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Monday, October 24, 2016

Originally posted at The Washington Spectator

Southwest Asia has been with me for a long time. For over a decade, I was a small part of a fairly well-orchestrated U.S. strategy to maintain the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. When the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, we knew that the papier-mache kingdom of Saudi Arabia could not replace Iran as our “protector in the Gulf,” so we settled for the next best thing: a relatively stable balance between the Arabs of Iraq and the Persians of Iran. We had to work hard to maintain this balance.

The first serious challenge came in the mid-1980s when I was a joint-staff officer for the principal military force-provider for the region, U.S. Pacific Command. I helped plan the U.S. military’s response to defeat a push by the Soviets into Iran in search of warm-water ports. In 1979, Russia had already invaded Afghanistan and many predicted Iran was next. The Cold War’s strategy preempted everything else, but we still kept a wary eye on others in the Persian Gulf, particularly after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran.

When it looked as if the long and bloody war Hussein had started might eventually destroy the balance we sought and draw the Soviets into Gulf waters, the U.S. openly took Iraq’s side. We re-flagged and escorted Kuwaiti tankers, a U.S. warship absorbed two Iraqi Exocet missiles and almost sank, another of our warships struck an Iranian mine, we attacked Iran’s command-and-control assets, sank one Iranian warship and badly damaged another, and then tragically shot down an Iranian civilian airliner with 290 people on board. It was this tragic act that many believe caused Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink the hemlock,” as he put it, and declare an end to the disastrous war Iraq had begun. The stability we sought was reestablished.

At the end of the 1980s, I became a special advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Having been thwarted in his attempt to conquer Iran, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we immediately launched Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi oil facilities and, some months later, Operation Desert Storm to kick the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.

Desert Storm accomplished our strategic objective: restoring the balance in the Gulf. We did not march to Baghdad to unseat Saddam Hussein, because had we done so alone, we would have assumed the role of balancer and would have had to remain in that country indefinitely, something we wisely judged as not only untenable but extremely dangerous for long-term U.S. interests.

Through four presidents — Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton — the U.S. played an adroit strategic game in the Persian Gulf. As a member of the Marine Corps War College faculty from 1993-1997, I and my joint-force students studied, analyzed and evaluated this strategy. As a personal advisor to retired General Colin Powell from 1998-2000, I often discussed how Saddam was contained and the Gulf was stable. In short, we watched U.S. strategy work. It maintained stability in one of the most vital regions of the world and cheap oil flowed to Japan, to Europe and to us.

Imagine my utter surprise, then, when I returned to government in 2000 and began to hear talk of destroying that relative stability by invading Iraq and taking out Saddam Hussein. Had I stumbled into an administration of neophytes in national security policy, lunatics, power-mad zealots, or what?

Some would say the neoconservatives and hyper-nationalists who seemed to crawl out of the dark and advise or enter the Bush administration were all of these and more. But these descriptions omit an important element: the messianic and arrogant belief in American exceptionalism.

Many of the men and women I encountered in 2001-2005, or who are now speaking out loudly about America’s responsibilities toward Iraq, sincerely believed that their country has a mission in the world to evangelize its unbelievers. Theirs is a long tradition in U.S. foreign policy, loathed and despised by John Quincy Adams as wanting to go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

No matter how many times their beliefs are proven insane, destabilizing, immoral, dangerous, ruinous even — consider L. Paul Bremer’s disbanding of the Iraqi military, de-Baathification and refusal to establish an Iraqi government in 2003 — they continue to advocate identical policies and actions. Regardless of previous decisions gone horribly awry, they push for similar decisions today. Despite clear proof that civil war cannot be safely managed by outside parties, they — the outside party — insist on intervening. Today, moreover, they insist on calling all opposition “terrorists,” even in Iraq where the most formidable forces opposing Nouri al-Maliki are the very Sunnis “awakened” by General David Petraeus in 2007.

Worse, because of a truly apathetic Congress, a largely ignorant or complicit media, a dramatically incompetent legal system, and those who enrich themselves on the anti-terrorist industrial complex, these neocons get away with this characterization.

From 1953 to 2000, we crafted and maintained a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, however ignominiously to the purer hearts of the world. In 2003, we destroyed that balance. We are now reaping the consequences. To thrust more military power into such a situation will only work if we remain indefinitely and massively deployed there — an extremely dangerous proposition. The only other solution is to craft a new balance of power. Iran just might be ready to assist.


With the recent U.S. airstrikes near Irbil, President Obama has re-entered the miasma that is Iraq.

In for a penny, in for a pound comes to mind. A couple of laser-guided bombs are the penny. The pound will come when air power, as usual, proves insufficient.

Compelling the U.S. to re-enter the fray is precisely what the Islamic State (IS) desires: The ultimate tactical goal of every rabid terrorist spawned by al Qaeda is to kill Americans. What IS does not want is Tehran and Washington working in concert.

The IS leadership knows no solution can be achieved — in Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon or Iraq — and no long-term security for Israel can be forged, and no peace can come to the region, unless Iran is a fully participating and cooperating party on the side of IS’s enemies.

This does not mean sectarian war; it means a war of both Sunnis and Shia, along with Christians and others — and of all those desirous of stability and peace — against the real terrorists. It also means that all religious groups, in Iraq and elsewhere, who join this struggle have to be treated with tolerance, respect, both during the struggle and after it’s won. There can be no Malikis any more than there can be new Saddam Husseins.

There has to be real and sustainable political change in Iraq — and it has to come now.

Lawrence Wilkerson is Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005. He served 31 years in the U.S. Army.

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  • Blueberry Hill

    I think this may be a good idea. We just need to keep the warmongers in Congress out of the discussions, they will sabotage every thing they can, just like they have been doing for the past 6 years. Enough is enough! VOTE THESE VILLAINS OUT OF OUR GOVERNMENT AT EVERY LEVEL, FROM LOCAL TO DC. Then we may be able to make peace in Iraq and the surrounding countries. The tbagger/Rs don’t want peace, they make lots of money off wars. Let’s stop feeding the beasts.


    • latebloomingrandma

      How does one muzzle the war hero, John McCain? Why do the Sunday talk shows keep putting McCain and Graham on to rehash the same old rhetoric, and start putting on the new ideas people such as Col. Wilkerson?

      • Blueberry Hill

        First of all, we need to remember that McCain was bombing civilians when he was shot down and taken prisoner. He was ordered to stop shooting at civilians, but didn’t. While a POW, he sang like a Canary and spent his time in plush surroundings and got the best treatment. Any POW who served with him will tell you this. Graham was not in the military, so people are listening to a couple of old farts who know nothing about actually FIGHTING in a war. They are eager to send OUR kids to war, let’s see them send their family members to war. They have no standing and only spout garbage. They are like kindergarteners looking for attention. Good luck with shutting them up.


        • Sand_Cat

          I’m not a McCain or Graham fan by any stretch of the imagination, but do you have reliable sources for the charges you have made? Have you actually read statements by, or talked to, POWs who served with McCain?
          Let’s not emulate the lunatics of the right and make their lies about us true in the process. Lies and slanders against Dems are par for the GOP course, but they must NOT become so for us.

          • Blueberry Hill

            I have read many accounts, sorry, I just assumed others did too. I didn’t keep any records, but I think you might be able to check out on Google.


          • Blueberry Hill

            Okay, I finally got time to look up the John McCain info for you on Google. Here is the link: Enjoy


            just highlight it and click on it


          • Sand_Cat

            Thanks for the link. I see there are several such claims and that Politifact says there’s no evidence to support it. I’ve heard some pretty bad stuff about them, but if their claim that this originated from a one-man disgruntled vet operation is true, it sounds remarkably like the source of the lies about John Kerry by the “swift boat” veterans. I’ll look further into this. I’ve heard others claim McCain was disobeying orders when he was shot down, that he crashed two planes from carelessness, etc., but my gripe with him is what he’s done over the last couple of years: the crap about Benghazi and the apparent desire to bomb about two-thirds of the known universe for whatever reason he can make up.

          • Blueberry Hill

            You are quite welcome. Wishing those 2 buffoons would just shut up, they have no idea what they are talking about, and we have already sacrificed more than we should be expected to. Glad you got to see the info. Personally, I think McCain is becoming an Alzheimer’s victim.

        • latebloomingrandma

          I’m not a fan of the elder version John McCain, but when he was running for President in 1999, I read his autobiography, and it sure sounded like he was a POW kept in horrid conditions and was tortured. There were ample pictures of his condition when rescued.
          He was forthcoming about being a goof-off in school and graduated at the bottom of the class at the Naval Academy.

          • Blueberry Hill

            He wouldn’t mention the bad things he did while running for president, that is for sure. It was during his campaign that former POWs who were held captive with him came forward about some of his treasonous actions. The horrendous stuff didn’t last the whole of his captivity time, as he curried favors with the info he gave the enemy. Now he acts like a know-it-all, when the most of his actual experience was spent in a POW camp; where he wouldn’t have been if he had not been bombing the civilians after being told several times not to bomb civilians. Anyway, I did finally get the time to find some info for you on it, just follow the Google link to it. There might be more info in Wikilinks, etc, but I figured I’d get you started and then you can just follow the trail. Good luck now. We are certainly lucky that he lost the election. Actually, I think he was so disappointed in the antics of SP that he just gave up and didn’t try any more.


  • Dominick Vila

    As disgusting as dealing with the Ayatollahs was (Iran-Contra), the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, remove Sunnis from government positions, and replace them with Shias aligned spiritually to Iran, was much worse. Bush’s decision handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, destabilized the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region, and set the stage for the emergence of ISIS and the creation of a Caliphate the, in effect, ignores the boundaries established at the end of the British mandate, and threaten the lives of millions of people in the region. Last, but not least, Bush’s decision put us in the uncomfortable position of supporting puppets that do not enjoy popular support, and taking sides in an ancient struggle that, with the exception of oil exports needed for global economic stability, is none of our business.
    The best approach, considering the circumstances and the damage we have caused, is to re-establish diplomatic, trade, and cultural relations with Iran. Their history, resources, regional influence, and interests, suggest a partnership with them would go much farther than the adversarial relationship we have had with them since the infamous hostage crisis. Certainly, it could not be any worse than what we have had during the last 3 or 4 decades.

  • howa4x

    We made countless mistakes after the giant one of invasion. Disbanding the Iraqi army and sending them home with their guns ranks among the biggest blunders in history, and was the main wellspring of the Sunni insurgency. We found out that we can’t just impose our will militarily, and that unless the people of the country agree to live together there is very little we can do. Obama has that part right when he says that we can help them, but in the end this is something they have to do themselves. Iran can also help establish more order in the region. They not only have influence in the Shia dominated Iraq government, but are also a main sponsor of Bashir Assad’s war, and Hezbollah. Soon ISIS will invade Lebanon to fight Hezbollah since they are helping Assad, so Iran has a vested interest in working with us. The enemy of my enemy is my friend for now and the ISIS path of murder, beheadings, enslavement of women, and cruel interpretation of Islam makes for strange bed fellows. It may also help solve the nuclear standoff we have with Teheran. After all we were allies with Stalin in WW2, so no human had more blood on his hands than him. Ultimately without Iran we can never stabilize Iraq, they are too big a player. So our choice is working together or watch Iraq disintegrate into 3 warring sectarian countries.

    • Dominick Vila

      It may not be long before Saddam’s Iraq becomes a mini Kurdistan, a Sunni Caliphate, and a mini Iraq dominated by Shias aligned to Iran. Making an effort to understand the long term consequences of our actions take a back seat to imperatives such as revenge, making opportunities available for corporate friends to profit, and guaranteeing the re-election of one of the most pathetic presidents in U.S. history. Hopefully his Gauguin replicas work out better for him than his policies did.

  • jointerjohn

    History tells us that any further alliance building in that region is madness.

  • Eleanore Whitaker

    Shocker for those who still believe oil is the be all and end all energy in the world. Check out Solar Power World’s Sept. 2013 magazine article on the top ten US states who produce solar energy today. CA, NJ, AZ are at the top of the list.

    Is Oil really needed in such quantity? Yesterday, a government report based on a study from the Stockholm Environmental Institute concludes that the Keystone pipeline would produce 4 times more global warming pollution than the US State Dept. originally calculated earlier this year.

    “The US estimates didn’t take into consideration that the pipeline would drop oil prices to $3 a barrel which would increase oil consumption and create more pollution.” Oil consumption creates pollution. Big Oil wants maximum consumption. Therefore, Big Oil wants to continue to be allowed to increase global warming and pollution. What other conclusion can there be?

    Stockholm researchers estimate that the proposed pipeline which would carry oil from Hardisty Alberta to refineries on the same Texas Gulf Coast, Texas Big Oil polluted thanks to BP’s Horizon Deep Water rig, and increase greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 121 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. The department also said this would globally increase carbon dioxide emission by 30 million tons.

    Nothing like having a Swedish research group stick it to Big Oil with facts they can’t deny.

    • S.J. Jolly

      Perhaps you meant to write, “… drop oil prices by $3 per barrel …”? $3 oil would force the shutdown of most oil fields in the world, as their production costs are higher than that.

  • S.J. Jolly

    We need more experienced professionals like Lawrence Wilkerson in our foreign policy decisions.

    • Sand_Cat

      But we can’t have “evildoers” and other such “folks” – it’s most unfortunate that a man of Obama’s intelligence chose to repeat the word used by a certain idiot we all remember – to get away with it, can we?

  • ExRadioGuy15

    This country has a sad history in meddling in the affairs of other countries (outside of World Wars) under the rubric of “fighting Communism” or “spreading democracy across the world”. This policy, while laudable and which has been in effect for more than a century, has led us to where we are today: many countries expect the USA to be the world’s “police force”. While such an expectation hasn’t been so bad during Democratic administrations, it has been a disaster during Republican administrations, as the Republicans adhere to all 14 of the defining characteristics of Fascism. One of those “DCs” is Avid Militarism/ Supremacy of the Military, where the Fascist regime (GOP in USA) uses the military to further their Fascist agenda and ideology.
    The question now is, “what do we do?” There are no easy answers. Since the USA meddled in these affairs, the expectation from the rest of the world is for the USA to “clean up the mess it made”.
    Of course, we know the Republican answer to all of this: continued or renewed military intervention and action, in adherence to Fascism. The Democratic way, meanwhile, is to do what we must and not more than that. That is the balance President Obama is trying to strike right now.
    This Non-Affiliated voter reminds one and all that there are huge differences between the two major political parties in this country. This country has become (has been) war-weary. We don’t need to return “boots on the ground” in Iraq and we should have withdrawn from Afghanistan at the end of 2011, as we did in Iraq. The fact that this country is war-weary means that the Republican way of handling this is simply unsupported by the public. It’s time for the GOP to STFU about these matters and stop kowtowing to an insane, corrupt and greedy minority of people who want to continue employing Fascist ideology.

  • highpckts

    I’m sorry, but why is it our “duty” to see that they have a stable government! Where are the majority of their people? I am so tired of being the world’s policeman! Are we protecting big oil? What are we protecting? I know it isn’t that simple but they have been killing each other for centuries!! Again, it’s all about religion for them!

    • Sand_Cat

      In this case, we are the ones who opened the bottle or the box, depending upon whose mythology you want. We “broke it” in Colin Powell’s phrase. I’m a fan neither of Powell nor of further US involvement, but I think anyone who wanted to could make a strong argument that we owe Iraq, provided, of course, that our intervention will not make things worse, which is what I would argue.

      • highpckts

        I’m sorry but I don’t think we “owe” them anything! We lost thousands of lives training their soldiers and others soldiers only to have them turn on us! If they don’t like the way they live, let them do something about it!!

        • Sand_Cat

          I understand completely, and I think I qualified with “if our intervention would not make things worse.” It seems to me it would, for the precise reason that the people we’d be “helping” have no commitment to any vision we’re likely to find even reasonable, and are likely to – at best – let us take the casualties.
          Unfortunately, we “owe” a good bit of the third world for similar reasons and I can’t even imagine what we could do to pay. But that’s not likely to be a problem, since I can’t see any government we’re likely to get even acknowledging the debt and surviving. Think of Obama’s supposed “Apology Tour” and imagine the result if he had actually apologized.