Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell during President George W. Bush’s first administration and a visiting professor of government at the College, scolded Israel commanders for not learning from the U.S. example: “You do not use air power in an urban environment against a guerilla force, or the injured civilians will be on TV and mar your operation,” he said. “The United States showed the failure of precision bombing in Iraq.”
Later in the Israeli war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Wilkerson, an expert in tank warfare, watched television footage of Israeli tanks moving through “kill boxes” without infantry support, which exposed the vehicles to attack. He said such manuevers defied basic tank warfare strategies, a situation he attributed to Israel’s casual regard of its enemy.
“Israel got this way through hubris, the same way that the United States entered the Middle East,” he said.
Repeatedly Israel and the United States have failed to understand the principle that “you don’t change people with bombs and bullets; you change people with diplomacy,” he added. Turning his remarks toward the U.S. intelligence community, which he called “broken,” Wilkerson said, “If they had the goal of destroying stability in the Middle East, they’ve succeeded.”
During his speech, Wilkerson offered comments successively on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. He also talked about broader issues, including oil. At one point, he suggested that the United States entered Iraq in an ongoing attempt to secure the world’s oil fields. He cited rumors indicating that there may be enough oil reserves in Iraq to confirm it as the largest oil field in the world; at the same time, he said, there is speculation that Saudi Arabia’s oil may be running out. The fact that Chinese officials recently decided to build all of their own supertankers—which means that China is going to need a “blue-water Navy,”—only points toward increasing worldwide tension over the resource, he said.
For the United States, “the reason we acted in Iraq was oil. It was a case of national interest,” he said. At the same time, Wilkerson decried the fact that soldiers were dying for oil in Iraq while energy conservation efforts in the United States virtually were nonexistent. “How do you explain that to them?” he asked.
Among the scarier scenarios Wilkerson envisioned involved a situation in which Iran were about to acquire a nuclear weapon. “Israel would take it out,” he said, adding that the Israeli military may do so by using one of its 300-plus nuclear weapons. Concerning Afghanistan, Wilkerson likened the July decision to bring international peacekeeping troops into that country to “giving a hospital pass to NATO.” Hospital pass, he explained, is a rugby phrase indicating a player was going “to pass the ball to someone who was going to get killed.”
Wilkerson called Iran “the most dangerous” factor in the Middle East. “President [George H.] Bush didn’t finish the first war because he wanted a balance of power in the region and he didn’t want us to be the balancer,” he said. Wilkerson suggested that the destruction of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban has increased Iran’s leverage. “Iran is sitting there with no enemy but us, and they think we’re a paper tiger,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson’s assessment of situations in the Middle East and U.S. involvement there was not completely negative. “There still is opportunity to get to the root cause, which is the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” he said. “If we were to wake up and focus on that problem, we’d get 65 percent down that road.” In terms of working toward that reconciliation, the United States should stop acting as “Israel’s lawyer,” he said. If the United States were seen as being even-handed in the region, “imagine what that would do to Iran,” he said.
Wilkerson said that part of the problem with what he termed America’s failing foreign policy stemmed from the reluctance of Congress to assert its authority against the executive branch. Another problem was the “apathy” and “political cyncicism” he observed throughout the United States, including among students at William and Mary. He recalled a class dicussion in which the fact that, in local elections, it is common for less than 5 percent of eligible voters to cast ballots. An older member of the class, Joan, whom apparently regularly cast her ballots, jumped in and told her nonvoting classmates, “You aren’t going to get anything,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson challenged members of the audience to vote, reminding them if they were unhappy with the way the United States was heading that their voting could influence the direction.