Calls for military action against Iran grew louder this week in response to the Trump administration’s claims that the Islamic Republic was responsible for attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Many analysts and politicians, both in the U.S. and abroad, expressed skepticism of those claims. But the U.S. media appears to be falling into a familiar pattern, providing a sympathetic platform for the administration without fundamentally questioning its premises. What can we learn from the last push for a war in the Middle East 17 years ago? Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell during the run-up to the Iraq War, joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the lessons of recent history.
Lawrence Wilkerson: The credibility of the United States on intelligence is really low right now. If that intelligence is going to cause U.S. forces to die and bleed in combat, the U.S. to deploy military force, I’m going to be very skeptical of that intelligence. Very skeptical.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. It’s a Middle Eastern country with lots of oil, the first three letters are I, R and A, and America wants to bomb it. In 2003, it was Iraq. Today, it’s Iran. The parallels are beyond eerie.
LW: John Bolton and Mike Pompeo look a lot like the characters from the Bush administration with Pompeo being the sycophant and Bolton being the leader.
MH: That’s my guest today, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Colin Powell in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 and subsequently became a very vocal critic of that conflict, and of the George W. Bush administration. So on today’s show, we’ll discuss: how close are we to a catastrophic conflict with Iran and what lessons can we all learn — politicians, the media, the public — from the 2003 Iraq war debacle?
Is the Iranian government behind a series of recent attacks on a number of tankers in the Gulf, most recently on a pair of Norwegian and Japanese tankers carrying petrochemicals? And if it turns out that the Iranians are responsible, is that a casus belli for a new war in the Middle East between the United States and the Islamic Republic?
The U.S. government has released a video supposedly showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards on a patrol boat trying to covertly remove an undetonated mine from the hull of one of the two tankers. And President Trump, speaking on state television’s Fox and Friends the other morning, said there was no doubt in his mess of a mind as to who was to blame.
Donald J. Trump: Well, Iran did do it and you know they did it because you saw the boat. I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it and you saw the boat at night trying to take the mine off and successfully took the mine off the boat and that was exposed and that was the boat that was them and they didn’t want the evidence left behind. I guess they don’t know that we have things that we can detect in the dark that work very well.
MH: The problem with this Trumpian narrative, is that the owner of the Japanese tanker says sailors on board saw “flying objects” just before it was hit, which suggests the vessel wasn’t damaged by mines. The Japanese government says the evidence provided so far by the Americans is not “convincing”. The German foreign minister has said the U.S. video is “not enough” to prove Iran did it, though on Tuesday, to be fair, Chancellor Angela Merkel did say she now believes there is “strong evidence” Iran carried out the attacks, which will be music to Trump’s ears.
On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace tried to get some more details, some kind of actual evidence of Iranian involvement, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Chris Wallace: How certain are you that Iran was responsible for these attacks and do you have more evidence that you can share with us?
Mike Pompeo: Well Chris, it’s unmistakable what happened here. These were attacks by the Islamic Republic of Iran on commercial shipping on the freedom of navigation with a clear intent, to deny transit through the strait. This was on the Gulf of Oman side of the Strait of Hormuz. The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it.
MH: “The world will come to see much of it,” says Pompeo. We’re just gonna have to wait and see, and take the Trump administration at its word in the meantime. Yeah, the Trump administration. At its word. But what’s weird is that the same media which debates and discusses the Trump administration’s lies on a daily basis, has no problem taking the administration’s claims on Iran at face value.
Newscaster: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that all options are on the table to counter Iran’s aggression following two attacks on oil tankers on the Gulf of Oman.
Newscaster: President Trump says he will do whatever is necessary to end Iran’s aggressive rhetoric.
Newscaster: Why some say Iran is a growing threat to the United States —
MH: Even Democrats like Congressman Adam Schiff, who have spent the past two years telling us how dishonest Trump is, how he’s a foreign asset, how he can’t be trusted on the international stage, are now echoing his rhetoric on Iran.
Adam Schiff: There’s no question that Iran is behind the attacks. I think the evidence is very strong and compelling.
MH: No question that Iran’s behind the attacks? Sorry, that’s a lie! As I’ve already pointed out, the Japanese shop owner and the German foreign minister are both asking questions about Schiff’s so-called “compelling” evidence.
But, look, sadly, there’s no cost, no penalty, to being a hawk on Iran. Almost everyone’s a hawk on Iran here in Washington DC. As my guest Peter Beinart, the journalist and author, pointed out on this show just last week, the Democrats yes, support the Iran nuclear deal, and oppose escalation, as of right now, but they’ve never really questioned the underlying premise that Iran is a mortal threat to the U.S., and should not be engaged or normalized, in contrast to say Saudi Arabia which is supposedly a friend and ally.
On the subject of hawks and the Trump administration, by the way, we talk a lot about John Bolton, who of course once wrote an op-ed for the New York Times headlined “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” But it isn’t just Bolton: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also a big hawk on Iran and has been for years. Back during the Obama administration, Pompeo called for airstrikes against Iran, suggesting “2,000 sorties” would be enough to end the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
There’s also some of Trump’s outside advisers on Iran, like Senator Tom Cotton, who fantasizes about a new Middle East war. Here he is on Face the Nation on Sunday.
Tom Cotton: What I’m talking about is not like what we’ve seen in Iraq for the last sixteen years or Afghanistan for the last eighteen years. But retaliatory military strikes against Iran that make it clear we will not tolerate any kind of attacks on commercial shipping on the open seas.
MH: Hold on, shouldn’t the Japanese be the ones mounting a “retaliatory” strike? It was their ship! And, also, look, if it turns out that it was an Iranian attack, even then, are U.S. airstrikes really the solution to growing tensions in that part of the world? And on what legal or constitutional basis, can the Trump administration attack Iran over alleged attacks on Emirates or Saudi or Norwegian or Japanese tankers in the Gulf? How do such attacks constitute an attack on the United States? How do they justify what Sen. Tom Cotton ludicrously calls a “retaliatory military strike?” As a headline in the Onion, of all places, put it so well just a few weeks ago, quote: “John Bolton: ‘An Attack On Two Saudi Oil Tankers Is An Attack On All Americans’.”
What worries me is that as we get closer and closer to a conflict with Iran, the media, on both sides of the Atlantic, seems to have learned few lessons from what happened in 2002 and 2003 ahead of the Iraq war. As I pointed out in a recent op-ed for The Intercept, you have the New York Times, CNN and co. still parroting the hawkish claims of unnamed administration officials, still failing to provide context for the 40-year cold war between Washington and Tehran, still getting their facts wrong about Iran’s nuclear program, still providing platforms to the hawks who got Iraq wrong rather than to the doves who got Iraq right.
You even have the same lazy, recycled arguments used to smear opponents of a war with Iran, that were used against opponents of a war in Iraq. I experienced it firsthand when I was back in the UK earlier this week, and I appeared on the BBC’s Politics Live show alongside a right-wing politician called Suzanne Evans, who used to be a senior member of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP. She took great objection to UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn insisting on Twitter that, “Without credible evidence about the tanker attacks, the UK government’s rhetoric will only increase the threat of war.”
Here’s a clip from the show:
Suzanne Evans: Is Jeremy Corbyn, by once again, siding with a left wing, despotic, despotic theocracy actually going to help this matter? It’s reminiscent of the whole Salisbury nerve agent attack —
MH: How is he siding despotic theocracy —
SE: — Goes against Western interests and he goes against British intelligence. Every single time this happens, he sides with the aggressor.
MH: This idea that if you oppose escalation, or if you question evidence, you’re supporting a despotic theocracy is madness. It’s offensive. I feel like we’re in a time machine to 2003.
MH: In 2003, Jeremy Corbyn was siding with despotic Saddam Hussein in your view? He was right about that. Jeremy Hunt and the Tory Party were wrong about that. Danny with respect was wrong about that. So let’s just have some humility before we start talking about the evidence —
MH: Talking of Iraq, and getting in a time machine to revisit how wrong the hawks were back then, about the intel, about the threat, about the ease with which a war would be won, do you remember then Secretary of State Colin Powell and his now-infamous presentation on Iraqi WMDs at the United Nations back in February 2003?
Colin Powell: 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.
MH: It was all bullshit.
MH: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson was Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time. But he later became disillusioned with the whole Iraq misadventure, and the lies that were told, including by his then boss, and has been speaking out against U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East ever since.
Last year he penned an op-ed on Iran for the New York Times headlined: “I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again.”
Lawrence Wilkerson joins me now. Colonel Wilkerson, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
LW: Good to be here.
MH: Let’s start with your New York Times piece from last year published well before these latest tanker attacks, these latest accusations, this latest escalation, you wrote, “It’s astonishing how similar the Trump administration’s methods overall match those of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.” How so?
LW: There are so many similarities, it’s hard to enumerate them all. The most prominent ones to me, though, are the techniques, the methodologies. You had, instead of Paul Wolfowitz’s Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, for example, which fed Dick Cheney with raw intelligence, that was just that, raw. It wasn’t finished at all. You have the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the FDD very astutely moved out of the Pentagon and into the Beltway bandit complex. Doing the same thing though, essentially working with UAE and with Saudi Arabia to provide the administration with intelligence is anything but sound, but fits their policy needs. So that was one similarity. Another similarity was the fact that John Hannah worked at FDD. John Hannah was the man who shadowed me, didn’t leave me for a moment, 24/7 in the six days and nights I prepared Powell’s presentation at the United Nations. In fact, john Hannah had written the WMD portion of that presentation.
MH: He was in the Pentagon?
LW: He was in the Pentagon, yeah. Oh no, at the time, he was actually in Vice President Cheney’s office.
MH: What would you say to those who say the big difference this time is that Bush clearly wanted war? Does Trump clearly want war with Iran?
LW: I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure George W. Bush, and my book is going to reflect this truly wanted war he was looking for something to do that would assure him re-election in 2004. And that would put to rest the bugaboo of his father’s mistake in his mind of not taking out Saddam Hussein. But he wasn’t necessarily looking forward imminently as it came after 9/11. Dick Cheney was and that’s what influenced George W. Bush.
MH: So then there is this parallel again that Trump is looking for reelection.
MH: He’s tweeted in the past that Obama would attack Iran in order to get re-elected, which shows how his mind works. And his own bugaboo is Obama he wants to do the opposite of whatever Obama did. It’s one of the reasons he tore up the nuclear deal. And his Dick Cheney is who? John Bolton, Mike Pompeo.
LW: John Bolton and Mike Pompeo look a lot like the characters from the Bush administration, with Pompeo being the sycophant and Bolton being the leader.
MH: So we’ll come back to that in a moment. Just in terms of the news this week, what do you make of the U.S. government’s claim that Iran attacked these tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week, that their intel says it was Iran, that video evidence shows it was the Iranian Revolutionary Guard? What’s your response to that?
LW: I’ve used intelligence as a military professional and a diplomat for almost half a century and I wouldn’t believe any of it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true in certain respects, but I wouldn’t believe any of it, as they’ve presented it, just as the Prime Minister of Japan didn’t believe it, or Germany, believe it. The credibility of United States on intelligence is really low right now, as some of us predicted it would be. I see it as either a tactical tit for tat by Iran, if in fact, Iran had any hand in any of this at all. That is to say we’ve provoked them to the maximum and were I Tehran, I’d be doing something back too to show you can’t provoke me to the maximum without me responding.
MH: So it’s funny you say that, you know, there’s no evidence and clearly they haven’t provided evidence. The video has been questioned heavily. Just to be clear, when I saw that video, going back to 2003, again, I did think of Colin Powell at the UN with the whole vial and the powder and the anthrax and all of that stuff. Just to be clear, when you say you don’t believe raw intelligent straight up as it’s presented, at the time Colin Powell gave that UN presentation, where you fully on board with it? Did you, at the time, believe that the CIA and then CIA boss, George Tenet — who was sitting behind Powell during that presentation, famously — do you believe the CIA had produced enough clear intel to justify his presentation on Iraqi WMDs? Or did you have your doubts, even then?
LW: I had doubts, but at the moment, they were dispelled by the fact that I was sitting amongst, as well as Powell, the representative, the Director of Central Intelligence of the 16 entities in the U.S. intelligence community at that time, all of whom were in consensus except our own, at State, on the nuclear problem. They were in consensus on the chemical weapons and biological and so forth capability. So, I was overwhelmed to a certain extent. I’m not trying to rationalize.
MH: Overwhelmed? As you say, there were intelligence analysts in your own State Department, Greg Thielmann and others who are questioning the evidence.
LW: Yes, the biggest mistake I made was when Powell walked into my office and handed me the package and I said, I’m not doing this boss, I’m resigning. And I wrote my letter of resignation out. My wife talked me out of it that night. I came back to do yet another monumental task that he had assigned me at the last minute. But I said to him, once I’d accepted the mission, I need Carl Ford or Tom Fingar from our own bureau of intelligence to go over there with me and he would not let me. His excuse was I have them, they’re mine. I can get their view anytime. I was stupid. I should have taken one of them with me so I could have contested George Tenet with some real intelligence professionals.
MH: Given we know that the Cheney’s and the Rumsfeld’s wanted war and the Wolfowitz’s but Powell played a crucial role in giving international cover and blessing at the UN. That was a crucial meeting. How personally responsible do you feel for all the bloodshed and instability in Iraq and the wider region over the past sixteen years?
LW: I’ll go to my grave regretting the death of every soldier and sailor, marine and airmen in Iraq and the civilians.
MH: And Iraqi civilians!
LW: Three hundred thousand or so plus civilians and millions that have been displaced. But let me say one other thing too. The essence of what Powell did was connect al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein.
MH: Which was absurd.
LW: Yeah, the rest of that presentation was really circumstantial crap. But the connection of al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein resonated with the American people.
MH: And was perhaps the biggest lie of all. And we’re seeing it again now. Pompeo is claiming, just as they claimed that secular Saddam was in bed with kind of fanatical theocratic al Qaeda, today, we’re being told that Shia Islamist Iran is in bed with Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
MH: They’re briefed members of Congress saying that we can use the AUMF after 9/11 to go after Iran.
LW: Yeah, both of those points are preposterous, Al Qaeda and Iran have no real substantive contact and two, that is not covered under the authorization.
MH: I think anyone with a brain and the ability to read knows that. So, given the similarities, in terms of the people involved, in terms of the arguments being deployed, in terms of the reliance on, I think it’s fair to say, shaky intelligence and video evidence, what advice do you have for the U.S. media covering this escalation, this military buildup in the Gulf and the ratcheting up of U.S. government and UK Government again, rhetoric on Iran?
LW: First point I’d tell them is grow some cojones. You are not speaking truth to power. You are more or less doing exactly what you did in 2002 and three. You’re going along with the administration’s lies. You’re magnifying those lies, in many cases. Challenge them, go after them, do like, what was it Knight Ridder Jonathan Landday and Warren Strobel? Do like that media source did during the Iraq War, question everything turns out they were right.
MH: How complicit do you think the U.S. media were in the 2003 Iraqi invasion?
LW: I think they were very complicit. I know that Dick Cheney would take raw intelligence, feed it to The New York Times, The New York Times would then print it front page above the fold right side and Cheney would then cite is as verified.
MH: He did. He did it on Meet the Press, I remember with the Niger stuff and other things. And what’s so ironic, when we look at the situation today is that Barack Obama’s much maligned diplomacy produced a nuclear deal that put limits on Iran’s nuclear program, whereas Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign has an Iran which now says it’s going to up its enrichment activities, and which, according to the U.S. administration, is bombing tankers in the Gulf.
MH: Complete — I mean, how is this not obvious to anyone again, with a brain?
LW: Well, we’ve got 330 million Americans 280 million of whom I’m convinced, are ignorant, apathetic, fearful, etc, etc. And you tell them anything, and they’ll believe it. And if you give them the politics of fear, as a daily food, they will believe you. They will go along with you.
MH: The public is pretty anti-war. We saw that before the Iraq war. We see the polls now even Trump voters I don’t think want a new conflict in the Middle East. Do you think that Trump and the people who do want war in DC will be able to get the American public on board for another war?
LW: I think they will try at least those — and I’m not putting the president in this yet because I don’t think the president wants war — but the circle around him does. And those influencing that circle Netanyahu, Sayed, and Salman want war or want something done with regard to Tehran that reduces their power in the world’s eyes.
MH: When you say — I hear people give this on the left and the right, give Trump I would call a bit of a pass on this, when you say doesn’t want war. That may or may not be true. We don’t know. It’s very hard to get inside Trump’s mind. We know an army of psychiatrist should really get in there soon. But what I would say is this, you can’t give them a pass on Bolton. You can’t say he doesn’t want war when he’s the man who appointed John Bolton as a national security adviser against the advice of a lot of military and government officials. He appointed Mike Pompeo. He appointed General Flynn at the time.
LW: What he’s doing with Bolton is he’s using Bolton, in my mind, and I know this is giving him some credit that I probably wouldn’t on any other issue. But he’s using Bolton as the spearhead of his effort to bring maximum pressure which he thinks as with Kim Jong-Un is going to produce a talk with top —
MH: And in his narcissistic world view, his arrogance, he thinks “I can control Bolton.”
MH: That’s not necessarily the case. But he does have this history of — You know, one thing he’s been consistent on is hawkish about Iran. Like you know, as you mentioned, North Korea, we said on the show before, he’s happy to talk about love letters with Kim and summits with Kim and all of that stuff. With Iran, from the campaign till now, he’s been almost completely consistently hawkish from when he said during the campaign, he’d tear up the Iran deal, which is one of the few promises he kept, to appointing hawk after hawk after hawk on Iran, if nothing else. So, let’s just get to the meat of this. What would a war between the United States and Iran, God forbid, look like? It would be very different to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, wouldn’t it?
LW: It’d be horrible. I did the war planning for meeting the Russians in Iran as they invaded Afghanistan, and we thought they were coming south. I know that terrain. I know the Zagros mountains. I know what it’s like to try and war plan for that terrain. It would be horrible. Four times almost the size of Iraq, 80 million, not 26 million people, homogeneity to the population that Iraq certainly didn’t have, 51 percent Persian. Terrain, as I said, that’s just inhospitable, almost killed Alexander the Great, for example. This would be a vicious, long-term guerrilla campaign waged by the Iranians over 10 or 15 years. And at the end of it, it would look about like Iraq did in 2011. And it would cost $2 trillion and lots of lives and more than anything else, it would require at least a half a million troops. No allies are going to join us.
MH: That’s for a ground invasion. But what about airstrikes?
LW: Here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to have airstrikes, selective, and you’re not going to do anything except drive them underground, and the weapon will be built even quicker.
MH: So I get that most Americans don’t know anything about Hezbollah, don’t know anything about the IRGC. The President himself, I’m sure can barely tell the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah —
LW: Probably can’t spell it.
MH: Definitely can’t spell it and probably can’t tell the difference. But someone like John Colton, right, who, for all his sins, is clearly not a dumb man. He’s never served in the military. Do you think he understands how serious, how potentially catastrophic a conflict with Iran would be? I never quite get Bolton. Is it that he knows and doesn’t care? Or is he blissfully ignorant and unaware? You worked alongside —
LW: It’s the former. Jim Kelly and I, Assistant Secretary for East Asian Pacific went into his office in 2002 and he was making comments that the White House didn’t like about North Korea. We should go to war with North Korea. And we gave him, I gave him what would happen in South Korea, we’d win, yes. But he’d be a Pyrrhic victory. We’d have 100,000 casualties in the first 30 days. Seoul would be aflame. And guess what, John? At that point, there were about 150,000 Americans in South Korea, not to mention Chinese, Japanese and others. Now there are over 230,000 Americans. John was oblivious to that. He actually said back to me and Jim Kelly, “You guys do the war. I don’t do war.” That’s John’s view.
MH: He just starts them. Wow, that’s depressing and scary. What is at the core? You’ve been around on the scene for a while. You were working with Colin Powell back when he was National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, back when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George Bush Sr. What is at the core do you think of this 40-year animosity, this cold war between the U.S. and Iran? Because the U.S. has a lot of opponents. There’s the China’s, the North Korea’s, the Russia’s, the adversaries on the international stage. But no one, nothing compares to this kind of loathing, fear, hatred, obsession with Iran in this town, in Washington, DC.
LW: It’s very complex. And it’s not just this, but it is composed of a lot of this. They pushed our man down, the Shah. They took our people hostage for 444 days. They entombed a president in the White House, Jimmy Carter. They cost him the election etc, etc. The Iranians have never been punished. That’s the way a lot of these people —
LW: — And by the way, that’s the way John Bolton looks at it.
MH: That they got away with it.
LW: They got away with it. And no one should get away with tweaking the great empire.
MH: And yet, Donald Trump, North Korea, lots of bad blood there, a long, long unfinished war, the Korean War never finished. Thousands of American troops out there and yet, Donald Trump can get away with talking about love letters.
LW: Look at South Korea, economic miracle and largely because of Americans stand up to the Soviets during the Korean war.
MH: When you look at North Korea, when you look at the leadership of North Korea, Donald Trump can get away with having two summits with them. I can’t imagine Donald Trump or Barack Obama having a summit with Rouhani of Iran, President of Iran.
LW: Well, Kim Jong-un wanted those summits. He wanted to sit down and be blessed by the U.S. president. The situation in Korea on the peninsula is getting worse and worse every minute that we speak. Donald Trump has not solved it.
MH: You make a good point. The Iranians don’t want that meeting. They’re not interested in a blessing from Donald Trump. When I interviewed Bernie Sanders on foreign policy a couple years ago, he talked about shifting away from seeing automatically the Saudis as friends and allies and the Iranians as mortal enemies. Is that a view you share? Can you do what he said? Is that possible in this town? Can you do a reset?
LW: I think Obama was trying to do it and look what happened. As weekly as he tried —
MH: He asked them to share the neighborhood, I remember was the phrase he used.
LW: As weakly as he tried, lacking of moral and political courage as he was, he nonetheless tried and look at what’s happened. This is partly a reaction to that attempt. And it’s a reaction by the Saudis and the Israelis, as well as by America.
MH: They felt unloved by Obama even though he sold them more weaponry than any previous president. He dared to do a nuclear deal.
MH: — With Tehran. It’s almost cultish, the obsession with taking down Iran. Peter Beinart was on the show last week. And he made the point that you know, the Democrats, yes, they’ve said they’re going to rejoin the nuclear deal. Yes, they’ve some of them have said they’re opposed to this current escalation. But they don’t question the underlying premise at the core of this debate, which is Iran is this big, bad Boogeyman, evil country threatening the United States. I think Kamala Harris said this week in a video for the New York Times that Iran — she said somewhere this week — that Iran is a threat to the United States. And you have to ask the question, where does that come from?
LW: It comes from a visceral feeling that Saudi Arabia is as bad as it is, 750 billion dollars invested in the United States and Iran is not —
MH: And it’s our son of a bitch to borrow Truman’s formula.
LW: Exactly, from Roosevelt’s meeting with Assad on forward it’s been this poisonous relationship. Never hasn’t been so poisonous as it is today.
MH: Is that what you believe? You believe American-Iranian relations today are worse?
LW: No, I’m talking about U.S.-Saudi relationships are just poisonous, and they’re ruining everything we’re trying to do in the region.
MH: During your time in the Bush administration working for General Powell, you were involved not just in the run up to the Iraq war, but also in the wake of that invasion there was this, it’s not discussed very often, there was this Iranian offer to normalize relations with the U.S., so-called grand bargain. Tell us what happened, how that offer came in and why it didn’t get anywhere.
LW: This is a very strange set of circumstances. Trita Parsi’s covered it partially but we actually sent a non-paper their way. Richard Haas on the policy planning staff passed it through Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, no indicia on it, a non-paper, we sent it their way with what we would want to talk about. They then respond and send back a non-paper that says —
MH: This is after the invasion of Iraq in 2003?
LW: Yes, yes, this is when we were cooperating in Afghanistan. And we get it and even Bill Burns, NEA Assistant Secretary of State —
MH: What did the Iranians say they were up for doing?
LW: They said these are the items we’d like to talk about. We know yours and these are the things we’d like to talk about.
MH: What was the potential common ground?
LW: Almost everything on the list that we’d want to talk about and that they’d want to talk about. Now could it have been achieved?
MH: Nuclear issues, support for quote-unquote terrorist groups.
LW: It was the whole ball of wax. And granted, it was a non-paper. Well, Bill Burns and others argues, Condi argued, she at first said she didn’t even see it. She certainly did. They argued that this was not a serious offer, and that it had been “embellished by the Europeans.”
MH: Who were the intermediaries because you have no direct connection to Tehran.
LW: And my boss is sitting there with Dick Cheney fighting him on North Korea, fighting him on China, fighting him on every other major issue, and he just didn’t want to spend the political capital on this particular issue. So he took Bill’s word Condi’s word, and he said, okay, so it’s not a serious offer. I think it was a serious offer.
MH: And you didn’t respond, did you?
LW: We didn’t, we didn’t respond.
MH: You just ignored it?
LW: We treated it as if it were nothing.
MH: Sixteen years ago, there could have been a breakthrough well before Obama.
LW: But no one wanted a breakthrough, especially Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney stymied the functional statutory decision-making process for four years of my administration, when I was there, by simply not letting Iran come up for a policy decision, and it never did.
MH: One of the things the Iranians in that letter said they wanted to do with was the MEK, this kind of cultish Iranian opposition group, which has been trying to bring down the Iranian regime for a long time. It was on the American list of banned terrorist organizations for a long while, because it killed Americans in the Middle East. It worked with Saddam Hussein. And was that something that the American government would have considered in 2003?
LW: I don’t think so. In 2003, we were essentially trying to box them up and disarm them in Iraq, as a matter of fact. So, we were treating them as what I think they truly are a cult that does some very, very bad stuff.
MH: And yet everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Howard Dean to John Bolton has all spoken at MEK rallies, given talks, taken money from them.
LW: Yep, go to Paris, get refurbished, and then pay Americans $30 to $50,000. a hit for talking.
MH: And that’s part of this equation that we don’t hear enough about. When we talk about the road to war, it’s not just the Saudis and the Emirates and the Israelis, not just the neo-conservatives with their ideology, but it’s also good old fashioned cash coming in from a lobby group, a foreign lobby group.
LW: Yeah, and you’re talking about the equivalent in many respects of Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress.
MH: Another parallel, those were Iraqi exiles who are pushing Paul Wolfowitz and co. into intervention. On the intelligence front, when you say that you’ve looked at raw intelligence and not trusted it, we have big debates about intelligence in many conflicts. Is there a worry? Is there a danger? Because you’ve been criticized for this and I just want to get your response, that when you distrust the U.S. government or the UK government, which you should, everyone should. I’m a journalist, I definitely should. The danger is that in this age of social media and conspiracy theories, you go from one extreme to another. So you go from saying, I’m not sure Assad, for example, carried out a chemical attack, to going to the other extreme and saying, as you have said, well it was a false flag, may have been carried out by the Israelis. Do you regret saying stuff like that?
LW: I do not. What I look at, after years and years, half a century, almost of using intelligence at every level, tactical, operational and strategic, is who gave me the intelligence? If it’s the analyst at the desk, who speaks the language of the region, who knows the region, who understands the players in the region, I’m going to trust him. But if it leaves that analysts and goes through all the bosses and gets up to the director of central Intelligence or whatever, I’m going to question him because he’s going to mold it to the policy purpose.
MH: I get that but why not show the same skepticism for some of you know, we have a lot of, as you know, lobby groups — Take a conflict like Syria, where there’s so many outside actors, why not distrust all sides? Why go from one extreme of saying, “Okay, I don’t trust the CIA on gas attacks to saying but I do trust Assad?
LW: There’s a really simple answer to that. It’s complex in its intonations, but it’s very simple. If that intelligence is going to cause U.S. forces to die and bleed in combat, the U.S. to deploy military force, I’m going to be very skeptical of that intelligence. Either way, very skeptical.
MH: What are the odds right now, how worried are you right now that we could see a war with Iran this side of the 2020 presidential election?
LW: As I said, I don’t think Trump wants it. But I’d say right now, we have at least a 50/50 chance because the people around Trump do want it.
MH: And what is your advice to Democrats who might want to try and stop Trump from going to war?
LW: Democrats need to get their act together. They’re so in such disarray right now, including Pelosi, the leader in the House where they do have some power. They need to get their act together. And they need to do things like not just talk about prohibiting the president from using military force against Iran without congressional authorization. They need to scare the bejesus out of him if there’s any way to do that, and say, “We will cut everything off immediately if you use force against Iran without our permission.” And then they need to think hard about whether or not they’re going to give permission.
MH: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
LW: Thanks for having me.
MH: That was Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell during the Iraq War, issuing a very blunt message to the Democrats. They need to step up their game. They need to get their act together. They need to help stop this rush to war with Iran that we’re in the midst of right now. They need to put pressure on Donald Trump. Wilkerson does not think Trump wants war, whether he does or not, who knows? But he says the Democrats need to put pressure on him to stop this rush to war.
Last week on the show, I talked to Peter Beinart about how the Democrats are just not radical enough, the Democratic presidential candidates that is. They’re just not radical enough on foreign policy. They haven’t shifted to the left on foreign policy in the same way that they have on domestic policy, on health care, on taxes, etc.
Some of you actually wrote in — and we always appreciate listeners writing in — some of you wrote in to say, well, how come I didn’t mention Tulsi Gabbard, who is the representative from Hawaii, who is also running for president and will be on the debate stage next week. Because she says she’s very anti-regime change and she is. She’s been very vocal about not going to war with Iran, about Americans not getting involved in Syria. She’s been very anti-regime change wars. Do I think she’s anti-war across the board? No, not really. If you look at her commentary, she’s actually quite pro-bombing anyone who’s “al Qaeda or ISIS,” and she has some very dodgy ties to some far right authoritarian governments, like the government of India’s. But I’d love to chat and discuss and debate all this with Tulsi Gabbard. We’ve reached out to her, invited on the show. She’s declined our invitation. If that changes, you’ll all be the first to know.
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback on any subject, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!
Next week is the final show of the season. It’s going to be a special on the Democratic presidential debates. It’ll be coming out Friday morning, not Thursday morning. Friday morning after both debates have concluded with lots of reaction and commentary from me and my guests. See you then.