The Richard Perle Interview
John Hawkins:: To begin with, the Iraqis have a vote on their own Constitution coming up soon ‘ the election, the trial of Saddam, the training of troops is coming along slowly but surely. How do you currently look at the situation in Iraq? Are we headed toward victory?
Richard Perle:: We will attain a victory eventually. I have no doubt about that. It’s taking longer than it should have. We made some mistakes immediately after the fall of Baghdad; in particular, we allowed the liberation to become an occupation. We thought we were doing the right thing to protect the future of the Iraqis and, in fact, they were more capable than we understood of governing themselves.
Of course they would need our help and they’d need our military presence but that’s turned around now. They’ve put a Constitution together; it looks as if it’s going to be broadly approved. It entails quite a sophisticated compromise. The security situation in much of the country is ok.
Clearly there is still a capacity on the part of people who were once part of Saddam’s regime and holy warriors from outside who have come to join them to detonate roadside bombs — and using suicidal techniques cause a lot of damage — and that’s very unfortunate, but they’re not making any headway politically, at least not in Iraq and one hopes they won’t make any political headway here.
John Hawkins:: Now you said right after we went into Iraq we made some mistakes. If, let’s say, the President or someone came to you and said, “Richard Perle, what should we take out of this? What did we do wrong? What can we apply somewhere else if we needed to?” What would you say to them?
Richard Perle:: I think we have to go into these conflict situations with local allies, with partners. The right thing to have done would have been to choose some Iraqis in whom we had confidence and say to them, ‘Organize an interim government, prepare the country for elections. We will be here to support you, but we don’t want to govern this country. We don’t want to sign every law and every directive and make every budget allocation. That’s for you Iraqis to do and we’ll give you all the help we can but we’re not going to substitute for your government.’
Instead we set up the provisional authority and sent Ambassador Bremer there and …ran a country we didn’t know how to run in an environment that was not familiar to our people. For security reasons they seldom ventured outside the green zone, that area in central Baghdad that’s heavily protected and so the Iraqis quite quickly got the sense that they were being governed by an occupying power and that’s never a healthy situation to be in.
John Hawkins:: Let me ask you one more question about this. …Now if that’s the case, I would think typically what we’d do in a situation like that would be to find, maybe, some general (we could turn to our) side or something. That would make me think we’d be leaning more toward maybe a replacement for Saddam instead of a democracy.
Richard Perle:: Yeah, that would have been a grave mistake and part of the problem was there were people within the Washington bureaucracy who thought that finding a general — that would have been a very unfortunate development. There were lots of Iraqis, and we knew them; they’d been to the U.S., together had formed a group called the Iraqi National Congress, which was a group opposed to Saddam Hussein.
They were powerless by themselves to remove Saddam but they were quite ready to assume the responsibilities of government, at least on an interim basis, at the moment Baghdad fell, and the irony was that when 18 months later we had elections they were by and large the people who got elected. So we could’ve gone through that 18 month period with an Iraqi governing rather than the U.S. in that position.
John Hawkins:: Let’s switch gears a little bit to Iran. We don’t seem to be making much progress in convincing them to get rid of their nuclear weapons. If we eventually conclude that diplomacy isn’t going to cut it and we feel time is running short until we believe they’re going to acquire nuclear weapons, what do you think we should do?
Richard Perle:: Well, I think the threat posed by their acquisition of nuclear weapons is severe enough so that we would be justified in taking whatever action is necessary to prevent that from happening. I would hope that we would adopt a policy today before we face that eminent catastrophe that would make it far more difficult for the mullahs in Iran to achieve that objective.
If it were up to me we would be supporting, backing the opposition to the mullahs just as we should have backed the opposition to Saddam Hussein. There is very wide spread dissatisfaction in Iran with the government but they are unable to do very much without some outside help and no group wishing to liberate their country in a situation like that have ever been able to do much without outside help.
So we ought to be giving some inside help and it would take the form mostly of helping them communicate with one another — broadcasting in and out, collecting information from all over the country on what’s going on — so it can be re-broadcast back into Iran so Iranians who are opposed to the government know that they’re not alone and they know what’s taking place in the next town and village — political action of a kind we’ve used before.
We used it in Yugoslavia, the old Yugoslavia, Spain and Portugal. Those governments were changed by political action with help from outside. There’s no reason why we can’t do that in the Iranian case and we should. If we don’t, we will eventually get to the point where the Iranians are on the verge of firing nuclear weapons and then we won’t have a leisurely option. We’ll have to take immediate action.
John Hawkins:: In your opinion, how does the war on terror, as a whole ‘ I mean, are we making progress, going backward? Are Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups with global reach getting stronger, weaker?
Richard Perle:: Well, the first thing to note is there has not been a terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9-ll despite the fact that they’ve been trying and they would like nothing more than to show the world that they’re still alive and well by pulling off a spectacular attack. That they haven’t been able to do so is really quite remarkable. If you would have asked me on 9-12, ‘Are we going to get through 4 years without an attack?’ — I don’t think I would have believed it.
So, and I gather that there’s been 2 or 3 incipient plots that have been disrupted and we’ve done this both by work at home and abroad. What’s important about the work abroad is that we’ve now put governments all over the world on notice that if they are hospitable to terrorists in the way that the Afghan regime, the Taliban regime once was, or even hospitable as Saddam once was to different terrorists, they’re going to have a problem with the U.S.. I believe they’ve got that message and so you don’t get the open support for terrorist organizations that one time was going on in a dozen countries around the world.
John Hawkins:: What’s your opinion of the strategy Israel seems to be pursuing pulling out of Gaza, building a wall? On the up side, it seems to (be causing) a big reduction in violence but on the other hand, it’s also providing an opportunity for terrorists to pour into the disputed terroritories. What’s your take on the whole thing? Good idea? Bad idea?
Richard Perle:: Well, I think the wall is a good idea. I was very skeptical in the beginning but the statistics are very impressive. Where the wall is in place there have not been those acts of terror which were killing kids on school buses and pizza parlors and at the dinner table for religious observance. It was terrible what was going on, but that seems largely now to have been stopped and the wall has played a significant role in stopping it so that, I think, is a very good thing.
The withdrawal from Gaza is, in my view, mixed. There are some benefits. The main benefit being that the settlements in Gaza, they’re very difficult to defend, and it took a significant number of Israeli soldiers to do it. The down side, the negative is that it can be interpreted as a victory for those who were using violence to try to drive the Israelis out — even though Sharon made this decision for quite understandable reasons — and to the degree to which it looks as though Israel has been driven out, it will only encourage further acts of violence — in the belief that ultimately Israel will be driven out of all of the territory they now occupy and eventually out of the Middle East.
So it has got some serious political draw-backs in my view, but the way to balance these positives and negatives, I think, would have been to remove the settlers but to leave the army in place. I would have made it very clear that Israel was under no compulsion to withdraw there…..that they were prepared to continue to exercise security authority, military authority over the territory. But, removing the settlements would’ve ended the argument that Israel was there not to protect itself but there for reasons of territorial aggrandizement.
John Hawkins:: Well, let me ask you: Aren’t there some people who would say removing the troops was one of the benefits of doing this because they don’t have the troops as an irritant in the area every day setting up road blocks? Plus it gets them back into Israel proper, you know, it probably saves a lot of money, that sort of thing. Wasn’t that one of the benefits, supposedly, of the movement of the settlements?
Richard Perle:: I think the Israelis must be very uncomfortable with the fact that they no longer control the border between Egypt and Gaza and if there are a flood of weapons that have crossed that border and the relatively free movement of terrorists in and out, that could be quite a serious matter. There have been, as we’ve seen already, some attacks from Gaza across into Israel. So leaving some troops in place to defend that border, to keep it closed, I think, would have been quite a good idea, but we’ll see.
John Hawkins:: Let me ask you about North Korea. We’ve got 6-party talks coming up with them on getting rid of their nuclear weapons. Should we get our hopes up? Is this just a delaying tactic? How do you see this overall situation there?
Richard Perle:: Well, you can’t credit any agreement the North Koreans enter into. We know that from past experience. They agreed to terminate their program before and they didn’t do it. They started another secret covert program and then when they were caught they backed out of the deal…. So no one in his right mind is going to trust Kim-Jung-Il to keep his word. So in that sense any agreement with the North Koreans is highly problematic. I think it’s a mistake to deal with Kim-Jung-Il as if you were dealing with an ordinary government. It’s not.
John Hawkins:: What would your strategy be then? What do you think we should do if you don’t think the talks will bear fruit? Which way do you think we should go?
Richard Perle:: I think the only people who are in a position to affect, seriously affect the North Korean program are the Chinese and so far they’ve chosen not to do it. They help a little bit and then they stop and then they help a little bit again and then they stop again. I think they’re playing games with us and the way to get the Chinese to take them seriously and force the North Koreans to terminate their program is to make it very clear to the Chinese that if they can’t achieve an end to the Korean program by diplomatic means, we may have to resort to other means, and from the Chinese point of view that would be very unfortunate. The last thing they want is a pre-emptive strike on the Korean Peninsula because they’re fearful of the…consequences. We need to persuade the Chinese that they have an interest in solving this problem.
John Hawkins:: Now the thing I’ve always heard as far as a problem with doing the first strike on North Korea goes is that they have enough artillery to almost level Seoul. Even if we took ’em out, they would still do enormous damage to Seoul before we could take ’em out of the…
Richard Perle:: They certainly could inflict some damage on Seoul although it is nothing like what they were capable of doing even a few years ago. The reason for that is that our ability to pinpoint the source of that artillery fire and return the fire and destroy the artillery on the North Korean side is quite considerable now. We have systems that can track the trajectory back to the point of origin and return the fire with such speed and accuracy that it is virtually suicidal to fire in the first place.
So the technology that we would use to defend South Korea is vastly better than it was even a few years ago and it could be much better still. The South Koreans have not invested nearly enough in their systems. They should and we should insist that they do it, but there’s no question some of the artillery close to the demilitarized zone could reach targets in parts of the city of Seoul.
Now can you persuade the Chinese that we would find it so dangerous for the North Koreans to, for example, start selling nuclear weapons possibly to terrorists, that we would feel compelled to act even if it ran the risk of North Korean artillery shells falling on Seoul? We ought to be able to convince them of that.
John Hawkins:: I’d like you to address this quote from an “End to Evil:” “First, Acknowledge that a more closely integrated Europe is no longer an unqualified American interest.” Why do you believe that to be the case?
Richard Perle:: Well, increasingly, there is a struggle within Europe for the direction of European policy and some of those policies emerging as quite hostile ones. For example, I can’t think of a worse idea than turning the internet over to the UN. European partners in the European Union are pushing that idea. I think that doing so in part has an assault on U.S. interests.
So there’s a real danger that a fully unified and integrated Europe would become hostile in some important respects. It doesn’t have to be the case and among the Europeans there’s a wide range of opinion. But, the country that seems most determined to gather influence and shape the policies of the E.U. is France, of course, and France, for its own psychological reasons, is eager to see the U.S. role in the world diminished.
John Hawkins:: Given the very minimal amount of assistance most of our allies, other than Britain, have been willing or able to provide us in Afghanistan and Iraq, do you think we put too much emphasis on building coalitions?
Richard Perle:: Absolutely we do. We certainly do and it’s partly some confusion about what happened in 1991. It’s certainly true that we built a large coalition in 1991 when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Even so, the U.S. did most of the fighting, virtually all of the strategizing and coordinating. In Iraq and Afghanistan we are doing most of the fighting and all of the strategy and coordinating.
The idea that you must have allies in these ventures is the conventional wisdom. It’s what people in Washington think because they can recall how well things went in 1991 when we had a coalition. There was never, never the prospect of such a broad coalition this time because unlike 1991, Saddam did not invade or cross a national border and unfortunately that has become the only act to which there is likely to be a unified response.
Anything short of that produces a range of responses from indifference on the part of many of our allies to anxiety on our own part. So we have to deal with the dangers we face and the threats we face and those threats involve acts of terror against citizens at home and abroad and those acts of terror can and have taken place without an army crossing a border. So the standard that international institutions, coalitions, have insisted upon in the past, which is a violation of sovereign border, that’s the wrong standard if we’re going to deal with the threats we face in the future.
John Hawkins:: China seems to be gearing their military up for a fight with Taiwan. On the one hand it seems very unlikely that they’d actually go into Taiwan. They have economic ties with us and they know it would mean a fight with us, but you can’t help but notice they seem to be gearing up for exactly that. What do you think their intentions are toward Taiwan and what does it mean for us?
Richard Perle:: I don’t think they’re going to (use) force against Taiwan. For one thing it wouldn’t be easy. Invading that island would be difficult and costly and what would they achieve? As long as the Taiwanese do not assert an end to the one China policy, the Chinese have every reason to wait for a diplomatic solution, which is increasingly facilitated by economic ties between Taiwan and China. So I don’t believe they will take that action.
They are certainly building up their military capabilities, but I think that’s in part because they regard themselves as a great power that was diminished during a Colonial period and was only now re-gaining its full potential. They’re going to go on building the military and I think they would do that even if the Taiwan problem didn’t exist.
John Hawkins:: Tom Clancy: claimed, and I’m just quoting here, he almost“came to blows with you”: once because: “He was saying how [Secretary of State] Colin Powell was being a wuss because he was overly concerned with the lives of the troops,” Clancy said. “And I said, ‘Look …, he’s supposed to think that way!’ And Perle didn’t agree with me on that. People like that worry me.”What’s your side of that?
Richard Perle:: Tom Clancy is a great writer of fiction and that account is fiction. I would never ever express indifference to the plight of our troops and the risks involved in sending them into action and I never did. I do think there were times when Colin Powell was less willing to use our capabilities when I would have been, but I’ve never criticized Colin for being concerned about our troops. I don’t recall the conversation, but if that is what Tom thought I was saying, he simply misunderstood.
John Hawkins:: Are there blogs you read on a regular or semi-regular basis?
Richard Perle:: Not regularly. I do see things from time to time and lots of people send me things. So I probably see half a dozen blogs a day from friends and colleagues bringing something to my attention.
John Hawkins:: Is there anything else you’d like to say or promote before we finish?
Richard Perle:: No, no, I’m quite content with…I didn’t get into the politics, the current politics of Iraq, but I think it’s quite encouraging. They’re going to have a Constitution. The Sunnis, the large numbers of Sunnis, anyway seem to be willing to enter the political process and my main concern is that we don’t lose patience and leave there or create the impression that we’re going to leave there before we’ve achieved the result that we’ve been looking for — because the terrorists have no place in a decent democratic Iraq and if they think they only have to hang in there for a few months or a year, they can probably do that. They need to face the prospect that they’ll be defeated and they won’t face that until they’re sure that we’re going to be there until this job is done. So the demands that we leave, which one is hearing now from the left are, I think, quite damaging, they’re an encouragement to the terrorists. I think this President has the will to stay the course and I hope that’s true for the rest of the country as well.
John Hawkins:: Mr. Perle, thank you very much for your time.
Richard Perle:: Not at all. It was a pleasure. Take care.