIST: In the 2000 Presidential campaign, George W. Bush presented himself as a candidate that would be very cautious about committing US troops into military interventions, claiming that he differed from Vice President Al Gore on the use of force and nation-building. During the 2000 Presidential debate, Bush said “I would take the use of force very seriously. I would be guarded in my approach … I think we have to be very careful in the use of our troops. [Vice President Gore] and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation building. I would be very careful in using our troops as nation builders … I believe we are over-extended in too many places.”

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, certainly gave Bush the needed political ammunition to pursue a hawkish foreign policy. Col. Wilkerson, can you talk about what factors, or even people within the administration, influenced Bush to shift from his initial stance of exercising caution in regard to committing the US to military intervention?

Wilkerson:  Yes, I certainly can. First, the Vice President, Richard Cheney, was the principal influence on President Bush in national security affairs. Almost as if — and many physicians said he was – the vice president was influenced by his medical condition. He seemed a totally different individual from the man who was Secretary of Defense for President George H.W. Bush years earlier. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he was extremely paranoid, even irrational at times about the further terrorist threat and, later, about the threat from Saddam Hussein – an individual whom he had said was “put in his place” in the first Gulf War and was “not worth the life of a single soldier or Marine” should the US have “gone further in that war than fulfilling the United Nations mandate and kicking his Army out of Kuwait”. Cheney was, in a word, deranged.

Next, were the Neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, the latter of whom, as the number-three man in the Department of Defense, was surrounded daily in his office by Mossad agents. Secretary of State Powell told President Bush on January 11, 2005, that “the number-three man in your Pentagon, Mr. President, is a card-carrying member of the Likud Party.”

President Bush was shocked, but he took notes. Later, in November 2006, he would take his first positive action in firing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose fault it was that men like Feith and Perle had as much influence as they did.  Finally, there were the defense contractors such as Haliburton and Lockheed, both of which made billions of dollars from both the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

JURIST: When the US-led bombing campaign of Afghanistan began shortly after 9/11, Abdul Haq, a moderate anti-Taliban figure in Afghanistan, bitterly condemned the bombings because he believed it was hurting the ability for Afghans to overthrow the Taliban from within. Haq stated, “The anti-Taliban campaign needs two stages: a military strategy to split and remove the Taliban, which should be carried out by Afghans themselves, not the US; and a Loya Jirga to create a future government, including representatives of all ethnic groups and tribes. … the US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose.”

Instead of carrying out a full-blown NATO-led bombing campaign of Afghanistan, wouldn’t it have made more sense to carry out a police operation to apprehend the masterminds of 9/11 in Afghanistan, or in the alternative, for the Bush administration to actually consider the Taliban’s offers—as reported by mainstream news outlets like The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN—to extradite bin Laden instead of rejecting them?

Wilkerson: Yes, and Powell argued initially along such lines, as did his lawyer William Howard Taft IV.  Domestic rage, politics, and the inescapable Neoconservative push to take advantage of 9/11 in order to “rid South Asia and Southwest Asia of threats” (the latter to protect Israel) overruled all else.  Bush was an incredibly naive and inexperienced man in security matters; Cheney played on that condition like Yitzak Perlman on his violin.

JURIST: The German publication Der Spiegel reported that shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration did consider dropping atomic bombs on Afghanistan. Michael Steiner, advisor to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, when asked whether the US considered dropping atomic bombs on Afghanistan, stated that “the papers were written … they had really played through all the possibilities.” Though you had previously rejected these allegations as absurd, respectfully Col. Wilkerson, is there a possibility you were not privy to these discussions within the Bush administration?

Wilkerson:  No, I stand by my answer. There was never any discussion about the use of nuclear weapons. Why would there be? It would have been an utterly ridiculous discussion.

JURIST: Your former boss, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, is attributed with having cautioned President Bush about the consequences of invading Iraq when he is alleged to have said “you break it, you own it.” Ultimately, despite America’s own close allies such as Canada, Germany, and France being publicly opposed to the invasion, saying their intelligence does not confirm Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, why did Powell jump on the bandwagon in supporting the invasion—most notoriously giving a speech at the United Nations to this effect? 

Wilkerson: Powell has answered that question several times in the past, before his death. I will not put new words in his mouth posthumously.

JURIST: John Nixon, a former CIA officer who interrogated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, said that Saddam told him the US will fail in its invasion of Iraq, “You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq … You are going to fail in Iraq because you do not know the language, the history, and you do not understand the Arab mind.” Has the United States learned any lessons from its failure in the invasion of Iraq?  

Wilkerson: No. We learned no lessons from Vietnam; why would anyone think we would later?  We did not learn from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, et al?  Post-1945, Americans, by and large, do not learn lessons; and most certainly not American presidents or the Congress.

JURIST: During the 2008 Bucharest Summit, the Bush administration declared that both Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed Ukraine and Georgia being members of NATO as an existential threat. In your opinion, why did the Bush administration seek to further pursue this Bill Clinton-era policy of NATO enlargement?

Wilkerson: In 1993, US personnel visiting Tbilisi talked with the Georgians about future NATO membership, but in an entirely different light; i.e., we were also talking with Moscow itself as well as with other former Warsaw Pact countries about Russia’s and their possible membership in NATO.  William J. Clinton changed everything – through abject inexperience in national security affairs and general naivete, personal ambition to be “a war president”, and the enormous political influence of and campaign money pressures from defense contractors who wanted to sell their wares to the new NATO countries.  Remember, I was still working for CJCS Powell when Clinton became President and for a year-plus thereafter.

JURIST: It appears that Ukraine, despite having received enormous military support and training from the US, has not achieved the military and tactical gains it had hoped in beating back the Russian offensive. What do you believe needs to happen to bring an end to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine? What role can the United States play in bringing an end to the war?

Wilkerson: Russia has won, though it is in part a pyrrhic victory. Now, we need a ceasefire and good diplomatic efforts to salvage through a negotiated settlement what is possible for an ultimately neutral Ukraine, or whatever remains of it. The European Union, the US, and Russia should help with the long, long process of trying to rebuild the war-ravaged country. The US will have to eat some crow, to be sure – and likely will not do so – but diplomacy, a ceasefire, and a negotiated settlement are the only answer.

JURIST: On February 29, 2004, the United States took part in what has been largely described as a “coup” in ousting Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, from power. The United States claimed it was intervening under humanitarian pretenses because there were bands of rebels causing havoc in the country. Given that Aristide was the nation’s democratically elected leader, and given that he enjoyed overwhelming popularity and support among the Haitian poor, wouldn’t the sensible move on the part of the US have been to support Aristide in quelling the gang rebellion?  

Wilkerson: When our ambassador escorted Aristide through a cordon of hundreds of armed men who wanted to kill him on the spot, Ambassador Foley demonstrated great courage and presence of mind.  There were NO crowds of supporters defending Aristide, only men who wanted to kill him on the spot.  The power of America behind the ambassador prevented it, but it was a very close-run thing.  The US plane with Aristide had to fly around most of the night, almost to the point of fuel exhaustion, while diplomatic channels were opened and explored in order to find a country that would take Aristide, because every capital knew what a pariah he had become.  Shortly before this development, my daughter had to protect Aristide when he was in the US (she was a Secret Service Agent). The people in the SS detail thought the president insane, he acted so strangely. No one ever wants to report the truth on such affairs; people pick their sides and scream curses at those on the other side. Ambassador Foley saved Aristide’s life, though it had become virtually worthless and he personally a virtual mental wreck. Read Foley’s article in The Miami Herald. It is correct.

JURIST: Under the Clinton administration, it seemed there was some progress made in terms of attempting to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, many analysts note that the parties came close with the Clinton Parameters and the Taba Summit in 2001 towards reaching an agreement. Why didn’t the Bush administration continue these diplomatic efforts when they came into power?

Wilkerson: This is completely incorrect. The Israelis never intended for the process to produce results (Ehud Barak has now admitted as much.). Dennis Ross, Israel’s agent in the negotiations as he always was before, ensured that the process ran afoul and that the “reason” was Arafat’s intransigence and the Arab’s lack of consensus, then he ensured the propaganda fell for Israel and against Arafat and the Arab community – and that the process could not be resumed and succeed later either (Taba). Clinton was complicit throughout and Madeleine Albright was asleep at the wheel, never being integral to any part of the negotiations. George Bush, having been briefed on all this, simply told Ariel (Arik) Sharon when he met with him in the Oval Office in 2004, that the two-state solution was dead, that the Roadmap was defunct, that 40-plus years of US efforts were a total failure, and so Sharon should go back to Tel Aviv and feel that he had his head – he could do whatever he felt was right for Israel and Bush would support him.  That is precisely what Sharon did and Netanyahu picked up after Sharon and has been doing it ever since.  And, today, we can see what a disaster it has produced.

JURIST: Even amidst the current unprecedented domestic US opposition to Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, the US continues to be willing and eager to support Israel militarily and diplomatically. Many people have asked this question, but in your opinion, what will it take for the US political establishment to reach its breaking point—for the US establishment to say, ‘it is no longer tenable to provide Israel with a blank check, we can no longer militarily and financially support Israel’s occupation’?

Wilkerson: A revolution in the way Americans think about Israel – particularly American Jews.  Also, a neutralization of the most powerful foreign agent operating on American soil, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

JURIST: George W Bush, along with many of his predecessors, have committed egregious atrocities in violation of international law which have led to the deaths of thousands of civilians around the world. Although the United States is not a party to the Rome Statute, let’s say hypothetically if the International Criminal Court (ICC) was indicting the Bush administration for its acts of aggression—who would you like to see prosecuted?

Wilkerson: All those who drew up and all those who executed the state-approved policy for torture of other human beings.

JURIST: Do you believe that you would be one of the individuals that would face prosecution?

Wilkerson: No; but as I have said in public, if it were to come down to the only way these people I have described would be prosecuted would be if I were, I would gladly enter the courtroom.