Iran, and our not so distant past with Iraq / Colonel Wilkerson

September 10, 2019

From Georgetown University, this is Voices on Islamophobia, a podcast by the Bridge Initiative. I’m Hannah Sullivan. Since May 2019, the United States has experienced heightened tensions with Iran. Following a dispute over an attack on commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman on May 12th, President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged threats and hostile remarks. On June 20th, President Trump reported that he had called off planned air strikes in Iran hours before they were supposed to take place:

[President Trump]: We had something ready to go, subject to my approval. And they came in and they said, “Sir, we’re about ready to go.” 

[NBC Reporter Chuck Todd]: Were planes in the air? Were planes in the air?

[President Trump]: No, no. We were about ready to go. No, but they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you couldn’t turn back. 

Since this event, the U.S. and Iranian leadership have continued to exchange hostilities. Foreign policy analysts have warned that these interactions could quickly lead to the use of military force, or even a war between the U.S. and Iran. 

My guest today is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. After retiring from 31 years in the U.S. Army, Colonel Wilkerson served as Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005. He is a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary, and he is also an Advisory Board Member at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Colonel Wilkerson has spoken out against the Trump Administration’s discourse on Iran in light of his own experiences in the Bush Administration. In 2003, Colonel Wilkerson was responsible for preparing the presentation that Colin Powell delivered to the United Nations Security Council, which alleged that the U.S. had evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program and Iraq’s ties to Al Qaeda, evidence that later proved to be based on false intelligence. Colonel Wilkerson has criticized the Iraq War and his role at the State Department, and has warned that the escalating tensions we see with Iran mirror our not-so-distant past with Iraq. 

In today’s interview, I discuss with Colonel Wilkerson his opinions on the Trump Administration’s Iran rhetoric, his reflections on his time working in the Bush Administration, and Islamophobia in the military. 

Hannah Sullivan: Colonel Wilkerson, thank you so much for speaking with me this afternoon. It’s a real pleasure.

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson: Thank you for having me. 

HS: In several recent interviews, you warned that the same tactics that the U.S. used against Iraq are being used today against Iran. What are these tactics, exactly?

LW: I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, as a matter of fact, in that regard. There are a number of things that are just like deja vu all over again. We have John Bolton, who was one of the biggest advocates from the State Department for war with Iran, now is the National Security Advisor. And anyone who says he’s not advocating war with Iran has not been listening to him lately. You have Mike Pompeo over at the State Department who is even more adamant about Iran’s perfidy and its crimes and its ravages in the world than Colin Powell was about Saddam Hussein at the time. And go back and look at it: Saddam Hussein was vilified by Colin Powell too. So, you have an administration today that is as apparently intent on going to war with Iran as my administration was on going to war with Iraq, and employing many of the same people–John Bolton, John Hannah–as well as the same technique. Particularly, politicization of intelligence: taking raw intelligence and bending it to the purposes of the policy.  

HS: What about what’s being said by President Trump in regard to Iran? Are you noticing similarities between what’s being said today and what was said by President Bush at the time about Iraq?

LW: I’d have to say that President Bush was pretty consistent with regard to Iraq. Donald Trump has nothing that he’s consistent about, except trying to please his base. So it’s extremely difficult to answer that question. He’s just all over the place. I’m very happy that he called off the strike on Iran. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but I’m very happy. I did not expect that. 

HS: What is different about what is being said about Iran today from what was said about Iraq in 2003?

LW: I think the level of the threat, with regard to Iraq–although it was hyped incredibly–is even more so with regard to Iran. And when you look at the fact that Iran–without a nuclear weapon now, and they don’t have one–presents absolutely no threat to the United States of America– there is no way Iran presents a threat to the U.S., and yet, look at what’s being said by Netanyahu, by Mohammad bin Salman, Mohammed bin Zayed, by Trump, by Bolton, by Pompeo. It’s as if they are an existential threat to the United States. 

And here’s an irony: Under President Obama in the nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and the permanent members of the Security Council, Germany, the European Union, and the U.S., of course, that threat that could be existential for the United States–nuclear weapons–was abated, at least abated for 15, possibly 25 years, given the NPT, the additional protocol, the safeguard agreement and everything else, all of which Iran had agreed to. Now we’re out of that. Now we’re out of that and Iran is threatening to go back to enriching uranium beyond the allowed limits and so forth and so on. We’re actually cutting down on the warning time we’d have for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. So we’ve created a situation that is more dangerous, and we’re using that as an excuse to go to war, which is nonsense.

HS: Based on what we’re seeing today, do you think that the Trump Administration is trying to sell a war with Iran to the American people, and possibly to the global population?

LW: I think they’ve given up on the global population. The pushback from Paris, Berlin, London, everywhere has been pretty substantial. I think if we started a war with Iran, we would have no allies at all. We would be extremely isolated, which is one of my concerns. This is not going to be Iraq. Iran is a much more difficult puzzle than Iraq was. And we would do it alone. Absolutely alone. That would mean full mobilization; we’d probably have to go back to a draft–this is if we invaded. I hope no one is thinking about that.

So this is a very dangerous situation. And more dangerous because we have a president who is inexperienced, and to get to your question, I don’t think wants a war. I don’t think he wants a war with Iran. What he wants is a new deal. He wants to sit down with Rouhani and Zarif and get a new deal. He doesn’t want a war. But look at what’s right around him, and look what’s in the region in terms of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These are all forces trying to push him into war. All you need is some incident in the Gulf that leads to his having to bomb Iran in order to look strong to his base, and it’s all over. You’ve done it.

HS: Based on all of the circumstances you just mentioned, do you think it’s at all likely that the U.S. could enter a war with Iran?

LW: I do. I think the chances right now are probably 60-40 through the rest of this year: 60-40 for the war. 

HS: Through the rest of 2019?

LW: Yeah. As we grow closer to the election, the chances could go up dramatically as he might try to use going to war to continue his presidency. After all, the American people don’t usually vote a president out in the middle of a war. Or, it could dampen the chances majorly if he calculates that he can get elected if he doesn’t go to war, because most Americans don’t want a war, and proceeds accordingly and puts Bolton and Pompeo and others in the closet and says, “No. I’m not going to war.”

HS: When we return, Colonel Wilkerson reflects on his role as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

[Music Interlude]

HS: On February 5th 2003, Colin Powell delivered a presentation to the United Nations Security Council alleging that the U.S. had evidence of Saddam Hussein’s concealed weapons program and ties to Al Qaeda. 

[Colin Powell]: When we confront a regime that 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.

HS: The evidence that Powell presented about Saddam Hussein’s weapons program and Iraq’s supposed ties to Al Qaeda proved to be incorrect, due to false intelligence. Colin Powell has referred to this address as a blot on his record. 

[Music Interlude]

HS: I’d like to talk about your experiences with the U.S. War in Iraq. As Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, you helped prepare his presentation to the UN in February 2003, in which he laid out the rationale for a war with Iraq. What was your role in preparing this presentation?

LW: Well first, guilty as charged. I essentially was the technical manager. I put the entire thing together. I had a lot of help–I had the White House Audiovisual Team, for example, the best in the country. So I was sort of the guy who orchestrated the technical aspects and put the whole presentation together. I regret it. I will regret it to my grave. I wish I’d resigned. 

HS: And could you tell me a little bit more about the circumstances? How did you come to be involved in that particular presentation?

LW: He walked into my office in January of 2003, late January, and he said, “L.W., I’ve got a mission for you. I’ve got to go to the U.N. and make the presentation on Saddam’s failure to disarm” — that’s what we called it. “Here’s a 48-page script from the White House” — that’s the one John Hannah wrote — “on weapons of mass destruction. You’ll get a 25-page script from the C.I.A. from Phil Mudd” — the counterterrorism guy for George Tenet. “It’ll talk about [Saddam Hussein’s] connection with terrorists, like Al Qaeda. And you’re going to get a 10 or 11-page from here in State, DRL (Democracy, Human Rights and Labor) on his human rights violations. You’re going to kludge all that together for me in no more than an hour or so presentation that I’ve gotta give.”

And I say, “Boss. When?” 

He said, “5 February.”

I said, “No way. I’m out of here. I quit” (laughs). 

Because at that point, I thought, there was no way I thought I could do it. He had done this to me too many times. He had come in and given me a mission impossible and told me, “Go do it,” you know? And I was tired of it. And I essentially told him no. And I talked to my wife and she said, “You can’t abandon him now. He’s the only person in the administration who cares. You can’t.” 

And so I reconsidered. I put my resignation letter to the President in my middle drawer of my desk, and went ahead and did what I had to do. I’m not saying I objected to what I was going to do at that time on policy grounds. I objected to it because I thought it was impossible. 

HS: What was it like watching Powell deliver the presentation you prepared? 

LW: After he had given the presentation in the U.N. Security Council with me sitting off to the side, I remember thinking, “This is the first time actually that I’ve heard this presentation from start to finish without an interruption.” Because everything had been rehearsal before. And we had many interruptions, usually. And I got out of my seat–it was a fairly cold day in New York–I went out on 42nd Street, as I recall, and I just walked up and down the street with a cold breeze in my face. I hadn’t slept but about six hours in seven days. And I thought to myself, “The reason that was a powerful presentation has nothing to do with a hodgepodge of circumstantial evidence that Colin gave, and everything to do with the fact that Colin Powell’s credibility with the American people and the international community is probably better than anyone else’s in the world. Except Mother Teresa. As a matter of fact, Mother Teresa’s poll ratings were about 78, 80% and his were about 72%. So he had the highest poll ratings of any politician in the world. And I thought to myself, “Jeez. This is terrible. We just got used.” 

And I think that in retrospect, I think that’s exactly what we did. We were used because of his poll ratings and his credibility. 

That said, had he not given that presentation, had I resigned and someone else taken my place (they would have, immediately) — [or] had he not given that presentation — had he resigned — someone else would have given it, and we would have gone to war anyway. So people who say —  and this is no cop-out on my part — but people who say, had Colin resigned that the war never would have happened, just don’t understand the American government. President Bush would have still gone to war with a new Secretary of State — probably Dr. Rice…who was sitting in the wings going, “Ooh, I see the prize.” She wanted to be Secretary of State. Badly. 

HS: Before the presentation was delivered, did you have a sense of what the implications of that speech could be? 

LW: Well, I knew…first of all, the President was going to go to war, period. But I knew that probably the American people, if not the international community, would be persuaded to an extent that the support from the American people would be stronger, because it was Powell doing it. And incidentally, the most powerful words in his presentation in that regard, I knew from polls later, was his connection of Al Qaeda and 9/11 with Saddam Hussein, which was absolutely a false connection, I found out six months later. I found out that the place the CIA got that information was from Egyptian interrogators who tortured the Libyan Shaikh al-Libi in Egypt with no U.S. personnel present. A week after al-Libi supposedly talked about the connections, he recanted, saying he would’ve said anything to stop the torture. And the Defense Intelligence Agency at that time, learning of that recantation, put a burn notice out on that intelligence. George Tenet did not tell Secretary Powell about that burn notice. George Tenet used that testimony of that individual being tortured as evidence to Powell to keep in his presentation the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. That was a series of lies that the Secretary of State was told. And polls reflect that that was the most powerful part of his presentation — as you might imagine, because Americans were still thinking back to 9/11. 

HS: What was your reaction when you found out that that evidence was fabricated? 

LW: I was furious. That wasn’t the only thing. In August of that year, I talked to the CIA head in Europe, Tyler Drumheller, and he informed that he had seen a copy of Powell’s projected presentation. And he had picked up the phone and called the deputy DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) John McLaughlin and George Tenet and told them both, “Take that out,” because it was unreliable information. They deny ever having gotten a telephone call, and they deny ever having been told that that was unreliable information. I think that’s another lie.  

HS: You’ve expressed regret for the role you played in selling the Iraq war to the American people in numerous interviews and op-eds. Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?

LW: Well, for my own sanity, I would’ve resigned. If I have a singular, powerful regret, it is that I didn’t resign. My wife thinks I’m blaming her in that regard, but I’m not. That’s all on me. 

HS: Something we see in our research at Bridge is that in today’s political climate, anti-Muslim animus has come into the mainstream. Did the War on Terror play a role in constructing the 

heightened anti-Muslim climate we see today?

LW: No question about it. The American people are…I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but they’re not the most knowledgeable people on the face of the earth. We have really fallen off a cliff in terms of public education, and so forth. It’s a long story. If you’ve got that kind of electorate, if you’ve got people who really aren’t knowledgeable, it’s easy to scare them to death. And put 9/11 in the picture, put a potential repeat of 9/11, God forbid with a nuclear weapon, and it’s not hard to revive that fear. It’s not hard to play what I call the politics of fear; it’s a very powerful weapon.

And so people who talk about Sharia law coming to Kansas. People who talk about Muslims being bloody-minded and brutal, they get a lot of attention. They get a lot of people to listen to them, and they get a lot of people to respond. And so yeah, Islamophobia for someone like Frank Gaffney, funded by various and sundry people, to millions of dollars, is an easy thing to spread. 

HS: When we return, I talk to Colonel Wilkerson about Islamophobia in the military, and his experiences as an Advisory Board member of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. 

[Music Interlude]

HS: Currently, you serve on the advisory board of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the MRFF. Can you tell me about the mission of the MRFF?

LW: Basically, it’s to help enforce the constitution, and in particular the separation of church and state part of the constitution in the military, in the armed forces. 

HS: And what does the MRFF do specifically to protect freedom of religion in the military?

LW: We take every case that comes in to us, and we win some and we lose some. 

HS: We’ve talked a little bit about the politics of fear in U.S. politics, but what about within the military itself? Have you ever witnessed examples of Islamophobia through your involvement with MRFF?

LW: I have to the extent that we know there are people who are pushing the Dominionist message so strongly that Muslim soldiers email us and tell us. But usually they don’t call it Islamophobia; they call it bias. Because [the individuals pushing the Dominionist message] are trying to get them to convert. They’re actually trying to get the Muslims to convert to their version of Jesus Christ. And so that’s what makes them feel pressured. And when the chain of command seems to condone it, whether it’s the platoon sergeant, or the squad leader, or their platoon leader, or even worse, in some cases, a brigadier general who happens to be their group commander or assistant division commander, or in one instance, the division commander himself, a two-star general…then it’s even more powerful, because then it bears the imprimatur of the establishment, of the government, of the chain of command. And they feel obligated to do what it is they’re being told to do, because their career will be ruined if they don’t. That’s when they usually write us.

The fact that they write us, and that they write us so frequently, tells you something about the chain of command. They can’t get satisfaction from the chain of command. They can’t go to their leaders and say, “This is happening to me; it’s wrong. Will you please take care of it?” because most of time, the leader is either going to say, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” or he’s going to be one of the group. 

HS: Would there be repercussions if someone were to go to their chain of command with kind of complaint?

LW: We have had clients who have come to us only after the repercussions took place, after they were punished. We have a young lady out right now, in one unit, I can’t talk about names or anything, but she was accosted by her chain of command because she had her headdress (hijab) on, and her chain of command demanded that she take it off, right there, on the spot, and then alleged she had her hair wrong. 

Well, the question rose immediately: How did you know that I had my hair wrong and not according to regulation, if it was under my headscarf? Well, the woman who did it said, “I just knew.” Well, her commander and her chain of command has supported that now. So they have effected Article 15 punishment — non-judicial punishment — against this young lady. She has lost her rank and she is now a pariah of her unit, rather than an upstanding soldier like she was before. All because these people wanted to take action against her. I think they wanted to, based on what I’ve seen so far, because they didn’t like Muslims. And probably because she rebuffed them when they tried to recruit her to the ranks of Dominionist Christians. 

HS: What does the MRFF do with a case like this?

LW: Prosecute it to the hilt, as far as we can. We have a law firm in Dallas that will bring a lawsuit against the DoD. It’ll bring a lawsuit against the people who were involved in the incident.

HS: Is it a discrimination lawsuit?

LW: Yes, yes. In this case, I think at this point the military has closed ranks behind the leadership that did this and we are at a stasis right now; we’re at a standoff. And I’m sad to say, we’ve noticed a distinct difference in DoD’s willingness to take the correct action since President Trump and Vice President Pence were put in office than before. And Pence in particular seems to be very protective, and very zealous, of making Christianity the national religion, as a matter of fact.  

HS: What are the implications of the increasing number of Evangelical Christian chaplains in the military?

LW: It would be very prejudicial to good order and discipline because we are diverse. I mean, we are diverse. I mean it really is a diverse military. Not just gays, lesbians, transsexuals (even though Trump has tried to ban them, they’re still there, of course), women, men, all manner of religious beliefs, atheists, agnostics. I mean, it’s just truly diverse. And maintaining that diversity is maintaining strength. Fighting that diversity or trying to proselytize it or trying to make it conform to a particularly virulent brand of Christianity is very prejudicial to morale and discipline. So that’s the real reason the MRFF exists, trying to combat that. 

HS: Earlier you said that the War on Terror has played a key role in advancing the heightened Islamophobia we see in today’s political climate. Have you ever witnessed examples of anti-Muslim tropes or Islamophobic anecdotes being used to train or motivate military personnel?

LW: I’ve not witnessed them myself, but I’ve had platoon leaders and platoon sergeants tell me about such events. In one case, it was actually a practicing Muslim platoon leader who told me about it. And it involved some Christian troops within his platoon who more or less let him know what they thought about him. And it involved superiors above him essentially doing nothing about it. So that’s a raw case of it. 

I’ve seen evidence of it in some of the traffic that’s come into the MRFF. If I were in the forces still, I’d probably have more evidence of it, uphand, up close, anecdotal evidence of it. 

But I sense that the real problem with regard to Islamophobia is more out in the hustings, out in the country. And that’s where we recruit. So you may be building it in future recruits who incidentally are getting harder and harder to enlist. In fact, polls are showing that the post-Gen-Xers have no proclivity to be recruited at all. So the military services are really frightened of what’s coming at them. The army failed to make its recruitment goal by almost 14,000 this last year. What we’re seeing out in the country, I think, amongst some of the young people who will be recruits, is just that. They’re being proselytized and turned against Muslims. And that is a problem right off the bat if you recruit that person in the military. Then you’ve not just got a person who might be turned by one of these Dominionist Christian dudes; you’ve got a person who’s already there. He might become one of the ones who’s trying to proselytize. 

And what I’ve seen in some of the more midwestern states for example, is whole political campaigns run at a very local level — maybe county, parish, district, whatever — that are based on fright and the politics of fear. The person campaigns that, you know, “Sharia law is coming tomorrow. You’ve got real problems in this play and I’ll take care of them. So elect me” — and using that as an election positive, if you will. 

HS: Are there any efforts being made right now at the institutional level to educate military officials about Islamophobia and help people learn more about how to prevent it?

LW: I hope so. I don’t know of any official efforts within the military. I’m sure there probably are some, because the military takes that charge pretty seriously in terms of its general leadership. So I’m sure that during command information hour or whatever they call it now, they probably have some classes in this. 

But let me give you an example of how I would say it ain’t working. We just had an incident at the Army War College in Carlyle, Pennsylvania where Raymond Ibrahim — who is a virulent Islamophobe in my view and in most other people’s view, too — was invited in to be a major speaker at one of their 50th anniversary [celebrations] of the strategic talk series. MRFF weighed in, CAIR weighed in from Philadelphia, others weighed in, and we at least got it postponed. But why in the world does a major general invite someone like that, who immediately is controversial, and is controversial because he is such a strident Islamophobe? I mean, that’s crazy. Why do you even want to do that?

HS: Do you think it’s difficult to implement these types of initiatives to increase literacy about Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment when a lot of the countries that the U.S. has invaded —  namely Iraq and Afghanistan — are Muslim-majority countries?

LW: That’s a huge part of the prosecution of the Global War on Terror:  that it seems that the only terrorists we want to go after are those who are Muslim, when there are all kinds of terrorists in the world, including in the United States. Any law enforcement officer — FBI, local, state — will tell you that their fear of terrorists is more marked with regard to domestic terrorists than it is to any foreign terrorists, Al Qaeda or otherwise. 

HS: My final question for you is: What key lessons can we take away from the U.S. War with Iraq? What aren’t we doing now that we should be doing?

LW: Don’t ever do it again, especially not with Iran. And always make sure…well, let’s look at it from this perspective: I wrote an op-ed recently. It was very painful to write. But what I said in the op-ed, to the military’s leadership was: You’re not asking the right questions about the rising rate of suicides in the military. You should be asking a fundamental question: How many of these people are taking their lives because of what they were ordered to do? 

Let’s face it: They killed 400,000 people, minimum. That’s DoD’s estimate. They were involved in circumstances where men, women, and children were killed. I know this. I’ve talked with many of those veterans. And now they’ve realized that they did not do it for God and country and justice and democracy and freedom and democracy and liberty and women’s rights, and so forth. They did it because the President wanted to do it and could do it. And there was absolutely no threat to the United States from those to whom they did it. How do you think that makes them feel? You should ask that question. 

HS: Well thank you so much. It’s really been a pleasure speaking with you this afternoon.

LW: Surely. Thank you for having me. 


HS: On July 31st, 2019, the United States placed sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. In response, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the United States of “childish behavior,” stating that the United States has “lost its ability to act and think wisely.” The Trump Administration, meanwhile, continues to refer to its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. Commentators have warned that this latest action further reduces the changes of any peaceful negotiations with Iran, and could increase the chances of war. 

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