By Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson
March 18, 2016
These and other topics were addressed at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on March 18, 2016 at the conference on “Israel’s Influence: Good or Bad for America?”
Retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is the highest ranking US foreign policy whistle blower to date. Wilkerson’s last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg and is writing a book about the first George W. Bush administration.
In 2007 Wilkerson appeared in the Dutch documentary film, “The Israel Lobby. Portrait of a Great Taboo: the Power of the Israel Lobby in the United States.” In one segment he described how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was highly influential in the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq begining at 37:40:
Dick Cheney and his minions have brought—and Richard Perle is one of his minions and Doug Feith is one of his minions—have brought the art of lying to a new scale, a new level. Was oil the number one influence on President Bush and Vice President Cheney? Or was WMD? Or was spreading democracy? Don’t believe it for a moment. They didn’t even think about spreading democracy when they started this war. They transmogrified the mission into starting—or democracy, simply to appease the American people and give them some reason to support the war.
You have to decide where were these factors? And, inevitably, the Jewish Lobby in America, AIPAC in particular—the focus lobby—has got to be there. You’re being naïve if you don’t put that factor up there as an influence on national security decision-making. Particularly with the Bush Administration, the AIPAC lobby is very influential through Vice President Cheney, very influential—and through people like Elliot Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz and a host of others within the government.
Complete video recording and annotated transcript is freely available. Summary excerpts follow:
He shall go unnamed, this student paper writer, but not unheralded by me, at least. I will say, too, that he had the additional characteristic, if you will, of being a Jewish American, which recalls to mind for me immediately a most unnerving moment as I had just begun my new career in 2001 as an erstwhile diplomat. I’d just entered the inner sanctum of a man who would prove to be very powerful at State over the next four years. He had only recently discovered that I had chosen to work for Richard Haass, in his capacity as State’s director of policy planning, rather than staying directly under my old mentor, the new Secretary of State Colin Powell. “Why,” he asked, “did you elect to work for that self-loathing Jew?” Recovering from mild shock, I looked him straight in the eye and replied, “I’ll forget I heard that.” I turned and evacuated his inner sanctum while he harrumphed to my rear.
I recall this little anecdote because it reveals what many use as a riposting device against any Jewish American who, through critical thinking, questions from time to time the policies of the modern state of Israel and the U.S. relationship with that state. Its complement, of course, for gentiles like me is anti-Semite. I have no doubt were someone such as Alan Dershowitz, from whom I have heard, for example, to read my student’s paper, the response “self-loathing Jew” would not be far from his lips.
In 1948, I would submit, there was no explicit such challenge for Jewish Americans or for any other American for that matter. The ingrained and highly partisan nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the neoconservative adoption of it in particular—Jim [Lobe], my hat off to you, he’ll talk more about that—had not yet come about. What my student rehearsed in the opening to his paper were the profound objections of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, of the iconic hero of World War II—after all, Harry Truman in a moment of apoplexy had essentially said, ‘He won the war, he won the war’; he couldn’t think of anything more to say about this man George Marshall, who was now Secretary of State—and others [who had] objected to what Harry Truman was about to do with regard to the State of Israel.
My student summed these objections that the Joint Chiefs had penned as the vehement Arab opposition to a Jewish state, the threats such opposition presented to the key oil imports from neighboring Arab countries, and then my student quoted the Joint Chiefs verbatim: “The decision to partition Palestine, if the decision were supported by the United States, would prejudice United States strategic interests in the Near and Middle East to the point that United States influence in the area would be”—and here come the words —“curtailed to that which could be maintained by military force.” Is that prescience, or is that prescience?
Harry Truman, on the other hand, as my student pointed out, summed up the case for, if you will, thusly. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” the president said, “but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
Marshall, in a tale that’s not apocryphal, when Truman did decide that he was going to essentially recognize the state that had stood up, Israel, threatened not to vote for the president if he did. Coming from a man like Marshall, who as a military professional never voted in his life, this was almost stunning for Truman to hear. Of course, he went ahead, and so we began our relationship.
There were to be sure more counterarguments than the president’s re-election, as my student also pointed out in this excellent paper: the horrors of Holocaust, the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, and the need to make up for the wrongs committed against the Jewish people, all spoke for recognition by Truman. My student continued, also in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British had promised the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine. And in the eyes of many Americans after World War II, it was up to the U.S. to give that home to them, and Harry S. Truman did just that.
Today, we can look back on a line of post-World War II presidents who tried to deal with the challenges and more that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had so presciently laid out. And to be honest, and as many of you in this audience probably are well aware, the Joint Chiefs were not breaking new ground. Ever since World War I and Louis Brandeis’ influence on Woodrow Wilson and his foremost adviser, Edward House, the U.S. State Department’s position on the potential for a Jewish state in Palestine had been quite clear. It opposed the Zionist movement because it was a minority group interfering in United States foreign affairs. Again, talk about prescience and there we have it—prescience par excellence.
Even so, could State at that time have envisioned the power of AIPAC today, particularly after Bill Clinton decided in 1995, as I recall, to make presidential appearances there de rigueur? I love that French phrase. I looked it up in Merriam Webster to see what English definitions were given to it. The second one was this: “necessary if you want to be popular.” Oh, Bill, the things you did for popularity’s sake.
But despite these heavily adverse conditions, most U.S. presidents managed a rather precarious balance. Whether as in the beginning, it was Eisenhower in ’56, as we’ve heard before, telling the Israelis, British, and French to get their invading military forces out of the Suez Canal area. Or it was Ronald Reagan in mid- to late 1980s, selling AWACS aircraft to the Saudis. Or George H.W. Bush insisting on real and serious work on the Middle East peace process following the first Gulf war in 1991, in which the U.S. had gained quite a bit of new leverage applicable to that process of survival and potential success. And you all know probably, too, there are some critics who’ve written quite eloquently in my view that George H.W. Bush lost the election in ’92 because of his vehement opposition to Israeli settlements. And then came George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and a presidency captured by the neoconservatives of which I was a part.
In a flash, Israel became publicly a strategic ally. Its Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in every Arab eye dripping blood all over the Oval Office carpet, blood from Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982 and ’83. I might add, an invasion we had to haul their asses out of, and ultimately at the cost of the greatest single-day casualty of Marines since Tarawa in World War II. This man, Ariel Sharon, became, in President Bush’s own words, “a man of peace.”
And all the fears of the 1948 Joint Chiefs of Staff loomed so largely in the rearview mirror of history that some of us in the U.S. government sucked in our collective breaths and found it hard to exhale thereafter. But, of course, we did, and ever since people just like us have been trying—clearly to little avail, with some brilliant exceptions, of which the Iran nuclear agreement is the most exceptional and recent—to restore that precarious balance maintained since World War II by all of the presidents.
And so, today, where are we in this relationship so fraught with danger—and, as has been pointed out, danger to both parties, to Israel and the United States? Today, how does U.S. policy toward Israel impact our overall foreign and security policy in adverse or positive ways?
To start, we have the unguarded words of General David Petraeus to illuminate our inquiries, before he was himself subjected to the ritual of head-bashing that accompany such remarks. In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March of 2010, Petraeus said quite straightforwardly that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict foments anti-American sentiment in the region due to a perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel, and it makes military operations that much more difficult. These remarks came amidst a U.S.-Israeli dispute over housing units, 1,600 of them, in Jerusalem—illegal under international law, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and destabilizing to the max. I can tell you that in the military councils, of which I’ve been part over three decades plus, this sentiment was often voiced, and at times in far more dramatic terms.
When my old mentor and boss, Colin Powell, and I used to talk about the issues here, we rarely if ever complimented Israel on its additions to U.S. security posture in the region. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. Although today I suspect he would deny such conversations, and frankly I wouldn’t blame him. It would prove my point.
But there is more. There is concrete evidence of Israel’s detracting from U.S. security and of being a strategic liability rather than an asset. Where is, after all, U.S. hard power in southwest Asia, in Africa, and the Persian Gulf today? First, it ain’t in Israel. Nor could it be unless the world was at war and all bets were off….
Under any other conceivable scenario, the U.S. will never land meaningful military forces on the unsinkable Middle East aircraft carrier of Israel. That’s a phrase used by some of my neoconservative colleagues. Every instance of the use of force by the U.S. in the region to date has proven that reality beyond the shadow of a doubt.
So where, exactly, is the hard power? It’s in Qatar, it’s in Bahrain, it’s in Saudi Arabia, it’s in Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, Djibouti and a host of other lesser places. The largest U.S. Air Force complex on earth, for example, by some measures, is in Qatar. The most powerful fleet headquarters in the U.S. arsenal, The Fifth [Fleet], is in Bahrain. The land-based aircraft carrier, if there is one, is Kuwait, not Israel, as both Gulf wars have proven. As a matter of fact, my comment during the first Gulf war, when we landed over half a million U.S. soldiers and all the supplies that went with them, was, “My God, another Marine, another soldier, we’ll sink Kuwait.”
In fact, in all my years in the military and beyond, I’ve never heard a serious suggestion of using Israel to help defend U.S. interests in the region. Instead, what I have heard many times is advice and decision-making to stay totally away from such use….
Does the unbiased policy of the U.S. toward this enclave jeopardize U.S. national security interest? You bet it does—big time. All we should ask, all I’m asking, all I asked for four years in the State Department, is that the American people be told the unvarnished truth and then decide if they’re willing to do it. Do they want their foreign and security policy based on sound principles of power management, or do they want it based on passions, ideology and unbridled favoritism? Now, I’m not quite certain what their answer is going to be. But I’m dead certain we need to give them the essential facts and then ask the question.