Richard Perle was one of the arch hawks who helped to push America into the Iraq war. Four years on, Suzanne Goldenberg finds him unrepentant
Tuesday May 29, 2007
Richard Perle says he has nothing to apologise for. True, in 1998 he signed on to a letter from prominent neo-conservatives calling on the then president, Bill Clinton, to use force if necessary to oust Saddam Hussein. True, too, that as chairman of the defence policy board from 2001 to 2003, he was an adviser to the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in the pivotal days of planning for the Iraq war. But of the unfortunate consequences that flowed from those events - a war that by some estimates has claimed the lives of 655,000 Iraqis, and more than 3,400 US troops, a war that has entrenched hatred of America and brought suicide bombings to the cities of Europe - Perle says he has no regrets.
"I will take responsibility for what I argued which was that we should remove Saddam, and I am willing to defend that position today," says Perle, who is to be interviewed by Philippe Sands at the Guardian Hay Festival tonight. "Do I take responsibility for the things that went wrong afterwards? I had no influence over those things, unfortunately."
Perle's refusal to shoulder any share of the blame for the catastrophic consequences of his ideas about the world comes at a time when neo-conservative forces seem to be on the retreat in the Bush presidency. Earlier this month, Paul Wolfowitz, another prime force behind the war in Iraq, was forced out of the World Bank, in a scandal which, though officially about outsize pay rises for his girlfriend, was animated by anger about the war.
In January, Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice-president Dick Cheney, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Last November, Rumsfeld was swept aside as Pentagon chief, following the Republicans' election defeat.
With nearly two-thirds of Americans opposed to the war, one could be forgiven for thinking that Perle might be looking for cover. Earlier this year, Vanity Fair magazine published an article raising the astonishing prospect that Perle, one of the most ardent advocates of war on Iraq, had been having second thoughts. Asked whether it would have been possible to contain Saddam without military intervention, Perle told the magazine: "Maybe we could have." A neo-con recants!
But, as soon becomes apparent during our conversation, it is some distance from that glancing admission to a real change of heart, and there is little evidence that the debacle in Iraq has led Perle to question the hawkish views that have guided his life and - not incidentally - made his career in Washington.
Ask Perle for his ideas on how to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear arsenal, and the formula is eerily familiar. He is not yet sure the time is ripe to carry out air strikes on Tehran. "But if the only way to prevent Iran from being a nuclear weapons power is to destroy one or more facilities that will give them that capability I see no moral basis for rejecting that option," Perle says.
He would also like to see the US actively working to destabilise Iran by supporting opponents of the regime. The same lessons could then be applied to Syria, he says.
When I arrive at Perle's house in Chevy Chase, still a bastion of liberals just outside the district line of Washington, DC, the front door is open, and he is having a loud telephone conversation in comically accented French. It could have been an auditory hallucination, but it seemed that at one point, he bellowed: 'Je t'aime." A dog skitters across the polished wood floors. Its name is Reagan, and it will spend a fair amount of time in Perle's lap as he talks about Iraq.
A disciple of the cold war hawk and Democratic senator, Henry Scoop Jackson, Perle spent several years as a staffer in the US Senate before gaining a post as assistant secretary of defence in the 1980s administration of Ronald Reagan. It was during his Reagan period that Perle acquired a reputation as someone who preferred to exercise his influence outside the public eye. Much to his annoyance, he is still referred to as "the Prince of Darkness" in Washington circles. He is also known as a neo-con - though Perle objects to that label too, claiming that he remains a registered Democrat.
He moved on to the defence policy board in 1987, and stayed until 2004, when he was forced to step down amid charges that he had used his position to try to influence the sale of a telecommunications firm to a Chinese company.
Perle, who remains associated with a number of conservative think-tanks, came under additional scrutiny for his role as a director of Conrad Black's Hollinger International Inc. His management of his responsibilities to the board led the authors of the Breeden Report, which investigated allegations that Black was defrauding the company, to describe Perle as a "faithless fiduciary".
But those knocks - not to mention the bloody chaos of Iraq - do not appear to have led Perle to a reappraisal of his thinking. "I haven't lost any friends over this," he says. (I don't tell him about the neighbour who yelled out: "Tell him he was wrong about the war," when I stopped to check street directions.) He refuses to say whether he has lost any sleep.
Instead, Perle continues to cling to a view of events in Iraq that has now been comprehensively discredited. Even now, when it is abundantly clear that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction that were the pretext for the war, Perle insists that it was the right decision to remove Saddam by force. "Even after recognising that some of the information was wrong, the judgment that Saddam proposed a threat and a serious threat was right," he says.
Against the reams of evidence to the contrary - including congressional inquiries into the administration's misuse of intelligence in the run-up to the war - Perle continues to insist that Saddam Hussein was a friend of al-Qaida.
So if the ideas were sound, where did it all go wrong? It is here, perhaps, that Perle makes his most astonishing statement: Washington did not do enough to prop up former Iraqi exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi. But, ever the insider, Perle does not point too high when assigning blame. He carefully avoids fingering President Bush, or his fellow travellers among the hawks and neo-cons - not Cheney, not the former Pentagon officials, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.
After absolving the intellectuals who planted the seeds of war, and the civilians who were instrumental in its planning, Perle turns his ire on General Tommy Franks, the former commander of forces in Iraq. Among Franks's greatest blunders, Perle says, was his failure to stop the looting that erupted the day the regime fell. "The looting was just a serious and inexplicable mistake, made I believe principally by Franks and the military on the ground," he says. "I have, I concede, a low regard for Franks. I think he is a fool, and I thought that the first time I met him."
Donald Rumsfeld, it will be remembered, famously said about the looting: "Stuff happens." But Perle is understanding of that. "I think Rumsfeld thought, people have suffered under this regime so they are going to burn down the symbols of officialdom," he said.
Are the Iraqi people better off today than they were under Saddam? "That's a very temporal question," he says. In Perle's view, it should be left to a later generation of Iraqis to decide whether their lives are less wretched now than they were under Saddam. Was it worth going to war against a regime that did not after all constitute an imminent threat? "It's the wrong issue to talk about imminence," he says. Would he agree the situation in Iraq is disastrous? Disaster is an overused term, he says. "It is what it is." When you get right down to it, he really isn't all that keen to talk about the reality of Iraq.
For Perle, it seems, war is something that happens to other people. It is also a condition about which ordinary mortals - those not privy to classified reports and reliant on newspapers and television for information - may not necessarily be qualified to hold an opinion. He says he learned that lesson in 1974 when he visited Saigon as the clock was winding down on the US presence in South Vietnam. Perle says he was braced for scenes of gore after following press reports of the conflict. "The war was still going on, and I went to several places in Vietnam. I expected before arriving, as a newspaper reader, to see a moonscape when I arrived, to see devastation everywhere. I arrived in Saigon and apart from the sandbags in front of some government buildings you wouldn't have known there was a war going on. Life on the surface was completely normal," Perle says. "I didn't see the war."
Just a year after his visit, America would make its ignominious exit from Vietnam, helicopters lifting off from the US embassy in Saigon. But Perle says he never felt like he was in a real war zone. Small wonder then, perhaps, that 30 years later, he had no reservations in advocating war on Iraq, and was unable to imagine what might come afterwards.