SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues his tour of the Middle East this weekend at a time when the Trump administration is sending some mixed signals about its intentions in the region. The Pentagon said yesterday the U.S. has begun withdrawing troops from Syria, as promised by President Trump.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we have won against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land, and now it's time for our troops to come back home.
MCCAMMON: But the announcement last month of plans to withdraw from Syria was followed by these messages from national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Pompeo and the president himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
JOHN BOLTON: We're going to be discussing the president's decision to withdraw but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated. And...
MIKE POMPEO: Let me be clear - America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.
TRUMP: We are pulling back in Syria. We're going to be removing our troops. I never said we're doing it that quickly.
POMPEO: There's no contradiction whatsoever.
MCCAMMON: If you're confused, well, so are others, including our next guest. He's Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Good to be here.
MCCAMMON: So Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in Cairo this week which was billed as a major address on the Trump administration's Middle East policy. You issued a critical statement in response. You cited a lack of policy consistency. What's the impact both on our allies and our foes of what seemed to be mixed signals from the president and his administration?
WILKERSON: That's a good question. Pompeo's attempt to stitch together what has become very clearly a disorganized, even in shambles foreign policy with regard to the Middle East was not successful. One of the things that he did and that he's going to do again in a ministerial in Poland 13 and 14 February, accordingly - the State Department released a statement yesterday - is go after Iran, which is becoming the focus, as John Bolton might say he wanted it to be, of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
And it's absurd. We're looking at, for example, Pompeo saying things about Iran that are true about Saudi Arabia - in fact, more true about Saudi Arabia than they are about Iran. Furthermore, he didn't even mention the bloodiest, most brutal war we have in the region in a long time in Yemen which the United States is complicit in along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, his host, the UAE and others in the coalition. And the complicity there is Saudi Arabia, not Iran. In fact, Iran was not even in Yemen before Saudi Arabia attacked the Houthi.
So focusing on Iran is debilitating. It's subtracting, detracting from our ability to have a coherent policy. And, ultimately, it is becoming the end all and be all for the Trump administration with regard to this region.
MCCAMMON: Where should the focus be?
POMPEO: The focus should be on stability and a return to stability after the U.S. destabilized the whole region in the greatest strategic mistake the U.S. has made in this century. And that is the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And, frankly, I'm no fan of Donald Trump, but his decision to withdraw the 2,000-some odd U.S. ground forces from Syria was a good decision, not a bad one. And now we're looking at John Bolton trying to pull that decision back and others too, and Pompeo caught in the middle trying to stitch it all together.
MCCAMMON: You said you think that withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is a good move. But there is concern that with the absence of U.S. troops, ISIS could return. We saw a similar return in Iraq after the U.S. pullback there. Why do you think that wouldn't happen in Syria?
WILKERSON: First of all, ISIS has been pretty roundly defeated in most areas and in composite. Second, I think the real reason for ISIS's resurgence, as it were, in the previous occasion was because the government in Baghdad was treating the Sunnis so badly post our withdrawal. So we have a different government in Baghdad now. So I don't think we have the incentive for ISIS to resurrect itself other than as an Islamic Jihadist organization. If that can't be defeated by four and a half, five million men and women under arms in the region, then they don't deserve the United States to try and help them. I don't think ISIS will be resurrected. If it is, the - it'll be defeated by the local troops.
MCCAMMON: You referred earlier to the widely acknowledged failures of the Iraq war, including intelligence failures. I think a lot of people who remember that war will remember that you helped Secretary Powell make the case for going to war against Saddam Hussein to keep him from using weapons of mass destruction - which, of course, was later regarded as a major intelligence failure. How does that experience affect your thinking now?
WILKERSON: Well, guilty as charged. First of all, one of the lowest moments of my life. I think it's - I could say for Colin Powell, it probably was a low moment, too. It affects my thinking now in that I see the very same thing happening with regard to Iran. I see a collection of intelligence being orchestrated, engineered and then cherry-picked to be - to lead us to ultimately a regime change in Tehran, just as we did in 2003. And that - I've written op-eds in The New York Times, I've talked about on radio and TV. I think that is the last straw for the Middle East if we get involved in a war with Iran in terms of U.S. policy. We'll never be able to go back there again.
MCCAMMON: That's retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and currently serves as an advisory board member for an advocacy group called Foreign Policy for America.
Thanks so much.
WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.