Seven Questions for Larry Wilkerson
Colin Powell’s chief of staff shares some candid thoughts on why the former secretary of state endorsed Barack Obama -- and how the next U.S. president can get America back on track.
Lifelong Republican Colin Powell surprised the audience of NBCs Meet the Press this weekend with his endorsement of Barack Obama for president, calling the Illinois senator a "transformational figure" who could be an "exceptional president." Citing a litany of complaints about John McCain's campaign style and his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate, Powell said the Republican nominee "didn't have a complete grasp" of the economic crisis facing the United States and was focusing instead on "issues that are not really central to the problems that the American people are worried about."
Lifelong Republican Colin Powell surprised the audience of NBCs Meet the Press this weekend with his endorsement of Barack Obama for president, calling the Illinois senator a “transformational figure” who could be an “exceptional president.” Citing a litany of complaints about John McCain’s campaign style and his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate, Powell said the Republican nominee “didn’t have a complete grasp” of the economic crisis facing the United States and was focusing instead on “issues that are not really central to the problems that the American people are worried about.”
Commentators have since rushed to ask what impact Powell’s words will have on the U.S. election, now just two weeks away. Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson looked to one of Colin Powell’s closest confidants, Lawrence Wilkerson, for answers. A retired Army colonel, Wilkerson has been an associate of General Powell since 1989, following him through the Army and later to Foggy Bottom, where Wilkerson became then Secretary of State Powell’s chief of staff. Since leaving office, Wilkerson has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, telling ABCs Tony Jones in 2006, “They’ve stolen my party and I would like my party back.”
Foreign Policy: Colin Powell endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama this weekend on Meet the Press. How significant was that move for General Powell, and was it something you expected?
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson: I was stunned. I was ecstatic. I was thrilled, but I was stunned. I thought that he would come forward and make statements about the need to tamp down the hatred and the vitriol that seemed to be surrounding Senator McCain and Governor Palin’s rallies. And I thought he would use the opportunity to make his strong point about Muslims. I thought he would take the opportunity to reinforce that we need to restore America’s reputation and solve this financial crisis. But I didnt think that he would endorse a particular candidate.
FP: What effect, if any, do you think this endorsement will have on General Powells relationship with the Republican Party?
LW: Well I think they’re already spinning it as a tribal thing: that he sided with a black man because he’s a black man, and that sort of thing. Thats’ of course preposterous; nothing would be further from his mind than color of skin and he stands as a testimony to that. So its a product of political spin. Theyre getting desperate.
FP: What’s your take on the tone of the campaign?
LW: I was fully expecting the grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan to arrive from Maryland and endorse McCain. I was becoming frightened that we were returning to 1968, when they assassinated Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Those were bad times.
One of the most dramatic moments for me was when I was watching McCain on television, and I thought I saw in McCain’s eyes himself, when someone yelled something out, a recognition of, “Oh, God, what have I done?” This is not McCain; he doesnt cater to this. But for the first time in his political life, I think he realized that there are some strange people in the Republican tent. My father used to say, “Larry beware of the left because they will bankrupt you; beware of the right because they will kill you.’
FP: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of each of the candidates in foreign policy?
LW: Both have strengths. I’m not quite sure what I would describe as Obamas weaknesses, not because I’m trying to say that he’s perfect but because he’s so unflappable and so far his pronouncements have been so solid. I’m not happy with his reluctance to be more forward on U.S.-Cuba policy. I’m not happy with the need to be more nuanced in Afghanistan; the answer is simply more troops. I’m not that content so far on the economic crisis; there are some things that need to be done and said to the American people, who are carrying on average 13 credit cards, 2-3 maxed out to the hilt. American people bear some responsibility for this crisis.
With McCain, I’m alarmed by the lack of sophistication on issues such as Iran; the bomb Iran [idea] seemed to come out of [McCain’s] passion more than his judgment. I’m alarmed by the people around him; [many] are radicals. They are just like the Wolfowitzes and the Perles of the world. Calling them conservatives offends the title. I have grave difficulty with McCain taking advice from these people. I am concerned with his inability to accept that we have to leave Iraq. Victory is not coming home with trumpets blaring; it is leaving a relatively stable government in place that wont fall in first five minutes and not resort to civil war. He still thinks that victory was possible in my war, Vietnam, which I know was not correct. Those kinds of things concern me.
FP: In FP‘s September/October issue, David Frum argues that foreign policy will not change much in the next administration — be it Democrat or Republican. What do you see as key areas for foreign policy change or refocusing for the next president?
LW: We are leveraged in this country up to our teeth; if we don’t do something about debt, we can forget about foreign policy; we can forget about having powerful armed forces. As Eisenhower said, national security is not about aircrafts and amphibious units; it’s about the American people and the soundness of economy.
After that, our No. 1 and No. 2 issues are Afghanistan and Iraq and also the Palestinian-Israeli problem. It is all going to need to be addressed right away. But if our economy is so bad that the new president can only focus on that, then these foreign policy issues are going to go out the window.
FP: You’ve spoken out against the changes in the Bush administration made in the way the United States conducts diplomacy. What are those changes, and where did the administration go awry?
LW: The creeping militarization of foreign policy. It’s not for nothing that Dick Lugar has been having hearings on that topic. The military is taking responsibility for more and more of what was traditionally State [Department] turf. The most senior diplomats are not from State but are the four-star generals. That’s the person who really is looked at as the senior government representative in the region. The creation of AFRICOM just highlights that. We have no business addressing a command for Africa; we should be addressing Africas problems through soft power.
FP: How much progress can the next president make in restoring America’s reputation in the world, and how should he do so?
LW: Thats an easy question to answer, but hard to do. On Inauguration Day in my inauguration speech, I would do two things: I would ban torture and I would direct the closure of Guantnamo. And then I would do other things in the first 100 days: I would take a look at negotiations with Iran and at the six-party talks with [North] Korea. I would take a look at U.S.-Cuba relations. Those are actions that would indicate that America is back.
Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
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