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October 20, 2005

Vital Reading for All Americans (and our friends in other countries)
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:07 PM * 39 comments

Transcript: Colonel Wilkerson on US foreign policy

The following is a partial transcript of remarks made by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell, to the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank.

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.

Really, read the whole thing. I don’t have anything to add to it.

[UPDATE] A link to a better, fuller transcript. (Thank you, Andrew Kanaber.)

Comments on Vital Reading for All Americans (and our friends in other countries):
#1 ::: ben ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 03:41 PM:

For those who may be wondering, the suicide to which Wilkerson refers is Forrestal's. The one book I've read that goes into any detail about that is McCullough's biography of Truman, in which it's strongly implied that Forrestal had a nervous breakdown that went untreated until it was too late.

Crying shame the source tape was such crap.

#2 ::: Karl Kindred ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 04:01 PM:

I'm going to embarrass myself here with an admission: I have a hard time following him.

At first he seems to be bootlicking the elder shrub and all he stood for, and then he totally sacks jr. and his minions.

I agree with a lot of what he has to say at a first glance level, but I always find it hard to trust the evaluations of a guy who opens with statements I don't agree with. The elder Bush directly or indirectly created a large portion of the worst foreign policy problems we deal with today, and this guy clearly loves makes me distrust his evaluation and analysis skills.

Which then shades my thinking for everything else he has to say. It makes parsing the criticisms very difficult for me.

In another comment thread a smart person pointed out that perhaps his praise of the elder Bush was just a tool to get past the audiences' own set of idea filters, and that makes sense, but I still have issues with his starting frame of reference.

Somehow I need to turn down the gain on my own idea filters and give it a second (or third read) I guess.

#3 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 05:17 PM:

Try it this way:

Even someone who loves the father is appalled by the son.

#4 ::: Andy Vance ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 05:26 PM:

I have one thing to add: Why in the hell did he not say anything before now?

#5 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 05:32 PM:

After one month in office, Lincoln still had not decided on a policy of action against the secessionist states. Seward, therefore, decided to supply the president with one. In a memo entitled “Some Thoughts for the President's Consideration,” Seward suggested that the administration should provoke a war with a foreign nation so as to unite the country in a wave of patriotism. Seward also suggested that he, rather than Lincoln, might be better equipped to formulate the administration's policy. Lincoln tactfully put his presumptuous Secretary of State in his place.
"Lincoln, Abraham," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005

At last Stanton told Mr. Lincoln that he was in a great hurry, and if any business was to be done he would like to do it at once. Whereupon Mr. Lincoln laid down the open book, opened a drawer, took out a paper and said: "Gentlemen, I have called you together to notify you what I have determined to do. I want no advice. Nothing can change my mind." Robert Green Ingersoll

Obviously a Lincoln comes rarely but the process has demonstrably worked once or twice.

The complexity of the crises that confront governments today are just unprecedented. Are they indeed? The Marshall Plan was simple and sending SB2C Helldivers to Greece was an easy solution to that civil war?

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.
Allen and John Foster Dulles were government in the sunshine?

There is a point here that things could be nicer and leaders wiser than they are. I doubt we need more legislation so that Congress can in fact force the executive branch to do something that it doesn’t want to do.

Count me among those 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. Build a Utopia by fiat is like building a perfect car by Fiat we'll always get a Yugo.

A Parliamentary System where the executive is the creature of the legislature might be more open and it works well as when by Mr. Heinlein's fiat the parliament has 2 parties the good guys and the opposition - and the executive is Larry Smith - so there is always either the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet to turn to and so enforce open government. As we see in Germany today alternatives are often not at all clear cut.

Surprising that the editor could not at least insert Groves in brackets and other such.

#6 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 05:33 PM:

Because now that there's a scratch in the teflon, there's a chance that the accusations will do some good, as opposed to bouncing off and being dismissed as "the rantings of a disgruntled employee."

#7 ::: Karl Kindred ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 06:16 PM:

I have figured out my problem with this piece. He starts out his analysis sections with position statements I generally don't agree with and closes with conclusions that I generally do agree with.

The whiplash keeps leaving me with a sense that either I am misunderstanding his conclusions (because I don't follow his steps to get there); or I feel like I am missing some great joke of sarcasm at my expense.

Oddly enough, I suspect that his audience was uncomfortable with the speech for the exact opposite reasons. They probably loved his prefatory opinions, and hated his conclusions.

So, at the end of the day he probably made a few people think, even if he didn't change any minds overnight. For that alone he deserves a cookie.

#8 ::: Zander ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 06:51 PM:

I'm fascinated by this Brigadier General Leslie [inaudible]. Either he's one of the New Hampshire [inaudible]s, or his name just happened to be obscured by noise three times in one minute.

I'm ashamed to say I wimped out, though. Didn't make it through to the end.


#9 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 06:52 PM:

What, he's not allowed to come to the same conclusions as you when starting from a different place? :-)

#10 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 07:03 PM:

What, he's not allowed to come to the same conclusions as you when starting from a different place?

That's one of my favorite things...when arguing politics with a friend, once, we were coming from opposite principles in the abstract, but when we got down to cases we agreed up and down the line!

It reminds me of the song ("Six Months Out of Every Year," from Damn Yankees) where half the men sing "He's out!" and the other half sing "He's safe!" but they join together on "You're blind, Ump, you're blind, Ump, you must be outta your mind, Ump!"

Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton appear to be pals these days, or at least able to work together on important stuff. Remember that Bush Sr. gave his public service award to Ted Kennedy? I don't think even Bush Sr. likes his good-for-nothing son.

#11 ::: Tom Womack ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 07:08 PM:

Brigadier-General Leslie [inaudible] must be Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project, from context.

Which is understandably inaudible, being a long constant-toned monosyllable with only a little hiss at the end to insert the consonants.

#12 ::: Tom Womack ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 07:25 PM:

Who are the New America Foundation? I've a learned distrust of think-tanks with motherhood-and-apple-pie names, though their Web page suggests they're taking pretty sane policy positions.

Nothing to say about the speech save 'wow'; I'm glad somebody with power sees the parallels between now and the military-industrial complex speech, which make me wish to seek the aid of the shade of Eisenhower whenever I read Aviation Leak, or any of the other complex of magazines that take their adverts from Northrup-Grummon. I'm glad there are people out there, far from actual power as Colonel Wilkerson may be, who read exposés and fill extra pages with their marginal notes on what really happened; glad there are people there who believe that lack of transparency in government is an active evil.

But what can I do to help? Colonel Wilkerson doesn't need me to stand behind him, quoting that I am the chorus and I agree ...

#13 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 07:30 PM:

The entire speech (and Q & A afterwards) are up now at the New America Foundation site:

The entire talk with Q & A is 95:59.

Direct links:


I've been listening to this all day long.

From the Q & A:
"Public diplomacy? Broken. Broken. But I will say this. I will say this. An Egyptian friend of mine said this to me. It's hard to sell shit."

#15 ::: Georgiana ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 08:00 PM:

Zander - it's worth reading to the end. I had a hard time with some of the stuff at the beginning but for me it's a matter of trust. If Jim says I should read it then I'll trust him and read it all the way through. I'm glad I did. Amazing.

#16 ::: Andrew Kanaber ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 09:17 PM:

Steve Clemons has put up a full and much better transcript at

#17 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 11:24 PM:

Whatever else you want to say about Bush Sr., it cannot be denied that he and his people were serious people, with serious ideas about how to run the country, both "why" and "how".

I like serious people, even when they're wrong, because you're at least operating in the same universe. Bush Jr. and his crew are fundamentally unserious.

#18 ::: Karl Kindred ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2005, 11:54 PM:


I'd agree with you if you did a search/replace for "serious" and put in "realistic".


I don't object to someone agreeing with me at the end, but I'm always suspicious of a "joke on me" when I can't understand how they get there.

But I think Xopher's baseball analogy is almost "Roberts-ian" in it's eloquence.

#19 ::: hrc ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 12:22 AM:

Andy Vance: The reason Wilkerson did not speak up before now is because of his loyalty to Colin Powell. By doing what he did, he has severed a 16 year relationship with a man he truly respected and cared about. I met Powell when I was working at DoD in the General Counsel's office, and he was a Colonel detailed to SecDef Brown at the time. I am not surprised that he can inspire that sort of loyalty, only that Powell served such an ignoble leader/cause himself. He has lost a great deal as a result.

#20 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 12:42 AM:

HRC, you have repeated what I Do Not Like about Colin Powell. Good man good service, unfortunately whipped devotion to a stupid cause. And I'm positive (as positive as I can be about any government issue) that he'll lose out and be discarded in the end.

#21 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:06 AM:

"Put not your trust in kings...."

#22 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 02:18 AM:

There's a quote I have here attributed to Napoleon (from my battered old copy of Up the Organization) which neatly summarizes Colin Powell's failing:

A commander in chief cannot take as an excuse for his mistakes in warfare an order given by his minister or his sovereign, when the person giving the order is absent from the field of operations and is imperfectly aware or wholly unaware of the latest state of affairs. It follows that any commander in chief who undertakes to carry out a plan which he considers defective is at fault; he must put forward his reasons, insist on the plan being changed, and finally tender his resignation rather than be the instrument of his army's downfall.

Hard words, but true in any sphere. Personal loyalty can be no excuse for countenancing a disaster to one's army, organization, or country.

#23 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 06:55 AM:

I'm kind of short on accepting personal loyalty as an excuse for keeping silent to protect people who've set up an environment where this can happen. (Warning: the newspaper article on the other end of that link is not suitable for those with weak stomachs. No pun intended.)

#24 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 08:14 AM:

Charlie; takes me back to the Good Old Suffragette Days, that story does -- they were a lot more recent in the UK & USA than Godzone here, where it's already past our centenary of women's suffrage.

It was seen as a kind of torture in those days too, tho' I don't remember having such details being described.

#25 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 08:36 AM:

It can't be said too often: Colin Powell Is A Evil Man And A Waste Of Matter.
He is the only man to have been involved in all of the four most disgraceful incidents in the US military's post-war history: the massacre and attempted coverup at My Lai 4, the Iran-Contra conspiracy, the betrayal and destruction of the Shia rebels in southern Iraq in 1991 and the deceit required to make the case for the invasion in 2003.
He has exactly one guiding star - a happy life for Colin Powell. To this end he has lied to the people he swore to defend; he has concealed the murder of hundreds of innocents; he has worked to undermine the Constitution for which he swore he would give his life; he has disobeyed the legal instructions of his own Congress; he has burned the hard-won reputation of his country to ashes before the watching eyes of the world. His service has been neither good nor honourable.

Looking back, it worries me that he came so close to being President. With his obvious intelligence, his ability for inspiring loyalty, his personal charm and his utter lack of moral sense, how much worse would the situation be? At least 49% of you can see through Bush. Intelligent men like Wilkerson stuck with Powell long into the night. Would you all have been immune?

#26 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 08:53 AM:

BSD says "...I like serious people, even when they're wrong, because you're at least operating in the same universe. Bush Jr. and his crew are fundamentally unserious..."

I've met plenty of serious people in my line of work, which is computer programming. More than once, I've been involved in big projects where I was the one pointing out that one of the group's solutions wasn't going to work. Or it WOULD work, until someone stumbled into what I call Murphy's Real Law:

"If someone can do it wrong, someone will."

In other words, put in some frigging failsafes.

Bush Sr.'s people sure didn't put in any failsafe when they provided help to Saddam Hussein. They sure didn't put in failsafes when they trained Osama bin Laden.

Amazing how that seldom gets brought up by the Liberal Media.

#27 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 10:59 AM:


I don't see what he's wrong about with Bush Sr, I mean he says Bush Sr was good at diplomacy with the reunification of Germany and sitting down with people and making them feel as if they'd made a contribution. I don't know a thing about it, but he was there, and I don't see any striking evidence against. Bush Sr wasn't the best President in the world maybe, but didn't have the arrogance of this administration towards the rest of the world either.

#28 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 11:10 AM:

It's true. Bush I may not have been stellar, but he was in charge during an extremely risky period of history and managed not to screw things up. Don't forget that it was almost accepted wisdom in the 80s that Russia would do anything - including war - to prevent German reunification. Bush managed to manage Russia to prevent a war over Germany, over the collapse of the USSR, or over Iraq, cut back the armed forces from Cold War levels rapidly and successfully (thus making life easier for Clinton, who would have had a much harder time trying to halve the US Army). True, he left poor old Bill with Bosnia and Somalia, but he could have left him with a lot worse - an occupation of Iraq, civil war in Ukraine (with nuclear weapons!), vast deficits, overblown military...

#29 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 12:50 PM:

Brief discussion by Daniel W. Drezner with long excerpts at:
What's the big deal about Wilkerson's speech? Well, for the press, it's the latest sign of a conservative crack-up.( ) For foreign policy wonks, it's the accusation that the Bush administration pretty much ignored the 1947 National Security Act.....

#30 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 04:47 PM:

Bush I leased his soul to the gives-Christians-a-bad-name rightwing extremist theocrats to get into positions of power, as VP and then President. The true telling moments were after he lost the electon to Clinton, and suddenly his policies changes on a whole bunch of things0--the strings on him weren't there anymore, and the Real George Herbert Walker Bush emerged from the rentaposterboyforrightwingers.

That last month and a half of his Presidency there was a different personality in the White House with a different set of values involved... He'd converted/complied with the repressive recidivists for expedience and collaborated with them for years, that last month and a half, was different.

#31 ::: CaseyL ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 09:19 PM:

I don't remember Bush I "managing" Russia to anyone's greater benefit.

I do remember the attempted coup against Gorbachev back in '91, when a neo-Stalinist cabal tried to take over. Bush I's reaction was to announce he'd recognize whoever prevailed as the legitimate government.

It was also the first Bush Admin that sent James Baker to China after the Tiananmen Square massacre to reassure the leadership that business would go on as usual.

It was also the Elder Bush who encouraged an uprising against Saddam Hussein - and them promptly abandoned them. It was the Elder Bush who talked a good game about "A New World Order" after the First Iraq War - yet couldn't or wouldn't even try to hold Kuwait to its promise of democratization after the war.

Bush I only looks like a statesman compared to his spawn.

#32 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 01:10 AM:

"Bush I only looks like a statesman compared to his spawn."

Yeah, it's a matter of contrasts.

Cartoonist Patrick Farley wrote an essay about how he stopped being a Republican. It has a great line that goes something like: "I apologize for doubting Ronald Reagan's mental capacity now that I know what it is like having a genuine moron in the White House."

#33 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 03:45 AM:

"They sure didn't put in failsafes when they trained Osama bin Laden."

what would such failsafes have been like? I like to imagine a conspiratorial OBL who would do everything the Bush crime family told him to (as long as it didn't get him killed or put in prison), just think how different that situation would be than the one we find ourselves in today!

#34 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 04:27 AM:

Serge, that is "Murphy's Real Law." The original Murphy was an engineer involved with the Air Force rocket sled experiments in the Forties -- Col. John Stapp and all that interesting film of acceleration. Anyway, the sled had about a dozen accelerometers mounted, and after an early run Murphy discovered that the technician assigned to install them had put in every single one backward, resulting in no usable data. His real outrage was that the devices were so constructed that they could be installed wrongly, and "Murphy's Law" was originally, "If you make it possible for someone to do something the wrong way, someone will." He greatly disliked having an expression of proper design get turned into an expression of the magical cussedness of the Universe.

Of course, you may already know all that.

#35 ::: Tom Scudder ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 06:34 AM:

Ah well, if he hadn't wanted his expression to be reinterpreted, he should have written it so that it would not have been possible.

#36 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 12:08 PM:

Excerpted Billmon comment on Lawrence Wilkerson's statement:

"Like Richard Clarke, Wilkerson strikes me as reasonably representative of the technicians who actually run the empire -- and his assumptions largely appear to reflect those of his class. American supremecy is a taken as a given, requiring no legal or moral justification. Not because America has any grand historical mission to spread the blessings of democracy to the heathen, but because American power maintains the world order and keeps the peace, or at least something approximating it. It also keeps the sea lanes open and the oil flowing and the wheels of industry turning, not just here but around the world.

It does appear to have dawned on Wilkerson that the U.S. hegomony isn't viewed as quite such an execise in utilitarian benevolance by the rest of the world, but I'm not sure he understands exactly why this is. I think he puts far too much blame on the cabal's shenanigans -- although these admittedly have made things worse -- and not enough on the fact that empires, even the practical, no nonsense type favored by the realists, are anachronisms in the modern world."

#37 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 05:04 PM:

Ah well, if he hadn't wanted his expression to be reinterpreted, he should have written it so that it would not have been possible.

You know, for years I've known that story, and this simple insight never once occurred to me. Genius!

#38 ::: Steven Scougall ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2005, 01:00 AM:

(Hello hello, long-time lurker, and most likely a one-shot poster...)

Just a little bit more on Murphy's Law.

First, Finagle's Law: If something can go wrong, it will.

And then Murphy's Law: If there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way.

I always find it funny that Murphy's Law ended up applied to *itself*.

#39 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2005, 03:54 PM:

It seems to me that Wilkerson has the relationship between the bureaucracy and the elected leadership exactly backward. His basic complaint seems to be "the elected leaders did what they thought best without consulting the bureuacracy." And he seems to argue from that and arrive at the conclusion that the bureaucracy should have done MORE to ensure that its policy preferences, rather than the elected government's, were enacted. I'm sorry, but that is a scary idea. Applied to the military, it gets you military coups; applied to the civilian bureaucracy, it gets you something that resembles an oligarchy more than a democracy.

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