PBS 'America at a Crossroads': 'The Case for War'
Tuesday, April 17, 2007; 11:00 AM
Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of Defense under Reagan and a chief White House proponent of the Iraq War, was online Tuesday, April 17 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss "The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom" -- the second installment of PBS's "America at a Crossroads" series -- which follows him as he travels the globe articulating, defending and debating the neoconservative case for an assertive American foreign policy.
The transcript follows.
Perle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He served the Reagan administration as assistant Secretary of Defense from 1981 to 1987, and served on the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee from 1987 to 2004. He was Chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee from 2001 to 2003 under the Bush administration.
Richard Perle: I hope that those who are interested enough in the program to have found time to comment this morning will watch the whole series. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS have done something different, important and innovative in inviting 20 independent filmmakers to offer contributions to these very difficult issues. I hope we will see more of this in the future. Michael Pack, who is now producing his own programs, deserves great credit for establishing this series. Do watch.
Fort Myers, Fla.: Mr. Perle, are you a registered lobbyist or foreign agent, and which defense contractors do you presently work for? Thank you.
Richard Perle: I do not lobby for anyone and I am not working for defense contractors. And what do you do?
Alexandria, Va.: No one said that defeating and rebuilding Iraq would be a cakewalk. Would you say that the current situation is as expected? If not, what should we have done differently? Also, how long do you think current conditions will remain -- that is, continued terrorist violence and U.S. troops playing a major role in combating terrorism?
Richard Perle: I believe that we should have handed political authority to the Iraqis the day Saddam's army collapsed. The occupation, with the U.S. trying to govern in place of Iraqis, was the seminal error. We could remove Saddam, but we could not build a new Iraq. Only the Iraqis could do that.
Washington, D.C.: Although I disagree with him, I have to respect Mr. Perle for engaging his critics in forums such as these. My question is very simple: what is victory in Iraq? At what point can we leave and claim that we have "won"? We killed Uday and Qusay; the violence escalated. We got Saddam; violence escalated. There has been a constitution and two rounds of elections, and the violence has been brought to doorstep of the Parliament itself. Iraq's government has no power over the people; whatever law is enforced comes from the barrel of the M-16, which in turn inspires revenge attacks from the various factions. How can you claim that we must not leave the job unfinished, when there is no clear definition from the administration or any of its allies as to what a finished job might be?
Richard Perle: The word "victory" obscures the importance of a more modest, but fundamental purpose. We can leave honorably when the Iraqis are capable of defending their elected government. This does not guarantee that they will do so. No one can guarantee that. But we must be able to say that we are leaving them with the means to build a decent society
Owings Mills, Md.: Mr. Perle, why do you think that forcing other countries to assume the model of American capitalism/democracy is valid, given the long history of American support of vicious dictatorships?
Richard Perle: I didn't think that and I do not think that now. Where did you get the idea that was my view? There is a difference between removing a murderous dictator like Saddam and imposing democracy by force. I never argued for the latter. The fact that you, and many others apparently think I did, is proof that you have been ignoring my own words and accepting other people's characterizations of my view.
Rochester, N.Y.: Mr. Perle, while I do not agree with you, I am glad that you did this project with PBS and I like forward to watching it in its entirety. To what extent has the failure of the American mission in Iraq lead you to question your beliefs about foreign policy? Does it cause you to doubt the philosophy beyond preemptive wars, or does it just make you think that in the future planners must be more meticulous? Or neither?
Richard Perle: The "war" was conducted brilliantly. Saddam fell in 21 days. The trouble started after that. I hope we have learned that we cannot substitute for the indigenous population.
Mokena, Ill.: Can you elaborate on the specific details of Saddam's terror links? Were they obtained through satellite photos? Intercepted phone calls? Detainee admissions? More than one? When will the public get to see these?
Richard Perle: There is a substantial literature and it is generally accepted that Saddam murdered approximately 400,000 people, Kurds, Shiite and others, destroying whole communities with chemical weapons and executing and torturing people in unspeakable ways. The wars he started claimed a million lives. Whatever people think of the negative side of the balance sheet, there is a positive side and the removal of his regime is part of it.
Alexandria, Va.: You began this chat by saying that the occupation was a seminal error, and yet you insist we cannot leave Iraq honorably until the Iraqis are capable of governing themselves. Are these positions not contradictory? Had we withdrawn from Iraq as soon as practicable (presumably sometime in the summer of 2003) would Iraq not have descended into the same kind of chaos it currently suffers?
Richard Perle: I think not but can't prove it. (When you make a film you can shoot the scene over, but not in real life). Seriously, the occupation as it once existed is over and ended with a very moving election in which Iraqis risked their lives to vote (in higher percentages than we do.)
Washington, D.C.: It would seem that now as much as ever, the world demands the assertive protection of human rights. Nevertheless, because of U.S. hegemony -- and, as you've admitted, bungled execution -- such assertiveness in U.S. foreign policy seems frequently to be perceived elsewhere as imperialism by another name. How do we escape this conundrum?
Richard Perle: I wish I knew. I would disagree with your use of the term "hegemony." Of course we want to influence the policies of other nations, particularly when those policies (e.g. sheltering terrorists) threaten our own security. But we have no desire to exercise hegemonic power and, in the real world, we do not have the means to do so. The American people will not permit its elected governments to use America's power unless it is persuaded it is in our national interest. When it comes to military power, political approval does not come easily. Does anyone think we could have gone into Iraq without 9/11 and what appeared then to be solid evidence that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction?
Toronto: Should the U.S. use the military option to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? And do you think the present level of intelligence on Iran's nuclear program indicates that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons?
Richard Perle: I do not have access to our intelligence on this and I am not sure how confident we are about what we think we know. I would hope that we would support those Iranians--millions of them--who wish to see an end to the regime of dictatorial mullahs who now rule Iran. We should have been supporting them years ago as we once supported Solidarity in Poland or the opponents of fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal and dictators in the Philippines, Indonesia and the former Yugoslavia. That would be far preferable to air strikes on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities.
Princeton, N.J.: You misinterpreted Mokena's question. Bush claimed there were links between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Was this a lie?
Richard Perle: No it was certainly not a lie. George Tenant, then head of the CIA, wrote a letter on this to the Senate in which he said that we had solid evidence of links between them going back a decade and that the reporting included the training of al-Qaeda in the use of poison gases. I believe you can find the text with Google.
Ottawa, Canada: In your book "An End to Evil" regarding the War on Terror you state "there is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust." Do you still feel the same way?
Richard Perle: It is, of course, a sweeping statement, meant to refer to preventing the use of horrendous weapons against our cities. Let me be clear. There are people who would detonate a weapon of mass destruction on our soil if they could. They will keep trying. The "victory" I refer to is managing this threat so it doesn't happen.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Mr. Perle, thank you for joining us in what is likely to be a hostile environment for questions. What are your feelings about George H.W. Bush's decision not overthrow Saddam during the Gulf War? What advice was he getting at the time? Do you have any knowledge about how his failure to act impacted our current President's eventual decision to act in Iraq?
Richard Perle: At the time I believed we could have forced Saddam's Republican Guard. which was largely surrounded in the desert, to abandon their armor and walk back to Baghdad. Would that have brought Saddam down, without our having to send U.S. forces into the Iraqi capital? I think so but can't prove it. Could we have supported to uprising that Bush encouraged and then abandoned? I think we could, and should have. The end result of the way the war ended was this President's inheritance. Thanks, Dad.
Washington, D.C.: Thank you for participating in PBS' insightful series. One thing that if often discussed is the ability of Iraq's central government to begin managing itself and thus protecting its citizens. Given the current chaos, however, would you consider Iraq to be a failed state?
Richard Perle: It is certainly in deep trouble. I think we will know by next year whether it can survive and go on to build a society in which we can take some pride. Of course it will take longer than that. But if it does not look hopeful by then I think a continuation of our effort will become politically unsustainable.
Arlington, Va.: In 2001, The James A. Baker III Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations released a report on " Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century" It says: "The resulting tight markets have increased U.S. and global vulnerability to disruption and provided adversaries undue potential influence over the price of oil. Iraq has become a key "swing" producer, posing a difficult situation for the U.S. government." Do you believe that access to energy is a justification for a more assertive (military) foreign policy in the world ?
Richard Perle: I think we should get serious about--and pay the price for--a significant reduction in our dependence on imported oil. This would include action on the multiple fronts of exploitation of indigenous sources of oil, nuclear energy, alternative fuels, conservation and the like.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Perle: Like you I think it was a mistake to stay in Iraq after Saddam's government fell. Now we are in a different kind of war. It is a war among the people as Gen. Sir Rupert Smith characterizes the conflict. Notably as he points out in his book, "The Utility of Force," the chances of a military success in wars of that kind are small if they exist at all. It seems to me, however, that we continue to fight the war today as though we were confronting an army rather than civilians or as a war among the people. Would you care to comment on the likelihood of success in these circumstances?
washingtonpost.com: Live Online Transcript: Gen. Rupert Smith on "The Utility of Force" (washingtonpost.com, Jan. 18)
Richard Perle: I agree with your assessment. I believe a narrow focus on securing urban areas, beginning with Baghdad, is right. Success there, while not a "military victory" would give the government a chance to establish itself and actually govern.
New York: I must admit, you've got some wantons to go around to other countries championing ideas that are bound to be even less popular there than they are here. Does the fact that you're back in one piece mean they were open to your ideas? Were they at least willing to listen?
Richard Perle: I hope so. When there is no one left who is willing at least to consider a range of ideas on this issues, we will really be in trouble.
Tenafly, N.J.: Mr. Perle, a few months ago a Vanity Fair cover story depicted you and several other alleged neoconservative architects of the Iraq War as now rescinding your support. Can you comment any on what you thought of the piece, particularly its accuracy? Thank you!
Richard Perle: I was quoted in that piece saying that mistakes had been made, especially the occupation. Vanity Fair (which is all vanity and not very fair) ran excerpts out of context weeks before the piece appeared in the magazine. I support the current strategy in Iraq and hope it succeeds. And I believe we were right to bring down Saddam's regime. I do not believe that the current mess was inevitable.
College Park, Md.: You, the administration and many others in the government have totally misinterpreted the nature of terrorism. There always are sociopaths who will look for ways to kill as many people as they could. Governments never can do a lot about it. Terrorism roots in political injustice, and until you address the injustice, you never can defeat people who want blow themselves up for a political cause.
Richard Perle: There is injustice everywhere, certainly among Arab dictatorships. Since we cannot hope to end all injustice, shouldn't we try to devise the means to protect our country against suicidal fanatics with horrible weapons? What seems to me to be new is the deep ideological commitment of people who believe they are buying a ticket to paradise if they kill enough of us.
Princeton, N.J.: You say we should have left Iraq right after Saddam's fall. Will you please explain to me who would have run the country and with what forces? Why would not Sunnis fight Shia, and Kurds fight Arabs and Turks?
Richard Perle: I did not say we should have left but that we should have handled political authority to the Iraqis. We could have remained to assist them. Remember, there was no insurgency for four months. Could an interim Iraqi government, made up of all social and confessional groups, acted to prevent an insurgency? We will never know. But we do know what the occupation was not a brilliant success.
Aurora, Colo.: You use the words "solid evidence" of WMDs in Iraq. Only the U.S. thought that. The rest of world was not convinced and was very much against (and still are) our preemptive invasion of Iraq. Should that not have been enough reason for the U.S. to instead of marching off to war, say: "Are we sure? Have we got it right?"
Richard Perle: No, it was not only the U.S. British, German, French intelligence, the former UN inspectors and even Hans Blix believed Saddam was hiding WMD.
Washington, D.C.: Many neocons also claim this war is fighting the establishment of a caliphate. Do you feel this way, and do you think there is any chance all all this could happen? It seems there are way too many factions and infighting for there to be a real Caliph.
Richard Perle: You don't have to be a "neocon" to observe the many statements of radical Islamists who long for the establishment of the caliphate. They do not have to succeed to do a lot of damage trying.
Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Since neoconservatives fundamentally have rejected the notion of a "national interest" as Realists understand that term, rendering it moot by defining "freedom" anywhere as coterminous with vital American interests, how is your "defense of freedom" notion anything other than a brief for war anywhere and everywhere? In other words, what isn't worth fighting for?
Richard Perle: Your characterization of the thinking of "neoconservatives" is simply wrong. Or have I missed something. If you can find a statement the even resembles what you have said please post it--for my benefit and the enlightenment of others participating in this forum.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Perle, you told Vanity Fair: "I think we have an administration today that is dysfunctional. And if it can't get itself together to organize a serious program for finding nuclear material on its way to the United States, then it ought to be replaced by an administration that can." Which leads to an obvious question: which current presidential candidate do you believe reflects your own values and priorities most closely?
Richard Perle: Too soon to say.
Washington, D.C.: As the result of neocon foreign policy towards the Middle East, invasion of Iraq, labeling Iran as Axis of Evil and etc., Iran -- my homeland -- has been set back 28 years. The reform movement has been crushed, and the hopes of millions and millions of young people who want democracy have been shattered. In 1997 a vast majority of Iranian voters went to the polls to cast their vote for Mr. Khatami, and a change in direction of where the country was going. This administration, and this American president, are directly responsible the tragedy since then. Thousands of intellectuals and journalist have been imprisoned. For Mr. Perle, justifying their action is a little too late.
Richard Perle: Many of your fellow Iranians believe that Khatami failed to bring about the reforms the people who voted for him hoped for. And you blame this country--which has taken you in--for that?
Anonymous: Bernard Lewis, who turned 90 in 2006, is professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. His many books include: "What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Modern Middle East" and "The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror."
I learned a great deal about Islam by listening to Mr. Lewis on Book TV this past weekend, and I'm grateful. Americans need to understand the history of the Islamic movement -- the clash of ideologies between East and West, which is centuries old. In the West we have separation of church and state; Islam is all-pervasive and affects every aspect of a Muslim's life. They have a determination, a fervor which we lack; but we have freedom that they don't have. We have to understand all this and fight to keep our way of life. Women -- beware of the barking dog!
Richard Perle: Bernard Lewis is our greatest scholar on the matters. If you could read only one man, read Lewis.
Dunkirk, Md.: The cost in American lives, treasure, and moral authority around the globe is just too great to continue to be Israel's agent in the Middle East. When even a former U.S. president is attacked for speaking truth to power it's clear this self-destructive path must end.
Richard Perle: Israel's agent? What does that slander mean? If you have ideas, present them.
Knoxville, Tenn.: Mr. Perle, why did we attack Iraq when they were not involved in 9/11 attack? Iraq was contained by the USAF, Saddam was boxed in. Iraq did not possess ICBMs, so what exactly was the imminent threat they posed to the United States?
Richard Perle: It is worth thinking the issue of "imminence" in a world in which we can be attacked suddenly, without warning. We did not think Bin Laden posed an "imminent" threat on September 10. Do you suggest we judge what was "imminent" after the fact?
Alexandria, Va.: You claim Hans Blix believed Iraq was hiding WMD, but certainly by March 7, 2003 -- the date of his report to the U.N., and twelve days prior to the bombing of Baghdad -- he was stating that no evidence of WMD could be found and had expressed his skepticism to Condi Rice that any would be found. Isn't it irrelevant what Blix might have thought before he began inspections?
Richard Perle: It is true that Blix was unable to find evidence. There was never any real prospect that he could. But he did not believe that he was getting full cooperation from Saddam.
Finding WMD in Iraq could only have been accomplished by offering safety to people involved in the prior programs and removing them and their extended families from Iraq where they were in mortal danger. Blix, for reasons I will never understand, did not insist on the authority to offer sanctuary so he was reduced to touring the old sites associated with earlier WMD activity. In any case, we now know that the stockpiles that were thought to exist did not.
Chicago: Do you believe that the American public is incapable of understanding the rationale of neoconservative strategy such that it must be sold in terms of fighting "terror"?
Richard Perle: If people wish to understand "neoconservative" strategy (and in my experience no two "neoconservatives" think alike on any large issue) they should (a) allow "neoconservatives" to so define themselves and then (b) read or listen to what they have to say. Most attacks on "neoconservative" thinking, or strategy begin by lumping together as "neoconservatives" a list of people with whom the critic disagrees and then inventing their views. That is why you so seldom see criticism based on the words of "neoconservatives" themselves.
Richard Perle: Thanks to everyone who took time to participate.
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