The “Prince of Darkness” weighs in on Vladimir Putin, Bob Gates, and how the new U.S. president can avoid the Bush administration’s biggest blunders.
In the days following the election of Barack Obama, there has been no shortage of advice for the president-elect on how he should shape his foreign policy.
For more words of wisdom, Foreign Policy's David Kenner spoke with Richard Perleonce an insider and later an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. As chairman of a key Defense Department advisory board from 2001 to 2003, Perle emerged as one of the most ardent proponents of the Iraq war. But in a much publicized 2006 interview in Vanity Fair, Perle admitted that he would no longer have supported the invasion and left little doubt that the blame for the huge mistakes ultimately lay with the president himself. Perle spoke with FP about the Bush legacy and how the next administration can avoid the same errors.
Foreign Policy: What gets covered in the campaign isn't always what the president has to deal with when in office. What are some conflicts that could be central to President-elect Obama's foreign-policy legacy?
Richard Perle: North Korea is far from resolved in a stable way. Iran of course has to be dealt with. The obvious objectives are halting their nuclear weapons, their search for nuclear weapons, their program to acquire nuclear weapons, and their involvement in terrorism.
Syria remains very much an unresolved issue. The Syrians are up to no good in Lebanon, up to no good in the region generally, and they make territory available to terrorists. This administration doesnt have a coherent policy with respect to Syria, but the next one will need one.
Russia. Again, I dont think that this administration has a coherent Russia policy, but the next administration is certainly going to need one. The Russians are sounding very aggressive these days -- provocatively, unnecessarily aggressive.
There's the large question about how we deal with terrorist threats. For all the deficiencies of the Bush administration -- and there have been many -- there hasn't been another large-scale attack in the United States since 9/11. If there should be one, that is an existential threat to Obamas second term for sure.
FP: What lessons from your time in government would you like to pass on to the Obama team during this transition period?
RP: Everything is people. The right people in the right positions produce sound and effective policies. And the wrong people can create enormous difficulty. It's often hard to know -- if you put a senator in a cabinet post, someone who has never managed anything -- is he going to be able to effectively manage a huge bureaucratic institution? Same goes for academics. Teaching in a university is about as different as managing policy in a bureaucracy as anything I can think of. I think driving a tractor probably prepares you as well as a Ph.D. for life in a bureaucracy.
FP: What advice would you give Obama in dealing with a resurgent Russia?
RP: The first thing we need is a strategy, which I think we don't now have, for assisting in the development of pipelines that will diminish the dependence of our allies on Russian gas in particular, but oil and gas. It looks to me like [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's strategy is to try to assure that no oil or gas moves without [the Russians] approval. The closer they get to achieving that, the more aggressive they will become. Chances are that Obama will improve on the Bush policy[of which] there is none. It was just: Hope for the best. Say nice things about Putin and hope for the best.
FP: Some have argued that the United States should stop backing Georgia after its conflict with Russia because it could be damaging to U.S.-Russian relations. What is your reaction to that argument?
RP: That would be a mistake of historic proportions. That would be appeasement of the worst kind. Georgia is now democratic, certainly by regional standards, and it's better than that in fact. Theyve done some foolish things, but they have been invaded and beaten up pretty badly. If we now abandon them on the grounds that we should be kissing Putin's behind, that will be very, very damaging. And it will not improve the [U.S.] relationship with Russia.
FP: The deputy commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recently implied that Iran should not negotiate with the United States. What does this tell us about the hopes that Obamas election could bring a rapprochement with Iran?
RP: There's a lot of maneuvering going on. I wouldnt take it at face value, but if Obama believes he can talk the Iranians out of their nuclear weapons program, and talk them out of their terrorist alliances, he's wrong. You've got to put it in some context. What is it you want to negotiate? And what do you think can be achieved through a negotiating process? It is an illusion to believe that negotiations will work. Obama will figure that out sooner or later.
Now, Obama has got something going for him. The price of oil has tumbled. The Iranian economy is in terrible shape. It's an unpopular regime, by almost any measure. And if he could get a really tough sanctions policy, he might actually be able to do something.
FP: In September 2003, you said that a year from now, I'll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush and that except for a very small number of people close to a vicious regime, the people of Iraq have been liberated and they understand that they've been liberated. Does the rosy picture at all represent the country we see today?
RP: I never expected that we would get into that occupation. I thought we'd be out of there. Iraqi sovereignty would have been restored. That didn't happen.
Is it rosy today? Do I think most Iraqis have been liberated? Absolutely. I think the Kurds have been liberated, for sure. The Shiites, who were horribly suppressed, have been liberated. And I think many Sunnis, too. That was a place where you got arrested in the middle of the night, and nobody ever heard from you again.
Obviously if it deteriorates into chaos or a new Saddam emerges and people are no better off than they were before, then there won't be [a square named after President Bush]. But I think they've got a decent chance of establishing a representative government that isn't going to look like our system, or some other democratic systems, but if it's reasonably representative and humane, if the economy starts to develop -- yes. I think [Iraqis] will look back and say, we paid a terrible price, but its worth it.
FP: Obama reportedly remains open to keeping Robert Gates on as secretary of defense. Would that be a good decision?
RP: My guess, when the rumors first started before the election, was that it was an interesting way to say to people who may have bought the line that [Obama] was a dangerous radical that in fact he was pretty moderate in outlook. But I wouldn't [keep Gates on]. Hes got better choices, and I think you want someone with more imagination. You're at the beginning of what is likely to be eight years and you probably want to accomplish something. Gates is a decent man. He's very workmanlike, but there's no inspiration and no imagination.
Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press