Trump’s Moves at Defense and Biden’s Picks for Cabinet – Larry Wilkerson

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Trump’s Moves at Defense and Biden’s Picks for Cabinet – Larry Wilkerson

Trump installed civilian leadership at Defense that will do his bidding; Biden’s national security and foreign policy transition team has the patina of warlike Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.

Transcript

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. And please don’t forget, we’ve got a fundraising campaign on. One of our members has generously contributed a $10,000 matching grant. So, if you donate now, you get matched. If you do a monthly subscription, that will be matched times twelve. So, hang on; we’ll be right back.

Heads have rolled that the Department of Defense as President Trump fired Secretary Mark Esper and install his loyal sycophants. OK, perhaps “loyal sycophant” is redundant. Now joining us to discuss the significance of these appointments and Trump’s reported plans to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Elliott Abrams’ trip to the Middle East at a time when it’s been reported Trump is asking about bombing Iran is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired United States Army colonel and former chief of staff to the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s a distinguished adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary and a member of the National Election Task Force for Election Crises.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.

Larry Wilkerson

Good to be on in such tumultuous times.

Paul Jay

So, connect the dots here. First of all, I guess of all the things I just listed, Trump asking about bombing Iran is the most dangerous. Now, there’s been some talk. He was “walked back from that,” and then there was talk he may have been only walked back from that temporarily. How serious is this threat against Iran? Is it connected to the issue of the changes at the Defense Department? Let’s start there.

Larry Wilkerson

I’ll give you the rumors first. And the rumors come from my contacts in the Pentagon and around the building. The rumors are the Pompeo was behind it. I know he’s been trying to tell people that he wasn’t behind it, that he was “aginnit” [i.e., against it], as it were. And, as you might imagine, Pompeo’s people like Elliott Abrams. And I’ve been told also that Doug Macgregor, who went in as an adviser to this young man, Chris Hughes, the new acting secretary of defense, — and I know Doug pretty well — was dead set against it. And that’s Doug. I imagine he would have been. So, I think the uniformed military and Doug’s advice prevailed. That’s my rumor story anyway. And so, there wasn’t very much support for it.

Now, my analysis of what’s going on there, though, tells me that he [i.e., Trump] is probably trying to set up the Pentagon so he can deal with it, if he wants to deal with it, in a way that is unopposed to him. If that’s the case, though, why did he put Doug there? Because Doug is dead set against these endless stupid wars and he’s dead set against any kind of conflict in the Middle East or North Africa. Anywhere in the world, it’d have to be really seriously in our vital interests before Doug would be for it. So, Doug must be there, I think, to fulfill Trump’s real wishes, which are no war.

But Trump wants to get the troops out. I think he really wants to get the troops out, particularly in Afghanistan. And I wish he’d say something about Syria and environs, too, because they’re just over there doing what — I can’t tell you what they’re doing other than vegetating. And they’re in a dangerous spot because the Russians are around, too. So, that’s what I hope he does. I mean, I’m always hoping that something good will come out of this administration by accident, maybe. But I think maybe that’s what he’s thinking about. And if he’s thinking about that and he wants this group to do that for him, I’m all for it.

Paul Jay

So, the pullout from Afghanistan and Iraq, he seems serious about?

Larry Wilkerson

Well, see, they’ve been defying him. The uniformed military and Esper — I’m pretty sure these contacts are reliable — have been defying him. Not to his face, but they’ve been saying, “Oh, if we pull out now, there’ll be all kinds of problems, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We can’t pull out. We need to stay a little bit longer.” And then it’s a little bit longer. It’s just like the previous commanders who said, give me ten thousand more troops, give me one hundred thousand more troops in Obama’s surge and I’ll fix the problem. Well, they can’t fix the problem. They’re never going to be able to fix the problem. So, let’s get out and quit endangering our boys and girls in Afghanistan.

Paul Jay

And why does the Pentagon want to stay? Or sections of the Pentagon, anyway.

Larry Wilkerson

There is some reality to the notion that withdrawal, especially a withdrawal under fire, is one of the most difficult military maneuvers to pull off. Ask Tony Zinni, who pulled out of Somalia. It’s tough. So, the military is balking because they don’t want to pull out in a way that would endanger them. I understand that.

But you can get on to it. You can you can put it in process. And they don’t even seem to want to do that. There are some people who are running around saying, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what the deal is, al-Qaeda will come back.” Well, we just saw this morning if the Israeli report is right that they killed al-Masri, the second leader of al-Qaeda, and possibly Zawahiri is dead of natural causes, the number-one leader of al-Qaeda. So, though they’re still spread out across various regions, Yemen in particular, and still dangerous, they don’t seem to have any what I would call global or, you know, America-affecting leadership. So, I don’t see how they’re going to squeeze their way back into Afghanistan except by force, as they’ve done in other places. And, you know, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan security people ought to be able to take care of that.

And as I’ve said many times in the past, we’ll come back and bash al-Qaeda again, if they look like they’re doing anything. That’s not hard to do. What would that be? A raid? It wouldn’t be as many things as Ronald Reagan sent to Libya in 1986 to bomb Gaddafi. You can take care of al-Qaeda. We should have done that in the first place. We should have gone in, smashed the Taliban, smashed al-Qaeda and left and left the government with the clear message. Let the al-Qaeda back in will come smash you and them again. Lingering there was idiocy.

Paul Jay

What do you make of who is being talked about now for the incoming Biden administration? Sec State, the Department of Defense, and some of the transition team. Because it seems to be a lot of the Obama-esque foreign policy team.

Larry Wilkerson

I looked at a list today — pretty reliable reporting, I think — that had two or three individuals that were being considered for each of the preeminent positions: Sec Def, Sec State, agency heads, secretary of the Treasury, and so forth. It didn’t look that bad to me, but it did have what you said, a patina of what really disturbs me, the Hillary Clinton-Madeleine Albright, warlike, “let me bash that dictator with our military, please.”

It had some people who I think are not going to be receptive to what I think is essential for the Democratic Party, the progressive voice within it. They may give lip service to it, but they will not be very sympathetic or empathetic with it. And I don’t see that helping Biden. He’s got to have some people — like Elizabeth Warren, for example, or Bernie Sanders — who not only are for that agenda, but have articulated a very specific and smart plan to implement some of that agenda. I don’t see that happening. Maybe this was a bad list in that respect. But I hope it is happening.

Paul Jay

On the foreign policy side, it sure doesn’t seem like it’s happening. Samantha Power is very much in play, who is, if I understand correctly, certainly one of the people that was gung ho about going into Libya. And if I understand it correctly, Biden wasn’t one of the ones who was going to go.

Larry Wilkerson

I’ve heard the rumors about Samantha. I can’t see Samantha being a cabinet member. I could see her being something else, as she’s been before. I think Obama sent her to the United Nations to get rid of her. He was sick and tired of her.

Paul Jay

What about Susan Rice?

Larry Wilkerson

Rice is a different animal, not in the sense that she makes some really lousy recommendations like Samantha does, but she’s a different animal in terms of Biden’s affection or closeness or trust to her or for her, I think. I don’t know that personally, but that’s what I’ve heard. So, she might be in there somewhere. I just don’t think Samantha is even being considered. I know they’re throwing it around.

You know what they do. Paul. What John Bolton did when I was first in the State Department in December of 2000, GSA [the General Services Administration which initiates and facilitates the transition] had finally given us the key. And John Bolton was traveling all over the world — Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Tokyo — and saying, “I’m going to be deputy secretary of state,” probably because Cheney had promised him that. I went in to Powell about three days into this boasting and I said, “Are you shitting me? Is he going to be deputy secretary of state?” Powell said, “Over my dead body.” You know, I don’t know, but I think Powell worked it out with Cheney. He told Cheney, “You give me Rich Armitage and then I’ll take Bolton to be undersecretary for international security affairs and arms control. But I will not take him to be deputy. And Paul can go over to you as deputy at defense.” I think he laid down a marker with Cheney and that’s why we had to eat Bolton. Wasn’t a good deal. I think Powell at the time probably thought it was a good deal, but it wasn’t a good deal. We had Bolton in our midst all the time.

Paul Jay

I would just read an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs by Samantha Power. I don’t know if this reflects Biden’s thinking or not, but I’ve been talking to some other friends and colleagues about what to expect from the Biden administration. And some are thinking they’ll really return to the anti-Russia rhetoric. But in the Samantha Power piece, it was all about China, taking leadership of the world away from China.

Larry Wilkerson

She’s playing to the audience just like Bolton did. I mean, she may have more possibilities than Bolton did, but she’s playing. That’s what they all do. They run around, they write articles. Condi wrote articles. You know, they write articles: “Look at me. I’m impressive, aren’t I? I’d probably make a good secretary of state or I’d make a good secretary of defense.” Or whatever. They all do that.

Paul Jay

I wasn’t so much talking about Power and what she may or may not get appointed to, but the preoccupation of Biden with China. Of course, it’s not just Biden. There really is a serious geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. But I don’t know —

Larry Wilkerson

And it’s getting worse. It’s getting worse. I was reading a Chinese admiral today. I think the translation was good. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Mandarin or read Mandarin. I should probably send it over to Ambassador Chas Freeman and ask him to take a look at it. But I think it was a good translation. And he’s essentially saying, very bombastically, we’re going to sink two aircraft carriers, not one. Now, that’s bombast, as I said, and it’s the military speaking, it’s not Xi Jinping or Wang Yi [the foreign minister] or any of the Politburo people. It’s a military admiral. But I know that they are salivating at the prospect of sinking an aircraft carrier. And furthermore, I know they can. And I said, why two? Why not three if they’re close enough together?

I mean, this this is not good that this kind of rhetoric is being exchanged. It’s kind of like the rhetoric that is exchanged almost daily between elements in Iran and elements in this country. Iran is one thing. China is quite another. And so, I think it’s very dangerous to turn this rhetoric around and especially dangerous when people are yakking and Pompeo’s yakking about “strategic clarity” — even Richard Haass — with regard to Taiwan. “Strategic clarity,” my rear end. I always love strategic ambiguity more than strategic clarity, especially with great powers. Strategic clarity will get you in hot water rapidly. I look at you and you’re my equivalent and I say, you hit me and I will kill you. And you look back at me and say, No, you won’t. I’ll kill you before you do me. That’s not good between great powers. That’s nasty stuff. That’s the kind of stuff that led to World War I and World War II.

Paul Jay

And what you’re talking about is Richard Haass, who has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003, saying in an article, get rid of the ambiguity on Taiwan. The United States should come out clearly and say if there’s any Chinese military incursion into Taiwan, the United States will respond militarily. Right now, it’s sort of ambiguous what the United States would do. And I assume most people presuppose the United States would do nothing. I mean, the United States is not going to go into a ground war with China. It’s nuts.

Larry Wilkerson

Well, it wouldn’t be a ground war, I think.

Paul Jay

Naval, naval, air — whatever.

Larry Wilkerson

Naval and air, the whole war-game show: it’s naval and air. What was it, The Princess Bride, you know? Don’t ever start a land war in Asia. [Laughter.]

Wallace Shawn from The Princess Bride

Ah, ha, ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! [Maniacal laughter.]

Larry Wilkerson

Yeah, that’s very wise advice. You’re, what, four hundred thousand-man army against a million point two? [Laughs.] And the other problem is, look at the strategic depth of China. It almost rivals Russia’s when Napoleon attacked or when Hitler attacked. It’s why Putin is so anxious today because what’s defended Russia through Napoleon, through Hitler — and actually if you want to go back all the way to the Huns and Prince Nevsky on the ice at Lake Peipus, way back in the 1200s — is its strategic depth. And what’s happened, of course, with NATO’s expansion is Russia has lost much of that strategic depth. So, you get scared when you have that kind of history and you’re looking at your bastion of distance going away.

Paul Jay

A lot of people in progressive circles are very concerned about who Biden seems to be picking to advise him on foreign policy, who might take these posts. Some people are saying he’s planning a wartime cabinet. I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration, but are you concerned that the kind of people around him are the kind of people that were willing to go, for example, and intervene in Libya. They have this humanitarian-intervention kind of thinking that leads to Libya’s war and involvement in Syria and other places.

Larry Wilkerson

I am to a degree but I’m heartened by the fact that Hillary’s not there. My students just did a case-study presentation on the 2011 NATO/US intervention in Libya. They opened my eyes a bit. They did some good research and they presented a good case study. The real convincer was Hillary. Samantha was pushing, Susan was pushing. But the real convincer who beat Gates and beat Biden out was Hillary, who originally was with Gates but then flew to Tripoli and spent some time there listening to the people in-country who became her “experts” and then came back absolutely adamant that Gates was wrong, Biden was wrong, and Samantha and Susan were right, and we needed to do it.

Remember, she’s the one that made the most impolitic diplomatic remark in history: “we came, we saw, he died.” After that grisly death we all saw on television of Muammar Gaddafi. I mean, you are a secretary of state and you make a remark like that? She’s as bad as Pompeo in that moment. So, I’m a little bit encouraged by the fact that she’s not around. And Biden is.

And I’m encouraged by the fact that Biden has lots of experience in foreign affairs and international relations. I’m not so worried about a truncated transition for that reason because he’s not George W. Bush. George W. Bush was like a two-year-old in the Oval Office in his first week, first year, first *term*. Biden’s smart and he knows the issues. Powell called *him*, not [Richard] Lugar, when Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then when it switched and Lugar was chairman, he still called Biden. Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice got mad at him: “Why don’t you call Dick? He’s a Republican.” [Powell:] “Well, Biden knows the issues.” And he does.

Paul Jay

And since Iraq, he does seem to have a somewhat more restrained instinct —

Larry Wilkerson

I think so.

Paul Jay

— in terms of military involvement. Do you think there’s truth to that?

Larry Wilkerson

I think there is. He got burned there. And he got burned because he was looking back on Sam Nunn. Sam Nunn got burned in the first [Gulf] war. Biden looked at it very logically and said, “Hey, it’s the same country and the same dictator.” And he thought he would get burned if he were against it the second time around, the way Nunn got burned in the first war. Nunn’s political career was terminated by his opposition to the war. It was so successful.

Paul Jay

And Biden thought that would be his fate if he opposed the second Gulf War.

Larry Wilkerson

I think so. We forget sometimes that these guys and gals, especially today, they don’t have much time to think. You gotta make your decisions pretty fast. You’re raising money the rest of the day.

Paul Jay

So, just before we conclude, let’s talk about the current political moment. You’re on this group that deals with the transition crisis. How much of a crisis is there? I mean, it looks like maybe not so much, that Trump just wants to be center-stage and is running out of options. Does he have any options that can actually keep him in power?

Larry Wilkerson

I don’t think so. Not that don’t look to the American people or a substantial majority of them as if he is negating the popular will of the voters. There are plenty of people in his base who believe the lies, that he that he really got elected and the Democrats just cheated. But I think fully 60 percent of the electorate out there is not going to believe that. And it’s growing every day. You can add a percentage point or two every day, almost. Just like in Georgia. As I was saying before, his people, especially Giuliani, aren’t doing themselves any favors. They look like idiots. And they’re even being made to look like idiots from time to time on Fox.

So, you know, I think we are eroding some things we’re going to regret the erosion of. And most of that erosion is taking place in the character and quality of the politicians who are exposing themselves in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and so forth as nothing but self-interested, self-licking ice cream cones, if you will. Lindsey Graham stands out as a perfect example.

Paul Jay

Well, I was about to say, Lindsey Graham. So, Lindsey Graham, who’s really quite smart — when you see him chair these committees, he’s very smart. So, is this guy wanting to run in ’24 and figures he has to keep that Trump base?

Larry Wilkerson

Absolutely. And the evangelicals are a significant part of that. You lose them and you’ve lost that core around which everything else coalesces, whether it’s John Hagee or Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham — any of these guys. If you lose that group that’s willing to say that Trump is God’s picked president? If you lose them, you haven’t a chance as a Republican, unless you happen to be in a district where they don’t predominate. You know, in a small district for the House election. I’d say you even lose them in a state. You could maybe win a House district because they’re so gerrymandered and so limited in terms of the demographics. You might could do that. You could still win in the House? They proved that in this election: they increased their members in the House. But if you alienate that group significantly nationally, you don’t have a prayer. And Lindsay knows that. That’s the reason he’s such an ass.

Paul Jay

I got a call from an evangelical pastor after Bush won the election, at some point in the second term. He had been watching some of the interviews I was doing. And he wrote me saying how much he appreciated my work. He had an evangelical church in Connecticut. And I asked him, “Well, what does your congregation think about what’s going on?” And he said that they actually had a meeting to discuss it. They’d been very pro-Bush and they felt completely betrayed by the Iraq war and the lies about it. And they had actually had a vote to stay out of politics. So, they were just going to do good works. And then I have a friend who —

Larry Wilkerson

There are some real Christians in this group. I mean, I’m sorry: there are some real Christians.

Paul Jay

I think so. And I don’t think enough attention has been paid by progressives and others, you know, to try to talk to people who are in that group.

Larry Wilkerson

They’re significantly turned off by multiple sexual orientations beyond a man and a woman. Many of them are significantly turned off by late-term abortion, if not all abortion. And these social issues actually dominate their voting rather than economic or security or other issues. They’re good Christians. They respect what Christ said about peace and turn the other cheek and all that kind of stuff. But these social issues really give them a problem. And so, if someone is on that social-issues side that they’re on, they’re usually going to support them and hold their nose and, you know, cover their eyes when they go in to cast a ballot. I don’t fault them so much for that because they have really firm religious beliefs. A lot of Catholics are that way, too. A lot of them.

Paul Jay

Yeah, a lot of them. But there’s got to be a way to have that conversation. We were talking off-camera earlier: something like over 20 percent of evangelicals do not vote for Trump, didn’t vote Republican, and did vote for Obama. And I have a friend who —

Larry Wilkerson

Yeah, quite a few voted for Obama.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I have a friend who used to go to that evangelical church. He’s since quit because of the politics. He’s had enough of it. But that 20 percent or more that don’t vote and don’t think a Trump is a political expression of their religious beliefs, despite abortion and other issues. That 20 percent, I think, can talk to the at least 20 percent of the ones that do vote Trump because I mean, infant mortality rates should also count. I mean, it can’t just be about abortion.

Larry Wilkerson

Yeah. My conversation with one in Dallas, Texas went this way. I said, “OK, are you for capital punishment?” “Absolutely.” “How can you be for stopping abortion and be for capital punishment?” And his logic, and his wife’s, too, was, “Well, the person who commits a murder or a capital crime for which capital punishment is a penalty has forfeited his life by the law. The baby has no choice. It forfeits its life because the mother decides to give its life up.” They are pretty smart when they start talking to you. You know, you take your position, they take their position, but it’s not an undefended position, it’s not an illogical position.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I don’t think the abortion debate is an easy black-and-white conversation.

Larry Wilkerson

I don’t either. I know some Catholics who have really agonized over it. I mean, truly agonized over it. I think Tim Kaine agonizes over it. The senator from Virginia.

Paul Jay

But my question was, how do you support the bombing of Iraq and other military incursions with mass civilian casualties when you’ve got to know how many pregnant women with unborn innocent babies are being slaughtered in those bombing campaigns?

Larry Wilkerson

I think you’re going to find that 20 percent you’re talking about is not in favor of that sort of thing if the war is explained to them properly. You know, most of them think freedom, liberty, justice, our security keeps terrorism way over there instead of here and so forth. They think like the administration, whomever it might be, wants them to think. And it’s wrong. When you disabuse them and you convince them that they’re wrong, they can go the other way.

I mean, you say, “There hasn’t been a war in the last 20 years, that wasn’t for money and profit.” Now you’re going for Mammon, you’re going for money and profit, that’s what your government is doing, and they’re lying to you about the freedom and democracy and humanitarianism and all those good things that they say the war for. It’s for money. It’s for the wealthy. It’s for the defense contractors. It’s for all those people who really are running this country. They will listen to that.

Paul Jay

All right, well, keep this going. Thanks for joining us, Larry.

Larry Wilkerson

Surely. Take care. Stay healthy.

Paul Jay

Yeah, you, too. Thanks for joining us on theAnalysis.News. And don’t forget, we’ve got a matching grant donation campaign going on here. If you donate, you get matched. So, if you give one hundred bucks, we’ll be getting another hundred bucks. And if you do a monthly donation, a year’s worth of your donation will get matched. So, thanks again for joining us on theAnalysis.News.

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