"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Transcript: Colonel Wilkerson on US foreign policy
Financial Times
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson
October 20, 2005

"I want to thank Steve and the New America Foundation for giving me this opportunity and thank some of my friends for turning out. I see an assistant secretary over here, I think he's left that post now, who used to spend some time in my office.

And I see others around the room. I see some journalists in here who have been trying religiously to get me over the last 3 or 4 months. You finally got me, at least on this topic.

I was out in Montana recently fly fishing in Yellowstone National Park, standing in a river and mistakenly brought my cell phone.

And it went off and I answered it and I won't say who it was, but it was someone from the New York Times wanting to interview me about the detainee abusage.

And I feel so strongly about that issue [noise] got out of the Madison River, got up on the bank, told my son-in-law to keep fishing and talked to the gentleman for about a half an hour. And if any of you have any questions on that issue, of course, I'd be glad to address them.

I have two approaches to what Steve was alluding to as my topic today. The one is the approach of an academic for some 6 years at the Naval War College at Newport and then the Marine Corps War College at Quantico.

I taught some of the brightest people in America, 35 to 40 year old military officers of all services, both genders, and all professional skills within the services.

You want to teach someone who will challenge you on an hourly basis, try to…one of the things that I taught them was a very esoteric subject to most of them who are battalion commanders, fighter squadron commanders, destroyer or cruiser captains or some other really tactical [inaudible] position in their service [inaudible] 15 years in some cases. In other cases maybe as much as 18 or 20.

They came to me as tactical experts, as the very best. In most services, they were picked out of the top 15 to 20%. In all services, I would say, they were picked out of the top 50%.

So I'm looking at a very bright seminar of 15 to 16 people who know a whole hell of a lot more than I do about their services, particularly if they're not in the army, and who know a great deal about [inaudible] applications of power, if you will.

But they know very little about such esoteric subjects as the national security decision-making process. So you go through a lot trying to get them up to speed so that they can then deal with what you're going to throw at them at a really rapid pace after they're up to speed.

Some of them can't take it. Some of them tell you I'd like to go back to my battalion. I'd like to go back to my ship. I don't like this world of strategy, international relations, politics, inter-agency activities and so forth.

And they're very honest with you. Others take to it, like I think probably Colin Powell did at the National War College in the mid to late 70's, and become bigger because of the experience and then go on hopefully to gain stars and be fairly influential in their own professions.

As I dealt with the national security [inaudible] process; therefore, I developed a bifurcated view about it. The one side was academic. The one side read the 1947 National Security Act that Harry Truman signed on 26 July 1947, and the amendments thereto. And understood that the Goldwater Nichols Act, the DOD reorganization act 1985 I believe it was, actually brought the 1947 act into a new [inaudible - coughing], actually closed some gaps that had been in the original act and created the finest military staff in the world, from a staff that theretofore had been a desultory, at best, and even mediocre staff.

And put at its head the man who had been the titular boss of the armed forces before, and titular is probably too strong a word, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and made him the principal [inaudible] to the Secretary of Defense, the President of the United States and the National Security Council.

So this was a monumental change and I will tell you, because I was there in the midst of the fight, I was in the arena, so to speak, it was tough. It was very, very tough to force the armed forces into jointness, which is the jargon that we used to describe it. Today we desperately need a Goldwater Nichols Act for the entire federal government. Desperately.

We need to force the inter-agency process, for example, to conform to President Clinton's PDD 56, if you're familiar with that. It was a document that described, it could be improved on, but it described very well how America should deal with crisis. The problem was nobody followed it.

Problem was nobody followed it so bad that when a Senate group was set up to investigate that very subject and called my boss, that was then a private citizen for whom I was working in a private capacity, and said, would you come sit on our group, would you help us with this, because we really think the process is [inaudible].

My boss' answer was simply, no, I won't because you've got it already. You can't hardly improve on what you've got already. You just have to force execution of what you've got.

Now there are many critics who will say you cannot in our system of government force the executive branch to do something that it doesn't want to do. The framers of the 1947 act I don't think would agree with that.

Now, before I turn to the formal part of my presentation here, which is a little bit of history, let me just say that the other side, the reason my views are bifurcated, the other side is my practical experience.

Practical experience, sitting at the right hand of a very powerful Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [inaudible - noise] and watching probably one of the finest Presidents we've ever had, that's how I feel about George H. W. Bush, exercise one of the greatest adeptnesses at foreign policy I've ever seen.

So many things happened in George H. W. Bush's 4 years that I think when historians write about it with dispassion 25, 30 years from now, they're going to give that man enormous credit for knowing how to make the process work. Took him a while, took them about 9 to 10 months to get their act together. But once they did, they worked very well.

So I've seen that aspect of it. I saw the Clinton administration up close and personal and it took them a little longer than that to get their act together. And in a very intimate way, I saw the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to early 2005. I saw a little over 4 years.

So I have 2 approaches, if you will, the academic over here and the practitioner over here. And sometimes I get them confused. The ground is so rich for an academic and for a person who's taught the National Security Act and what has come out of the National Security Act, that I sometimes get too candid, if you will.

On the other hand, as a practitioner and as a citizen of this great republic, I kind of believe that I have an obligation to say some of these things and I believe furthermore that the people's representatives over on the Hill in that other branch of government have truly abandoned their oversight responsibilities in this regard and have let things atrophy to the point that if we don't do something about it, it's going to get even more dangerous than it already is.

Now, when the framers, again, [inaudible] about, and I say framers, we're talking about dozens, if not literally hundreds of people here, but we're talking about some minds who were engaged in this, if I cited some names [inaudible] of course, you'd probably recognize them [inaudible] and one of them, of course, committed suicide [inaudible].

But these were probably some people who I think rivaled those who got together that hot summer in Philadelphia and put together the Constitution. We have had some peaks and valleys in our history, but I think post-World War II and World War II itself was a peak and we had some really good people thinking hard about these issues. And one of the things that they probably wouldn't tell you if they were here today, unless they had a few drinks, and Harry Truman would have had a few, is that they didn't want another FDR.

They did not want another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They even amended the Constitution to make sure they didn't get one for more than 8 years. But they didn't want the secrecy.

They didn't want the concentration of power. They didn't want the lack of transparency into principle decisions that got people killed. Even though they've been successful in arguably one of the greatest conflicts the world has seen. And so they set about trying to insure that this wouldn't happen again.

I don't think even his critics would have argued that FDR wasn't a brilliant politician and a brilliant leader. But let's think about it for a moment. If you're one of the framers. How often does America get brilliant leaders? Put them down on paper. I can count them myself on one hand.

You can perhaps count them on 2 hands and make persuasive arguments for the additions. I prefer one hand. So we need a system of checks and balances and institutional fabric that can withstand anybody, or at least nearly so. You laugh, but I'm not trying to solicit your laughter.

I think it's a real problem in our democracy. You have to have a system that is so elastic, so resilient, so able to take punches that at one time one branch can supplant another or one branch can come up and check another. It's the old business of checks and balances. If you concentrate power and you do it in a way that is not that different from the way Franklin Roosevelt concentrated it, but you don't have someone who is brilliant [inaudible] the utilization of that power, you've got problems.

You've got problems. You may have problems even if you have someone who's brilliant. Go ask people who've written about Woodrow Wilson. Although I wouldn't say Woodrow Wilson concentrated power quite the way FDR did and, of course, the war and the depression gave him ample opportunity to do things to abridge civil liberties, for example, that even Abraham Lincoln didn't go to in a conflict that produced far more casualties and arguably was more passionately fought, certainly in terms of the families of America.

But too much power, too much secrecy, they want to get rid of that. They also wanted to institutionalize, more or less, the very thing that had brought about their success in World War II. They wanted to institutionalize that product, that success, that whatever. And so they wanted to consolidate the armed forces. They wanted to bring them together. They wanted to put one person in charge of those armed forces.

Talk about secrecy, Harry Truman, when he took over in April of 1945, didn't even know about the atomic bomb. He had had hints because he'd written, as chairman of the investigating committee in the Senate, he'd written to Stemson and he had said I've heard about this land buying out in Washington, tremendous acres, numbers of acres are being bought. What's going on. And Stemson had said, please, Mr. Senator, it's too big for you, essentially.

And Truman had backed off. Give you a sense of the times and the seriousness of what was happening. But it took Stemson and Leslie [inaudible] who sneaked in the back door so no one would know he was coming over and George Marshall didn't even attend because he was afraid it would bring too attention to the meeting and Leslie [inaudible], it was Brigadier General Leslie [inaudible] and Stemson briefed the President with essentially 2 papers in the Oval Office 12 days after he took office and he found out exactly how serious this was, and exactly what he had to deal with in terms of the nation's nuclear program.

So the process these people were going through was to try and make the system more transparent, make decision making more transparent, make sharing of information and critical data more the likelihood rather than the exception.

And they set about doing this through a legislative process. Now, how do you legislate that sort of thing? I heard the same thing about Goldwater Nichols. I heard the same thing over and over again from my armed forces colleagues. You cannot legislate the armed forces into being a team. It's impossible, you can't do it. They did it.

They did it. And the people who did it did a fantastic job because they didn't jump through their rear end like Joe Byden wanted to do when I talked to his staff about something similar to this. They actually went about it in a very concerted, very organized, a very disciplined way.

And they built the information that they needed in order to make good decisions about how to make the armed forces work together. And it involved everybody. It involved education. It involved assignments.

It involved the professionalism of the forces. It involved almost every aspect of the armed forces that is crucial to building people up into a team. And they enacted it. I used to use the 1985 committee print from the Senate on civil military relations as my text for my students because it was such a brilliant exposition of civil military relations since the beginning of our country.

That's how good a work they did on that legislation. It wasn't pull it our of your rear end. It was 5, 6 years in the making. It was superb legislation. Can it be perfected even further? Probably so. People are debating that now. But it was legislation that changed things.

We need something like that today. Let me tell you why I say that. Decisions that send men and women to die, decisions that have the potential to send men and women to die, decisions that confront situations like natural disasters and cause needless death or cause people to suffer misery that they shouldn't have to suffer, domestic and international decisions, should not be made in a secret way.

That's a very, very provocative statement, I think. All my life I've been taught to guard the nation's secrets. All my life I have followed the rules. I've gone through my special background investigations and all the other things that you need to do and I understand that the nation's secrets need guarding.

But fundamental decisions about foreign policy should not be made in secret. Let me tell you the practical reason and here I'm jumping over in, really into both realms. The practical reasons why it's true.

You've probably all read books on leadership, 7 Habits of Successful People, or whatever. If you, as a member of bureaucracy, do not participate in a decision, you are not going to carry that decision out with the alacrity, the efficiency and the effectiveness you would if you had participated.

When you cut the bureaucracy out of your decisions and then foist your decisions on us out of the blue on that bureaucracy, you can't expect that bureaucracy to carry your decision out very well and, furthermore, if you're not prepared to stop the feuding elements in that bureaucracy, as they carry out your decision, you're courting disaster.

And I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita and I could go on back, we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time. And if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence. Read it some time again.

I just use it for a tutoring class for my students in the District of Columbia. Forced me to read it really closely because we're doing metaphors and similes and antonyms and synonyms and so we're…read in there what the founders say in a very different language than we use today. Read in there what they say about the necessity of people to [inaudible - background voice] tyranny or to throw off ineptitude or to throw off that which is not doing what the people want it to do.

And you're talking about the potential for, I think, real dangerous times if we don't get our act together. Now, let me get a little more specific. This is where I'm sure the journalists will get their pens out. Almost everyone since the '47 act, with the exception, I think, of Eisenhower, has in some way or another, perterbated, flummoxed, twisted, drew evolutionary trends with, whatever, the national security decision-making process.

I mean, John Kennedy trusted his brother, who was Attorney General, made his brother Attorney General, probably far more than he should have. Richard Nixon, oh my God, took a position that was not even envisioned in the original framers of the act's minds, national security minds, that are not subject to confirmation by the Senate, advise and consent. Took that position and gave it to his Secretary of State, concentrating power in ways that still reverberate in this country.

Jimmy Carter allowed [inaudible] Brezinsky to essentially negate his Secretary of State. I could go on and say what Sandy Berger did to Madeline Albright in [inaudible] foreign policy. And I could make other provocative statements, too. Another one in my study of the act's implementation has so flummoxed the process as the present administration. What do I mean by that?

Remember what I said about the bureaucracy if it's going to implement your decisions having to participate in those decisions. And let me add one other dimension to that. If you accept the fact, and I do today, and if you'll look around you at some of these magazine covers, I don't need any more testimony than that I don't think. The complexity of crises that confront governments today is just unprecedented. Let me say that again.

The complexity of the crises that confront governments today are just unprecedented. At the same time, especially in America, but I submit to you that in Japan, in China and in a number of other countries soon to be probably the European Union, it's just as bad, if not in some ways worse.

The complexity of governing is unprecedented. You simply cannot deal with all the challenges that government has to deal with, meet all the demands that government has to meet in the modern age, in the 21st century, without admitting that it is hugely complex. That doesn't mean you have to add a Department of Homeland Security with 70,000 disparate entities thrown under somebody in order to handle them. But it does mean that your bureaucracy has got to be staffed with good people and they've got to work together and they've got to work under leadership they trust and leadership that, on basic issues, they agree with.

And that if they don't agree, they can dissent and dissent and dissent. And if their dissent is such that they feel so passionate about it, they can resign and know why they're resigning. That is not the case today. And when I say that is not the case today, I stop on 26 January 2005.

I don't know what the case is today. I wish I did. But the case that I saw for 4 plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberration, bastardizations, [inaudible], changes to the national security [inaudible] process. What I saw was a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense and [inaudible] on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.

And then when the bureaucracy was presented with those decisions and carried them out, it was presented in such a disjointed incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out.

Read George Packer's book The Assassin's [inaudible] if you haven't already. George Packer, a New Yorker, reporter for The New Yorker, has got it right. I just finished it and I usually put marginalia in a book but, let me tell you, I had to get extra pages to write on.

And I wish, I wish I had been able to help George Packer write that book. In some places I could have given him a hell of a lot more specifics than he's got. But if you want to read how the Cheney Rumsfeld cabal flummoxed the process, read that book. And, of course, there are other names in there, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas [inaudible], whom most of you probably know Tommy Frank said was stupidest blankety blank man in the world. He was. Let me testify to that. He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man.

note: Douglas J. Feith]

And yet, and yet, after the Secretary of State agrees to a $400 billion department, rather than a $30 billion department, having control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere. That's not making excuses for the State Department.

That's telling you how decisions were made and telling you how things got accomplished. Read George's book. In so many ways I wanted to believe for 4 years that what I was seeing, as an academic, what I was seeing was an extremely weak national security [inaudible]. And an extremely powerful Vice President and an extremely powerful in the issues that impacted him, Secretary of Defense, remember a Vice President who's been Secretary of Defense, too, and obviously has an inclination that way and also has known the Secretary of Defense for a long time, and also is a member of what Dwight Eisenhower wanted that God bless Eisenhower in 1961 in his farewell address the military industrial complex and don't you think they aren't the [inaudible] today in a concentration of power that is just unparalleled. It all happened because of the end of the Cold War.

[inaudible] tell you how many contractors who did billion dollars or so business with the Defense Department that we have in 1988 and how many do we have now. And they're always working together. If one of them is the lead on the satellite program, I hope there's some Lockheed and Grumman and others here today [inaudible] if one of them's a lead on satellites, the others are subs. And they've learned their lesson there in every state.

They've got every Congressman, every Senator, they got it covered. Now, it's not to say that they aren't smart businessmen. They are, and women. They are. But it's something we should be looking at, something we should be looking at. So you've got this collegiality there between the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President. And then you've got a President who is not versed in international relations. And not too much interested in them either.

And so it's not too difficult to make decisions in this, what I call Oval Office cabal, and decisions often that are the opposite of what you thought were made in the formal process. Now, let's get back to Dr. [inaudible]. For so long I said, yeah, Rich, you're right. Rich being Under Secretary of State Richard [inaudible]. It is a dysfunctional process. And to myself I said, okay, put on your academic hat. Who's causing this? Well, the national security advisor. Even if the framers didn't envision that position, even if it's not subject to confirmation by the Senate, the national security advisor should be doing a better job. Now, I've come to a different conclusion.' [inaudible note: possibly Dr. Kissinger and then Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage]