Lawrence Wilkerson is a contradictory figure.
Wilkerson is a career military man, who served as chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell; but he has also voiced reluctance to involve American forces in foreign conflicts, and slammed the Bush administration for its handling of the Iraq War. He is also a lifelong Republican who, far from just criticizing his party, has actually gone on the warpath against it at times.
When Powell was attacked by conservatives in 2012 for endorsing Barack Obama for reelection -- Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu famously suggested that the endorsement was motivated by race -- Wilkerson sprung to the defense of his former boss, saying that the Republican Party was "full of racists."
Wilkerson stands by those assertions. In a recent conversation with Salon, the retired U.S. Army colonel renewed his criticism of the GOP and the Bush administration. He also addressed recent saber rattling by Republicans on the issue of Iran. The following interview has been lightly edited.
You have been very critical of the Republican Party. Why do you stay?
There are sane and sober people in the Republican Party. The public persona of the Republican Party has changed since the days of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower.
In the past you have said the Republican Party is full of racists. Do you stand by that and aren’t you afraid of a backlash?
I’m not afraid of a backlash. The GOP has scores of racists. Under Richard Nixon’s blessing, the GOP took advantage of disgruntled Democrats in the South. They are still there and their children are there. This is very much known in our party. This was a conscious strategy.
Your boss, Colin Powell, helped move forward the Iraq War with his presentation to the United Nations. But that turned out to be wrong information. What happened?
It wasn't just Powell, he just said it convincingly. I helped him. It was everyone in the administration. [The information] was provided by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and CIA director George Tenet. The Russians, French and British spy agencies all provided the same evidence. It was a political and intelligence failure. The politicians took advantage of that. They took the intelligence and cherry-picked it, reinforcing the idea that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
So if Iraq never had WMD, what were the real reasons behind the war?
There are several reasons. President George W. Bush wanted a stellar victory. Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush are both oil men and wanted to ensure 300 billion barrels didn't stay in Saddam's hands. The Israel lobby and [former Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz wanted to get rid of Saddam. There is no singular motivation. There are many, including wanting to send a message to all concerned after 9/11 that said, very forcefully, "Don't mess with America."
I have read that another reason for the Iraq War was to send a message to other Middle Eastern countries that America has the military might to overthrow their countries and reshape the region.
The opposite occurred. [The Bush administration] demonstrated we were incompetent. They destroyed the balance of power and we are living with the result. Iraqis will tell you that Iraq was a better country under Saddam. There was more freedom for women and a better economy. It shows you how bad the situation is today.
Was the war partially about making money for defense contractors? The Financial Times states the U.S. government has paid contractors $138 billion. KBR, a subsidiary of Cheney’s former company Halliburton, received about $40 billion in government contracts.
We wasted a ton of money. It went into people’s pockets, like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin and Bechtel -- and a lot of Iraqis like Ahmed Chalabi. I also understand Eisenhower’s warning about the Military Industrial Complex’s unchecked power. It was a prescient warning. Eisenhower said this unchecked power was in every office of the federal government, every statehouse, and impacted our economic power and even our spiritual well-being.
So the Iraq War was a costly disaster. Why are Republicans pushing for war with Iran?
There are three components of this push for war with Iran. The neoconservatives feel the only way to settle the problem is to destroy the current Middle Eastern governments, and they will turn into democracies in 30 years. The second reason is Israel. We have come to the point where we blindly follow Israel. Congress gave multiple standing ovations to Benjamin Netanyahu. If Middle Eastern countries are in chaos, they can’t unify against Israel. The third reason is there is a regional power struggle between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council [a union of gulf states] and the United States. These people don’t want Iran in power. They want Iran isolated.
Some Republicans have called for an attack on Iran. Rep. Duncan Hunter said we should use a tactical nuclear weapon.
If we attacked Iran, they would go nuclear. If we attacked Iran it would take 500,000 troops, 10 years and trillions of dollars. Alexander the Great almost died in Iran. You don’t want to invade Iran. Iran has 75 million people. It’s the most stable country in the region.
You have also been critical of the way the military is structured, and the strains on an all-volunteer force.
The people who are pushing this [war with Iran] are not going to fight. They are chickenhawks. They have no skin in the game. I don’t see how you can have a democracy with 1 percent of 330 million people doing all the fighting. In the future we will have to look at conscription. The all-volunteer military is far too expensive. One rifleman can cost more than $1 million over 20 years. My half-pay in retirement, if I live to age 88, is $2.1 million. Powell’s is probably closer to $3- or $3.5 million, if he lives a similar time.
You raise an interesting point about the cost of these wars. If the government is going to start all these wars, they need to raise taxes to pay for them and no Republican politician wants to do that. George W. Bush invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan and actually reduced taxes. New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says this has never happened at any time in human history.
For the first time in American history, we had no war tax. Even European monarchs levied taxes to fight wars. It is inexplicable not to do so --unless of course you are stupid or don't care that we have a national debt of $17 trillion.
Looking at the 2016 Republican presidential primary, who do you like?
Jeb Bush has a good chance of winning, but I will want to see how he navigates the primaries, where he must speak to all the crazies in the GOP, and then how he transitions to the general election and has to speak to Americans, who have some common sense and intellectual capacity.