Analyzing the Contradictions of Lawrence Wilkerson

In March 2003, the United States under the administration of president George W. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney launched an aggression against a smaller, sanctions-crippled nation that had been fundamentally disarmed by a UN weapons inspection regime. Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! looked back at then-secretary-of-state Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council which electrified the corporate media types and had chickenhawks and right-wing commentators clucking that this presentation was definitive proof of Saddam Hussein’s government possessing weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD).1

In that speech, Powell said: “One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents. …”

It is patently apparent that the most worrisome thing that emerged from the thick intelligence file the government had on Iraq’s biological weapons is the inability of an array of intelligence professionals, military command structure, high ranking government officials, representatives in congress, senators, the vice president, and the president, to use due diligence and hold off urging war without ironclad, verifiable evidence that the United States was imminently threatened by another nation’s possession of WMD. It is also apparent that the corporate media, its editorship and its stenographers, played a vital role in propagandizing and disinforming many media consumers.2

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell and responsible for putting Powell’s UN speech together, was a guest on DN. He regrets the speech, and yet he still remains somewhat defensive about it: “First of all, Amy, I don’t believe that the hype about that presentation having been the ultimate presentation, as it were, that led us to war with Iraq.”

He admits that they were all wrong in the politicized process.

The other guest was Norman Solomon whose film, War Made Easy, was about Colin Powell’s address and the media’s response. Solomon questioned how the Bush administration could be all wrong by noting that “many experts and activists and researchers, from the get-go, in 2002, were saying that the administration case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was full of holes…”3

Solomon is disappointed in Wilkerson’s words:

… I think it’s very disappointing—from the former chief of staff here of Colin Powell is the reiteration of these supposedly exculpatory, actually, excuses for just following orders. And I could condense what Colonel Wilkerson just said about Colin Powell’s role in the lead up to the war in Iraq: ‘We were just following orders, and Dick Cheney made us to it.’ No, Dick Cheney didn’t make you do it. There’s something called resignation. There’s something called speaking up and the First Amendment. There are a lot of dead Americans and many more Iraqis because of the silence and the following of orders when we look at what actually took place.

Solomon does not say it, but the implication is inescapable: Wilkerson has blood on his hands.

Solomon suggested that people like Wilkerson “… might say, the failure of people like Colin Powell to step up and say, ‘Look, not only was I wrong, but in planning and implementing aggressive war, I violated the Nuremberg Principles’ — if we could get those kind of forthright statements from these former top officials, we could look at the agenda building for war on Iran in a more understanding light.”

Wilkerson was evasive: “I don’t want to get into an on-screen argument with someone who makes comments as if he’d never been in government a day in his life or never been in—associated with power at this level.”

He looked for exculpation: “… when you look at the American people, who in polls showed 70 percent-plus agreed that Saddam Hussein had WMD, it’s not enough to say that Dick Cheney and Colin Powell and others failed in their responsibility to the American people or to their own government. There were a lot of people…”

Wilkerson, perhaps realizing the inference of his words, continued: “I’m not trying … to rationalize or excuse. I’m just saying that there were a lot of people who had the same view that Colin Powell basically presented at the United Nations.”

Many people were wrong. However, what was the point of Wilkerson stating that 70% of the American people believed the propaganda emanating from their government and the reporting of the corporate media? One obvious conclusion is that government administrations are not to be trusted and neither is the corporate media. A second conclusion is that 30% of the people outside the Bush administration loop were better clued in than the administration officials themselves, so it would be prudent to consider objectively all views, especially on life-and-death decisions as waging war.

Solomon was also dubious of Wilkerson’s charge that the public was duped since the administration, of which Wilkerson was a part, was the duper: “This belief among the public didn’t come from the sky; it came from the administration.”

Wilkerson was again defensive: “So, let’s not make this too much of a—of, essentially, a calumny on the American people, their representatives in the Congress and all of those in the government.”

Solomon responds, “It’s not a calumny on the American people at all. It’s an accurate accusation that the administration of George W. Bush, which Colonel Powell—former General Powell and you served…”

Wilkerson then made a puzzling come back: “You thought for yourself. You thought for yourself. Why can’t other Americans think for themselves?”

This sounds like a self-indictment — almost as if Wilkerson is saying that he wasn’t able to correctly think for himself and that because so many other Americans were unable to think for themselves it is excusable. He is obviously an intelligent man, so why wasn’t Wilkerson able to accurately assess the situation? Nonetheless, even if Wilkerson’s information had been correct and his thought processes had reached a logical conclusion, this would still have been morally condemnable based on the obvious eventual outcome of the administration’s decision-making: death to many people. Why was the administration not able to reach a principled decision; namely, that waging war must be purely defensive and not used to compel adherence to the stated US administration aim of disarmament? Respectfully, this is a moral no-brainer. Civilians, and even the soldiers of another nation, should not be targeted because of disagreements between the administrations of nation states. War must be a last resort, a resort only as a defensive measure. If this reasoning holds, then the US would never be waging war because no nation’s leader would be foolhardy enough to attack the world’s only military superpower.

Wilkerson tries to go on the offensive with Solomon: “Why weren’t you influential in bringing the American people to believe what you believe?”

The thought process that underlies the question is readily assailable, and DN co-host Aaron Maté seemed to realize that as he jumped in to change the direction of the debate.

Wilkerson acknowledges that the aggression was launched on wrongful grounds; yet he continues to be defensive toward his co-guest: “I don’t disagree that there should have been a hell of a lot better job done by what is now a $65-plus billion intelligence community. And incidentally, I don’t think it’s doing a much better job today than it did then. Dollars do not buy you intelligence. But at the same time, let me just say, I didn’t see a single one of your [Solomon’s] reports. So, nobody called me from your group.”

Amy Goodman jumped in and gave Wilkerson an out: the bubble of government. Wilkerson took it: “These things are happening because of that bubble that you just described. You can’t get through that bubble.”

There is a tautology, a contradiction implicit. Often people escape culpability through being outside the loop. After all, how can one be blamed for what one does not know because one was not privy to the information? Can one credibly twist this situation as a defense? Wilkerson and the other Bush administration officials were in the loop — privy to information that other people are denied – and yet Wikerson, in a strong sense, claims to be a victim of being in a bubble.

Wilkerson continues:

You can’t get through the Bob Gates and the Leon Panettas and penetrate that bubble and say, ‘Do you understand what you’re doing, both to American civil liberties and to the rest of the world’s appreciation of America, with these increased drone strikes that seem to have an endless vista for future?’ … I know how these bubbles create themselves around the president and cease and stop any kind of information getting through that would alleviate or change the situation, make the discussion more fundamental about what we’re doing in the world.

Wilkerson contradicts himself from earlier in the debate. He had tried to put the onus on Solomon to have contacted him with what he knew. He asked why Solomon didn’t contact him, didn’t phone him. Now Wilkerson points out that it would have been impossible for Solomon to get through the bubble of the administration.

To his credit, Wilkerson says he is trying to burst that bubble. However, without being more forthright on the aggression of Iraq, how meaningful is that attempt?

Implications

Some important implications arise from the debate.

One is that lay people (independent researchers) can survey information from a range of sources, produce accurate information, and reach logical and moral conclusions based on the information. It seems eminently more reasonable and circumspect to trust sources that are independent and do not stand to gain financially from their views.

It has massive implications – “a repetition-compulsion disorder,” as Normon Solomon put it — for the current push to engage in aggressive war with Iran.

Even if another country possessed WMD, would this justify wiping out a million people to disarm a country? There is something fundamentally obtuse about wiping out genocidal numbers — five times as many people were killed in Iraq than the 80,000 to 140,000 people instantly killed in Hiroshima and 74,000 people killed in Nagasaki. It is numerically equivalent to using WMD tactics to preclude use of WMD.

Furthermore, the case has already been made that in the lead up the aggression on Iraq, sanctions had extracted a lethal toll equivalent to a WMD. The deaths of over half a million children in Iraq had been attributed to the sanctions,4 a number callously regarded at the time by then-US-ambassador-to-the-UN Madeleine Albright as “worth it.” The obvious inference is that genocide, achieving WMD-destruction levels, is worthwhile if it achieves US administration aims. The extension of this logic — to its natural, albeit reduction ad absurdum, conclusion — is that WMD-level destruction is warranted to block the capacity for WMD destruction by other states. After all, the glowing reasoning stipulates that the US, the only state to have dropped atom bombs on population centers, alone must be entrusted to possess and use WMD.

Yet Iran — based on the exact same pretexts that resulted in millions being killed and displaced in Iraq!! – has been placed under that genocidal WMD-equivalent regime of sanctions.5

Holy Santayana! What is going on here?

But that is not all. There is another war being pushed by the same gang as before – Israel, arch Zionists, chickenhawks, neoconservatives, and Democrats – to wage a war of aggression against Iran. Luckily a few sane heads have prevailed within the intelligence community and declared that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

The attack on Iraq was based on a pretext. This is especially palpable today, and it was for other rationale thinkers prior to 23 March 2003. For colleague BJ Sabri, the motives of the Bush administration prior to the attack on Iraq were crystal clear:

The transition from the theme of war against Saddam to disarm him from his so-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD), to the specific theme of occupying Iraq, controlling of its resources, and the building of its future geopolitical configuration to American and Israeli specifications, leaves no doubt about the exact nature of the Bush Administration’s ideological enterprise. One needs not to read between the lines to realize that the push for war is not related to WMD, ‘war on terrorism’, American security, or the sorrow for the plight of the Iraqi people living under Saddam’s rule.6

That the motives of the Bush administration were opaque to Wilkerson is telling.

To be clear, Wilkerson has apologized for the Powell speech. The speech was masterful, and it is understandable that any intelligent and conscience-bound individual would wish to distance himself from the ramifications of what at the moment of their utterance were just words. However, those words were part of the campaign that demonized another country’s leader, and US dislike of Saddam Hussein translated into an action, based on a pretext, that likeliest killed over a million people.7

Solomon called for more from Wilkerson. I agree.

What should Wilkerson have done?

Imagine if Wilkerson were to say, “Yes, we were duped; we were in a bubble; the bubble needs to be pricked… The American government engaged in a program of disinformation. Great crimes were committed and the persons in charge should be held legally culpable. The US aggressed another nation, and should pay reparations. Disinformation plays a role in war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity, as such it should be considered a war crime. Furthermore, the US government should never tread down this same criminal path again. Sanctions that imperil a populace are immoral, and wars of aggression are anathema.”

  1. Decade After Iraq WMD Speech at UN, Ex-Powell Aide Lawrence Wilkerson Debates Author Norman Solomon,” Democracy Now!, 6 February 2013. []
  2. This is not meant as an “I told you so” but only to demonstrate that I do not claim the wisdom of hindsight (nor the wisdom of foresight or any pretense to wisdom). See Kim Petersen, “Keeping the Elephant Fed and Happy,” Dissident Voice, 23 February 2003. []
  3. See, e.g., DV archives: January 2002, February 2002 []
  4. See Stanley Heller, “For Iraqi Children, Death by Sanctions,” Solidarity. []
  5. See John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Rethinking Sanctions on Iraq–The Real Weapons of Mass Destruction?Foreign Affairs, May/June l999. []
  6. BJ Sabri, “War on Iraq and the Pregnant Chads Factor,” Dissident Voice, 23 February 2003. []
  7. Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, Gilbert Burnham, “Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Lancet, 364, 29 October 2004: 1857-1864. The original article conservatively estimated the death toll of Iraqi citizens at 98,000. This has been updated to 655,000 excess mortalities. See Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, and Les Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey,” Lancet, 368: 21 October 2006: 1421-1428. Gideon Polya, “US Iraqi Holocaust And One Million Excess Deaths,” Countercurrents, 7 February 2007. See also “Iraq Deaths,” Just Foreign Policy.
    The killings continue today in Iraq. “10 dead on third day of suicide blasts,” The Gulf Today, 6 February 2013. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.