Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff under Secretary of State Colin Powell, spoke about United States foreign policy in the Middle East in Hodson Hall on Nov. 20.
The event concluded the inaugural New Political Society (NPS) lecture series and was co-sponsored by the College Republicans.
Wilkerson’s talk included a discussion of diplomacy in Iran and the general apathy that U.S. citizens have regarding politics and diplomacy.
Wilkerson, who now teaches courses on national security at The College of William and Mary, is a vocal critic of U.S. affairs in the Middle East.
He began his talk by recognizing and praising the discussions that have recently taken place regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
“This process has, for the first time in 20 years, actually arrested or halted and even, in some respects, reversed Iran’s nuclear program,” Wilkerson said. “It is absolutely stunning what President Hassan Rouhani has signed up to given the opposition I know he has in Tehran.”
Wilkerson also said that he believes that U.S. sanctions against Iran have been successful.
“This is an incredible thing we have achieved, and the Congress in its collective wisdom designed this whole thing with the most successful sanctions the world has ever seen, with more cohesiveness than the world has ever seen,” he said. “We have got all of these disparate characters participating in this sanctions regime and doing it for admittedly self-interest in many respects but against their long term interest in some cases.”
Wilkerson also said that the U.S. cannot maintain these sanctions indefinitely and urged that the U.S. and its allies define a joint plan of action for the nuclear situation in Iran.
Wilkerson described how diplomatic discussions taking place could lead to the eventual lifting of sanctions against Iran if their government cooperates.
“This diplomacy is aimed at, if it works, solidifying a statement to Iran that says, ‘If you do what you have signed up to do over the next seven to 10 years, we will, at junctures in that doing, lift sanctions. In the meantime, while you do these things and appear to be trustworthy in doing it, we will suspend it,’” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson also noted that the monitoring of Iran is much heavier than that of North Korea, suggesting that Iran will be discouraged from cheating a potential agreement. The U.S. currently funds on-the-ground inspectors at every Iranian nuclear facility and operates cameras that run 24/7. They also fund unannounced inspections of their facilities.
Wilkerson said that the details of any agreement with Iran could be imperfect, but he argued that the other options in solving the conflict with Iran would be far worse, especially resorting to violence. He claimed that bombing Iran would just drive the Iranians and nuclear activity underground and would render any further sanctions to be ineffective.
“With regards to Iran, I think [Wilkerson] is expressing an opinion that many insiders in Washington have been quietly discussing for a while but has now broken out into the mainstream dialogue — that is, Iran and the USA are headed towards an endpoint that will see a significant easing of tensions, politically and economic,” Sarallah Sallehi, president of the NPS, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
He said the worst path that the U.S. could pursue would be an invasion of Iran. He argued this would further position the U.S. as a target for terrorists and would drain the national treasury budget.
Wilkerson warned that consequences from pursuing aggressive strategies could lead to the downfall of the U.S.
“This is how Rome did itself in,” he said. “This is how lots of empires did themselves in: wasting away their resources on the peripheries of their empire, against forces that really were not existential threats to them but they felt they had to deal with.”
Wilkerson said that one of the biggest threats to the United States’s status as a powerful and influential world leader is the general growing apathy among citizens regarding political and foreign policy issues. He said that U.S. citizens have to get interested and engaged in issues such as resolving the conflict in Iran as well as establishing diplomacy worldwide.
“If there is anything that truly disturbs me about the state of our empire and the state of our nation, it is that we don’t have a lot of interested people out there in something. Socrates said, ‘Life itself, politics means life’ — life as in what you have to do to govern yourself,” Wilkerson said.
Sallehi felt that Wilkerson was knowledgeable and unbiased in his analysis of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
“What is so appealing about Col. Wilkerson is that despite his political affiliations with Republican party, he nonetheless, still brings a balanced and pragmatic take on America’s involvement abroad,” Sallehi wrote.