Widely credited as the fountainhead of neoconservative ideology and the chief salesman for the Iraq War, Richard Perle might be expected to play the wallflower in light of the Bush administration’s current travails. But as FP found out in a rare interview with the man known to his adversaries as the ”Prince of Darkness,” Perle remains as undaunted as ever.
Unbowed: Richard Perle may have lost influence due to the Iraq War, but his view of the world has changed little.
FOREIGN POLICY: Youve often been described as a neoconservative. What do people not understand about neoconservatism?
Richard Perle: It is a term that is applied almost at random. Ive seen it applied to Dick Cheney to Don Rumsfeld and to Condi Rice. Those are examples where it clearly is wrong. To some people, its synonymous with supporters of the Bush administration or with important people within the administration. In some cases, particularly in the Middle East, its a code word for Jew. Its frequently described as a movement, which it isnt, or as an organization, which it isnt. Its associated somehow with Leo Strauss, which I think is wrong. Its mindlessly pejorative; it implies that there is a group of people who all think the same way on one or more topics. Its a term that is almost without meaning and is therefore not very useful.
FP: Iran has been behaving more aggressively recently and has vowed to continue with its uranium enrichment program, in defiance of the United Nations Security Council. How can Iran be stopped? Is military action inevitable?
RP: I dont think its inevitable, but I dont see the kind of concerted political action that would be a plausible alternative to military action. It astonishes me that we have no political strategy that entails working with the opposition and that reflects how unpopular the theocracy is. Its a complete failure of imagination. We had such a strategy with Francos Spain, with Salazars Portugal, with Marcoss Philippines, with Milosevics Yugoslavia, and with Poland during Solidarity. In Iran you have mullahs who are acting in a political capacitywho basically rule by force, with the backing of the Basijand they ought to receive a political challenge. There are clerics in Iran, such as Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who dont like the theocracy. And there are lots of indications that a majority of the Iranian people, and certainly the overwhelming majority of young Iranians, identify with Western concepts of government. That is what they voted for when they brought Khatami to power. They were subsequently bitterly disappointed that Khatamis accession to the presidency didnt change anything. There is plenty of scope for a political strategy in Iran, and I think the Iranian mullahs fear it. They must wake up everyday saying to themselves, I cant understand why these Americans havent done anything to use our unpopularity against us. They must be as puzzled as I am.
FP: How are we to understand Saudi Arabias increasingly assertive role in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis? Is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert right in being skeptical of Saudi mediation efforts?
RP: Absolutely. The Saudis are completely cynical on this. They couldnt care less about whether Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement. This more active Saudi policy is a reflection of Saudi fears, and its aimed at dealing with Saudi concerns, not Palestinian concerns or Israeli concerns or global concerns. The Saudis are motivated by self-interest, and even that has to be defined narrowly as the self interest of the House of Saud and the hangers-on who benefit from that dictatorship. Theyre terrified of Iran and theyve always been terrified of Iran. I went to Saudi Arabia in 1973, and all they talked about was the Iranian menaceso you can imagine how they feel about Ahmadinejad. Their current concern is that that Hezbollah, which is owned and operated by Iran, might emerge strong enough to take over Lebanon.
FP: What do you think of the Bush administration's recent agreement with North Korea? Do you agree with former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton that it's a bad deal, and that it will inevitably fail, as he told the American Enterprise Institute recently?
RP: Yes, I would agree with him. Theres a history of not being able to get reliable, predictable behavior out of the North Koreans. Just signing another piece of paper does not change that important fact. I doubt they would respect such an agreement for a minute longer than they thought it was in their interest to do so. Now, can we, with help from the Chinese and others, put enough pressure on the North Koreans so that they make modest curtailments of their program? Sure. But if we do, it will not be because we signed a piece of paper with them. Instead, it will be because we continued to be engaged in a deeply contentious manner with them and at any given moment we possess some means with which to influence them. So the agreement is not the significant thing, the question is whether we will have the leverage over the long term to prevent them from doing what they want to do.
FP: You wrote a book with David Frum that was published in 2003 called An End to Evil. Yet theres still a lot of evil in the world. Where did the Bush administration go wrong?
RP: The single largest failure was the handling of Iraq after the fall of Saddam. The mistake began in so distrusting Iraqis that we didnt work closely with them before the war. So we went into Iraq largely ignorant of what we would find when we got there and without close allies to whom we could turn for help in understanding the situation. We didnt understand it very well, and that was reflected in several quite bad early decisions. Becoming an occupying power was the beginning of the end. I dont mean that we couldve pulled out entirely the day Baghdad fell; it wouldve made sense for us to remain there helping the Iraqis to get things stabilized and organized. But that should have been on the basis of having been invited to do so by the Iraqis, not as an occupying power.
FP: Francis Fukuyama wrote in the New York Times last year that Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational base for jihadist terrorists. Do you agree?
RP: Im not sure whether thats true or not, but its an improvement if it is. Let me explain: Afghanistan was certainly a magnet, and jihadists traveled there from wherever they originated. They were welcomed there, they were trained there, and they worked under very favorable circumstances, with lines of communication and the ability to plan and organize. Now, the jihadists who have flocked to Iraq are themselves in constant danger, large numbers of them are killed, and theyre certainly not in a position to plan operations against American territory. So if you ask me whether we are safer with jihadists converging on Baghdad or jihadists converging on camps in Afghanistan and planning events like 9/11, theres no doubt that were a lot safer because theyre converging on Baghdad.
FP: Five years from now, where do you see Iraq?
RP: Im reluctant to make predictions, since my past predictions have not turned out very well. I did not think it would take as long as it has taken. But then I didnt expect this silly occupation, either. There are encouraging signs that the strategy of securing urban areas is working. If the administration is successful in warding off the depredations of Congress, its not inconceivable that this could be turned around. But if the Democrats in Congress prevail, then Im afraid its lost. The effect of the Democrats current approach is to say to the insurgents: You will win this in due course, because were going to pull out. Under those circumstances, its hard to expect someone in Baghdad to risk his life to tell us that at the house on the corner theyre building IEDs that are being used to kill American forces. We are desperately in need of good intelligence about insurgent operations. The ability to get that depends on the people who can supply it believing that theyre not going to be killed. If were on our way out, nobody is going to help.
Richard Perle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, with David Frum, of An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (New York: Random House, 2003). He previously served as chair of the Defense Policy Board and, under President Ronald Reagan, was assistant secretary of defense for international security policy.