by Col Lawrence Wilkerson edited by O Society Jan 8, 2019
Fifteen years ago, Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, spoke at the United Nations to sell pre-emptive war with Iraq. As his chief of staff, I helped Secretary Powell paint a clear picture war was the only choice, when “we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction, and provides haven and active support for terrorists, we are not confronting the past, we are confronting the present. And unless we act, we are confronting an even more frightening future.”
Following Mr. Powell’s presentation on that cold day, I considered what we had done. At the moment, I thought all our work was for naught — and despite his efforts we did not gain substantial international buy-in. But polls later that day and week demonstrated he did convince many Americans. I knew that was why he was chosen to make the presentation in the first place: his standing with the American people was more solid than any other member of the Bush administration.
President George W. Bush would have ordered the war even without the United Nations presentation, or if Secretary Powell failed miserably in giving it. But the secretary’s gravitas was a significant part of the two-year-long effort by the Bush administration to get Americans on the war wagon.
That effort led to a war of choice with Iraq — one that resulted in catastrophic losses for the region and the United States-led coalition and destabilized the entire Middle East.
This should not be forgotten, since the Trump administration is using much the same playbook to create a false impression war is the only way to address the threats posed by Iran.
The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the administration has “undeniable” evidence Iran is not complying with Security Council resolutions regarding its ballistic missile program and Yemen. Just like Mr. Powell, Ms. Haley shows satellite images and other physical evidence available only to the United States intelligence community to prove her case. But the evidence falls significantly short.
It’s astonishing how similar Haley’s moment was to Mr. Powell’s 2003 presentation on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — and how the Trump administration’s methods overall match those of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. As I watched Ms. Haley at the Defense Intelligence Agency, I wanted to play the video of Mr. Powell on the wall behind her, so Americans could recognize instantly how they were being driven down the same path as in 2003 — ultimately to war.
Only this war with Iran, a country of almost 80 million people whose vast strategic depth and difficult terrain make it a far greater challenge than Iraq, would be 10 to 15 times worse than the Iraq war in terms of casualties and costs.
If we want a slightly more official statement of the Trump administration’s plans for Iran, we need only look at the recently released National Security Strategy, which says, “The longer we ignore threats from countries determined to proliferate and develop weapons of mass destruction, the worse such threats become, and the fewer defensive options we have.” The Bush-Cheney team could not have said it better as it contemplated invading Iraq.
The strategy positions Iran as one of the greatest threats America faces, much the same way President Bush framed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. With China, Russia, and North Korea all presenting vastly more formidable challenges to America and its allies than Iran, one has to wonder where the Trump team gets its ideas.
Though Ms. Haley’s presentation missed the mark, and no one other than the national security elite will even read the strategy, it won’t matter. We’ve seen this before: a campaign built on the politicization of intelligence and shortsighted policy decisions to make the case for war. And the American people have apparently become so accustomed to executive branch warmongering — approved almost unanimously by the Congress — that such actions are not significantly contested.
So far, news organizations largely fail to refute false narratives coming out of the Trump White House on Iran. In early November, news outlets latched onto claims by unnamed American officials newly released documents from Osama bin Laden’s compound represented “evidence of Iran’s support of Al Qaeda’s war with the United States.”
It’s a vivid reminder of Vice President Cheney’s desperate attempts in 2002-03 to conjure up evidence of Saddam Hussein’s relationship with Al Qaeda from detainees at Guantánamo Bay. It harks back to the C.I.A. director George Tenet’s assurances to Mr. Powell that the connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden was ironclad in the lead-up to his United Nations presentation. Today, we know how terribly wrong Mr. Tenet was.
Today, the analysts claiming close ties between Al Qaeda and Iran come from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which vehemently opposes the Iran nuclear deal and unabashedly calls for regime change in Iran.
It seems not to matter 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudis and none were Iranians. Or that, according to the United States intelligence community, of the groups listed as actively hostile to the United States, only one is loosely affiliated with Iran, and Hezbollah doesn’t make the cut. More than ever the Foundation for Defense of Democracies seems like the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans that pushed falsehoods in support of waging war with Iraq.
The Trump administration’s case for war with Iran ranges much wider than Ms. Haley’s work. We should include the president’s decertification ultimatum in January that Congress must “fix” the Iran nuclear deal, despite the reality of Iran’s compliance; the White House’s pressure on the intelligence community to cook up evidence of Iran’s noncompliance; and the administration’s choosing to view the protests in Iran as the beginning of regime change. Like the Bush administration before, these seemingly disconnected events serve to create a narrative in which war with Iran is the only viable policy.
As I look back at our lock-step march toward war with Iraq, I realize it didn’t seem to matter to us that we used shoddy or cherry-picked intelligence; it was unrealistic to argue the war would “pay for itself,” rather than cost trillions of dollars; that we might be hopelessly naïve in thinking the war would lead to democracy instead of pushing the region into a downward spiral.
The sole purpose of our actions was to sell the American people on the case for war with Iraq. Polls show we did. Mr. Trump and his team are trying to do it again. If we’re not careful, they’ll succeed.
AMY GOODMAN: We look at the Trump administration’s assassination of Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani with Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired United States Army colonel who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005. On February 5, 2003, he watched as Powell made the case for war in a speech to the United Nations. He has since become an outspoken critic of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. In 2018, Wilkerson wrote the above article for The New York Times titled “I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again.”
Colonel Wilkerson. Talk about what happened in 2003 and your response to what you’re seeing happen right now after the assassination of Soleimani.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I find myself agreeing and really appreciating the history given by the Johns Hopkins professor with regard to Iran. We rarely hear the truth about Iran and about U.S.-Iran relations, and she pretty much laid it bare for us.
I associated the 2003 situation and the catastrophic decision to invade Iraq, which is what produced what we’re looking at today, essentially — all across the region, the chaos that we’re looking at was produced by the United States invasion in 2003. I watched as the intelligence was cooked, as principals in the George W. Bush government were sold by that intelligence or helped to warp that intelligence, as was the case was with Dick Cheney, and I watched the inevitable march to war, even though I was working for a man who did everything he could, especially after the U.N. Security Council resolution in November, 8 November, 2002, that sent the inspectors back into Iraq — I watched us go to war nonetheless. I’m watching the same thing again.
This morning at 2 a.m. my time, I was on London news with News 4. And the speaker before me was a representative of the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense. And his main points — he was fairly glib. He was much more articulate than the warmonger Mike Pompeo. But he tried to make a rational case for the execution of Soleimani. And he said it was a tactical incident, and that as a tactical incident, it would not disturb the current tension that much. It was not a tactical incident; it was a strategic incident.
As a military professional, I have real trouble with our turning over the initiative to our enemy. In this case, if Iran is indeed our enemy — and I think they are now, for sure — we have turned the initiative over to them, the strategic, not the tactical, initiative. Now it is up to Iran as to what they do as a riposte to what we did. They can do any number of things across such a wide spectrum of activities that I shudder to consider. It ranges from unleashing Hezbollah, if Nasrallah will agree, on Israel, to attacks inside the United States, inside Europe, with sleeper agents and so forth. So the initiative is now in Iran’s hands. That’s what this killing did. It shifted the strategic initiative for this tension to Iran.
If Iran reacts in a very escalatory way, we will have no choice but to up the ante still further, which I would say would probably be executing a bombing campaign from multicarrier battle groups in the North Oman Sea, from Al Udeid in Qatar and so forth, a very devastating bombing campaign. Indeed, President Trump has suggested it, with his very impolitic remark about 52 sites and so forth. This is a strategic situation, and we caused it. And it’s going to rebound to our disfavor, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Wilkerson Vice President Pence falsely attempted to link Major General Soleimani to the 9/11 attacks. He stated Soleimani, quote, “Assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.”The New York Times and others have noted the claim lacks evidence. If you can talk about what General Powell did, that speech he gave on February 5th, 2003, that you helped to prepare? Again, this also backs up Secretary of State Pompeo, who said that Iran was just about to attack U.S. personnel again. Where’s the evidence, as you have asked the question back in 2003?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, Amy, this is risible. It’s laughable. Pence’s words, in particular, are laughable. Suleimani and his entourage were actually helping us in Afghanistan in 2001, early 2002, to fight the Taliban. We got indispensable help from Iran in that regard. And then President Bush made the statement about the “axis of evil” and sort of countermanded all that good cooperation. Nonetheless, they still were cooperating with us, all the way up to the Bonn conference and the selection of Karzai to be the intermediate ruler in Afghanistan. So, this is total falsehood. But this seems to be a practice of the Bush administration, as it was a practice of the George — of the Trump administration, as it was a practice of the Bush administration.
This is Secretary of State Powell speaking on February 5th, 2003, making the case for war in a speech to the United Nations.
SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents. Let me take you inside that intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Secretary of State General Colin Powell, February 5th, 2003. Right behind him, he is framed by George Tenet, the CIA director at the time, and John Negroponte, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Take us back to that moment, Colonel Wilkerson, when — I mean, Secretary of State Colin Powell held a lot of credibility for people who were deeply concerned about the war, because he was dragging his feet on the war. When he gave this speech at the U.N. — probably why he was chosen to give this speech — it changed everything, and it paved the way for war. Where were you on this day? And talk about how you helped prepare this speech for Secretary of State Powell?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, Amy, I was sitting right there at the U.N. Security Council looking at Secretary Powell as he delivered his remarks. And I had been at the CIA and in New York, on the top floor of the U.S. U.N. Mission in New York, for 24 hours, doing the last-minute preparations for it. So I knew it quite well.
But let’s take that and apply it to what we’re looking at today. In September of 2015, I was in the Roosevelt Room in the White House. President Obama came out of the Oval Office, sat down across from me, with Secretary John Kerry beside him. And we were there ostensibly to be thanked for our help on the nuclear agreement with Iran. The president launched into a 30-minute disquisition that he began with these words: “There is a bias in this town toward war.”
I almost fell off my chair. That’s what I teach. But I didn’t think any president, even one who had been in office for seven years, would ever come to that conclusion. Clearly, here was one who was intelligent enough to have come to that conclusion. But what he was telling us was he didn’t know what to do about it.
Now let’s go back to 2003. Ever since 9/11, the beast of the national security state, the beast of endless wars, the beast of the alligator that came out of the swamp, for example, and bit Donald Trump just a few days ago, is alive and well. America exists today to make war. How else do we interpret 19 straight years of war and no end in sight? It’s part of who we are. It’s part of what the American Empire is. We are going to lie, cheat and steal, as Pompeo is doing right now, as Trump is doing right now, as Esper is doing right now, as Lindsey Graham is doing right now, as Tom Cotton is doing right now, and a host of other members of my political party, the Republicans, are doing right now. We are going to cheat and steal to do whatever it is we have to do to continue this war complex. That’s the truth of it. And that’s the agony of it.
What we saw President Trump do was not in President Trump’s character, really. Those boys and girls who were getting on those planes at Fort Bragg to augment forces in Iraq, if you looked at their faces and, even more importantly, if you looked at the faces of the families assembled along the line they were traversing to get onto the airplanes, you saw a lot of Donald Trump’s base. That base voted for Donald Trump because he promised to end these endless wars. He promised to drain the swamp. Well, an alligator from that swamp jumped out and bit him. And when he ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani, he was a member of the national security state in good standing. And all that state knows how to do is make war.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Trump speaking Friday.
DONALD TRUMP: Today we remember and honor the victims of Soleimani’s many atrocities, and we take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over. Soleimani has been perpetrating acts of terror to destabilize the Middle East for the last 20 years. What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved. Just recently, Soleimani led the brutal repression of protesters in Iran, where more than a thousand innocent civilians were tortured and killed by their own government. We took action last night to stop a war; we did not take action to start a war.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Trump. If you can respond to this, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, as he explained going after Soleimani, and because you were part of the Bush administration? George W. Bush had the opportunity to assassinate Soleimani. President Obama had the opportunity to assassinate Soleimani. They didn’t. Trump did. And you had dealings with Soleimani. You were just explaining what he did in Afghanistan and how Vice President Pence was lying when he talked about him being involved in the 9/11 attacks.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Here you have one the biggest reasons neither of the two previous presidents decided to do what Donald Trump did. We have just, as we did with torture from 2002 to 2008, as we substantiated for the world torture is OK, we have now OK’d the killing of recognized members of other states’ government. That’s what Soleimani was, no matter how heinous we may paint him. He was a member of an established state’s government, and we assassinated him. That is a very dangerous precedent to have set.
You may have heard the members of the Russian Duma, Vladimir Putin and others in Russia talking about this dangerous precedent. Had it been the Israelis who did this, Amy, they would have done it and sent flowers to Tehran. It would have been completely covert. There would have been no boasting, no public thumping of the chest and so forth. The narcissist in the White House caused that to happen. But even if you were doing it that way, you would have to think about this consideration eventually it would become public that you had done it. And you, by doing it, had sanctioned the killing of other state actors.
Let’s just put the shoe on the other foot. We’re looking at someone coming in to Washington and assassinating one of our leaders, whether it be a congressman or a member of the executive branch or someone else. We have just sanctioned that. We have become the law of the jungle, rather than, as we have been since 1945, the greatest supporter of international law and the rule of law in general across the face of the globe. With torture and with killing other state recognized individuals of their government, we have become the tiger, the lion, the bear, the alligator in that jungle. It’s not a very, very good precedent to have set, as the Russians indicated. The Chinese said similar things. It’s a terrible precedent to set.
And now we have to steel ourselves for what the reaction might be. The strategic initiative is now in Tehran’s hands. They can decide now whether or not it’s a major escalation they perpetrate or just something that sort of fritters away over time and doesn’t cause the U.S. to execute a bombing package against the targets, for example, that Donald Trump suggested. I don’t want to be in that world, but that’s where we are.
Al-Sistani said it best in Iraq. Al-Sistani, by the way, was a big help to us in 2003 and 2004, when the insurgency was developing, that Donald Rumsfeld, of course, said wasn’t there. Al-Sistani helped. And his statement the other day that he did not want Iraq to be the battleground of settling scores was a perfect description of what is happening. Donald Trump is trying to settle a score, and it’s everything from he doesn’t want to do what Obama did to he thinks his maximum-tension campaign is working when it’s not. That’s all it’s about.
And incidentally, we have another failure in diplomacy perpetrated by Donald Trump developing right now in the Korean Peninsula. So, wait until you see what the strategic results are of Kim Jong-un’s posturing on the peninsula and Iran’s at the same time. We used to have a saying in the Pentagon when we were doing war planning. We hoped that the North Koreans and the Iraqis, at that time, now the Iranians, don’t decide to collude and attack at the same time. Well, Donald Trump has set that kind of strategic situation up now with two major diplomatic failures, mostly because of the narcissism and the lack of competence he exhibited, but also because of the national security state and its desire to keep these wars going.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you elaborate on what Soleimani did back when you were in the Bush administration? You were working with him.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, what we had in the first days of our reaction on Afghanistan was not really a military action. It was a CIA action. Donald Rumsfeld actually got furious with the Army because it couldn’t get into Afghanistan fast enough. If you look at a map, you will see why it couldn’t get into Afghanistan fast enough. Of course, we had to go over to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and ask them for overflight rights and for logistics rights and so forth in order to even get into Afghanistan.
But what you had was you had essentially a war between the Taliban, Mullah Omar and his group, what was left of al-Qaeda, and the Northern Alliance, which the CIAhad been supporting all along. They had killed Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” the guy who was really leading the Northern Alliance, too. Al-Qaeda had killed him about the same time they did the 9/11 attacks. So it was really chaotic.
When we did get some special operators in, and we got a lot of aircraft in with, of course, precision-guided munitions, then we began to turn the tide. And we began to get to a situation where — I can tell you, we were almost apoplectic at the time — we didn’t know who was going to invest Kabul. We didn’t know that we hadn’t just turned Kabul over to the Northern Alliance, and thus to a continuation of the last 30 years of warfare. So, we were very anxious to make sure everything worked the way we wanted it to after that so-called victory.
And one of the people — one of the groups that helped us the most, as you might imagine, were the Iranians, because the Iranians looked at the Taliban as their enemy, too. You may recall that the Taliban had killed some Iranian diplomats and others in the months prior. So the Iranians were all for our eliminating the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and so pitched in to help.
As I said, once President Bush had given his speech about the “axis of evil” and included Iran in that, their desire to help was not quite as ardent as it was before. But they, nonetheless, realizing, as Iran almost always does — I hate these people who say they’re irrational. They’re far more rational than we are. Let me say that again: The leadership in Tehran is far more rational than the leadership in Washington. So, they decided they would continue to help us, because, after all, the enemy of my enemy — you know, all that old, good business about the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And they did in fact continue to help us, all the way through the Bonn conference. And Soleimani was part of that at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: You just said Esper, Pence, Pompeo, Trump. Explain what they’re lying about right now as we hear them talk about he was just about to engage in another attack on U.S. personnel.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, the first thing they’re lying about, as a military professional, I know cold. No general, especially not one at the level Soleimani was operating — no general reaches out and kills someone. Nor does he reach out to a team and say, “Kill someone.” Nor does he reach out to a squad or a platoon or a company and say, “Kill someone.” He gives orders at the top, sets strategic purposes and principles and general guidelines, and he boosts morale, and he travels around, and he talks to the teams and so on — exactly what Soleimani was so good at.
So, to say Soleimani, himself personally, was an imminent threat is, as I said before, laughable. And the fact that Esper and Pompeo, who have some manner of expertise in military affairs, are saying these things makes them even more egregious liars than otherwise. If John Kerry got up there and said something like that, or if Warren Christopher got up there and said something of that, Kerry even with his Vietnam experience, you could give them a little bit of leeway. But these guys are supposed to be experts in the very fields that they’re talking about. They’re anything but experts. They are warmongers. They are warmongers par excellence.
Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence, they both long for the rapture, for the end times, for Jesus coming down to the Earth and killing all the unbelievers with his flaming sword. This is what they are all about. This is why they allowed the embassy to move to Jerusalem. Go back and check the remarks that were made at that time, the prayers that were given and so forth. This is, in a word, a very different U.S. administration, but in the same hands of the military-industrial complex, of the national security state, of all the people who want warfare to be the raison d’être of this empire at the same time.
So, you’re looking at an incompetent leadership, coupled with a leadership that’s ruthless and brutal and knows where it wants to go. And with Iran, it’s regime change, period. And if they have to go to war, that’s what they want. And now they’ve got it to the point where it’s going to be extremely difficult — I’d put the chances at 50-50 — for us to extricate ourselves from this march to war. And this war will put Iraq to shame in terms of its consequences in blood and treasure.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to the reasons for it. And I know you have to leave, so we’ll do this quickly. 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was speaking on CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Next week, the president of United States could be facing an impeachment trial in the Senate. We know he’s deeply upset about that. And I think people are reasonably asking: Why this moment? Why does he pick now to take this highly inflammatory, highly dangerous action that moves us closer to war? We’ve been at war for 20 years in the Middle East. We need to stop the war in the Middle East, not expand it.
JAKE TAPPER: Senator, are you suggesting President Trump pulled the trigger and had Qassem Suleimani killed as a distraction from impeachment?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I think people are reasonably asking about the timing and why it is the administration seems to have all kinds of different answers.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Last week, right after the assassination, the Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted The New York Times front page from December 17th, 1998. The front-page banner headline read, “Impeachment Vote in House Delayed as Clinton Launches Iraq Air Strike, Citing Military Need to Move Swiftly.” Colonel Wilkerson, can you respond?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: For 15 years, Amy, I’ve taught this to over 400 students on two campuses. National security decision-making is what it’s called. One of the influences I emphasize is domestic politics. I would be a traitor to the academic curriculum which I teach, I would be a traitor to the truth, if I didn’t say, “Of course that had something to do with it.” And watch out, because there will be more, because there will be more impeachment.
AMY GOODMAN: Any final words, Colonel Wilkerson, as we move into this very critical period, with President Trump saying if Iran responds to the U.S. assassination of one of their leaders, that the U.S. will hit 52 sites, including cultural institutions, which is, by the way, considered a war crime — 52 for the 52 hostages Iran took more than 40 years ago?
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: If that were the case and we actually executed such a package, we would solidify 80 million people in a way that for the next 30 years would cost the lives of countless Americans, businesspeople, tourists and so forth throughout the region and perhaps throughout the world.
I know what the packages look like for bombing Iran. I worked, to work on the Soviets as they invaded Afghanistan, and we thought they were going to drive south to Chabahar or Bandar Abbas, to warm water ports in Iran. So I did some of the battle planning for fighting the Soviets in Iran. I know the territory. I know the strategic depth. I know the mountains and so forth.
The bombing packages we have, that will call on Al Udeid and multicarrier operations in the northern Sea of Oman, and Khalid in Saudi Arabia, Incirlik, perhaps, in Turkey, and so forth, are not designed to do that. So, if they are designed to do that, in other words, modified, and if they do that, we will have started a catastrophe in the Middle East that will make, as I said, Iraq look like child’s play.