Richard N. Perle, who did as much as any American to doom detente during the 1970s, thinks that the Soviet Union is "a place where everyone lies all the time."
As the Reagan administration resumes a dialogue with the Soviets, that opinion may be crucial. Despite his relatively low-ranking job as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy -- and despite being a Democrat in a Republican administration -- Perle has had more influence on policy toward the Soviet Union during the past four years than any other administration official, according to experts in and out of government.
Perle was the intellectual force behind U.S. arms-control positions so stringent that President Reagan's first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr., labeled them "not negotiable" and "absurd." Perle was the architect of a campaign to restrict the flow of western technology to the Soviet Union, and he played a key role in shifting the debate over arms control to the question of Soviet untrustworthiness and "verification."
He is "the single most effective bureaucrat in the government," Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) said. He is also, Pressler said, "the strongest single force against an arms-control agreement."
His influence rests in part on the bureaucratic skill, depth of knowledge and consistency that have made him a formidable intellectual force on the right since he became an aide to the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) in 1969.
That background and a relish for battle have helped Perle outmaneuver foes within the Pentagon, in the State and Commerce departments, in Congress and among the European allies -- often with charm, sometimes with undisguised contempt for what he views as their woolly-headed thinking.
Perle's success also has rested on the administration's disarray and inexperience in arms control. And it has depended ultimately on Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, neither of whom shared his arms-control expertise when they came into office but both of whom have tended to share his world view.
"Richard is a skillful bureaucrat and a tough political insider and all that," said Walter B. Slocombe, who held Perle's job in the Carter administration. "But he doesn't do it all with mirrors. He does it because he has the support of Weinberger, who -- when push comes to shove -- usually has the support of the president."
Nevertheless, more moderate officials in the administration would rather blame Perle than Reagan when they lose, and Perle at times seems to enjoy the image that makes him a target.
The "only unambiguously successful arms-control" pact, he says, only half facetiously, was the agreement around the turn of the century to demilitarize the Great Lakes. He as taught his precocious 5-year-old son to identify all the countries in his jigsaw puzzle map of Europe except the Soviet Union, which Jonathan simply calls "the bad guys."
And Perle does not hesitate to dismiss the U.S. military and the State Department as ill-equipped to negotiate with the Soviets because both want agreements too badly.
Perle said he favors talking to the Soviets, in part because negotiations help maintain political support for military spending in the West. But he said the prospects for favorable results are dim, because the "terrible failure" of the Russian Revolution has left that nation dependent on "sheer brute force."
"To believe in far-reaching arms control with the Soviet Union in an adversarial position, you have to believe they'll change, change fundamentally, by reducing the prominence of military forces as a factor," he said. "I wish I saw a plateau on which relations would somehow even out, become more mutually accommodating. But I think it unlikely," he said.
Perle's methods have been as controversial as his views, with foes painting him as a bully and a manipulator. That reputation says something about Perle the tactician -- and even more about relations between liberals and conservatives in the inbred world of Washington arms controllers.
Perle is an unlikely figure for a Pentagon bureaucrat, certainly no Dr. Strangelove. Pudgy, rumpled, witty, Perle operates with conspiratorial charm as he chats confidentially with a senator about a colleague or steals off from a dull official dinner to a favored two-star restaurant in Paris.
His self-assured disdain for rules and regulations is rare in a Pentagon not now known for dynamic leaders. Alone among assistant secretaries, he skips Weinberger's morning staff meetings, preferring to sleep in and work late and pass up as much bureaucratic drudgery as possible.
He was kicked off the Pentagon's top budget council by then-Deputy Secretary Paul Thayer for missing too many sessions, in part because his August in the south of France is inviolate.
But those who mistake Perle's decidedly unmilitary demeanor for a lack of discipline or hard work underestimate him. Perle focuses zealously on the same few issues he has pursued for a decade and a half, ignoring Lebanon, Central America and other areas that he has placed outside his realm.
Perle's blitheness about bureaucratic form has, if anything, brightened the aura of uniqueness that he developed when he was more than just another Senate aide.
"He's right that the meetings are a waste of time," one colleague said. "But nobody else figures they can get away with it. And that specialness makes everyone else figure he's untouchable."
Another official recalled a bilateral issue involving Greece -- Europe and NATO are in Perle's doain -- on which Perle was balking. The State Department had negotiated a minor agreement, but Perle delayed signing off.
"He just wouldn't answer his mail," the official said. "But what are you going to do? Is Weinberger going to make him answer his mail if he doesn't even go to staff meetings?"
Weinberger, declining to be drawn into a discussion of bureaucratic politics, would say only that Perle comes to meetings "from time to time." He said Perle is "brilliant" and a valued adviser -- but, he quickly added, no more valued or influential than a handful of other top officials.
Weinberger may have replaced Jackson as Perle's chief patron, but other allies from the Jackson days are strategically posted in government. During the Ford administration, for example, Perle and Jackson helped Fred C. Ikle become head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; now Ikle, as undersecretary of defense for policy, technically is Perle's boss but is an ally who does not interfere with Perle's arms-control efforts.
Bolstered by friends and his memory for history, Perle operates with an air of certainty that tends to knock others aside. On then-Deputy Secretary Frank Carlucci's last day in office, for example, Perle persuaded him to strip authority for export controls away from Richard D. Delauer, then undersecretary for research and development, and give it to Perle.
"My argument was very simple," Perle said: " 'I want to do something to solve this problem, and Dick DeLauer doesn't.' "
Although western technology has not stopped flowing to the Soviet Union, Perle and others elevated what had been a non-issue into a central law enforcement concern policed by hundreds of new agents in the Customs, Commerce and Defense departments.
With that achievement, Perle angered U.S. businesses, European allies, U.S. ambassadors in Europe who resented his interference and top Commerce officials who loathed what they saw as his poaching. But Perle won many of the interdepartmental battles, again backed by Weinberger, despite the secretary's occasional dismay at how public the fights became.
"The provision about which there has been a great deal of dispute between the departments of Commerce and Defense -- Section 10G of the Export Administration Act -- is the section which I drafted," Perle said. "I think I know better than they do what I had in mind."
The same sense of certainty tends to silence those who might take a more moderate position on arms control -- what Perle would call a more "naive" view -- in an administration where no one dares look soft on the Soviets.
In 1983, for example, the administration was preparing a draft treaty to ban chemical weapons. Perle thought that the Soviet Union would cheat on such a treaty unless Washington insisted on far-reaching inspection procedures allowing U.S. officials to roam through the Soviet Union to check suspected chemical-arms factories.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed such inspection rules because they did not want their stocks subject to Soviet snooping. The Central Intelligence Agency feared that the Soviets would take advantage and pry into unrelated U.S. secrets.
State Department officials opposed Perle's proposal because they thought that the Soviets would never accept such rigid standards -- and, worse, because the western allies knew that the Soviets would not accept them, and so the U.S. proposal would seem insincere.
At an interagency meeting at the State Department, Perle placed his opponents on the defensive.
"I remember going around the room and saying, 'Does anyone believe that they the Soviets would give up all their chemical weapons?' " Perle said. "And nobody raised their hand. Nobody. I said, 'I take it then that everyone agrees that they would be likely to retain some chemical weapons.' And there was kind of a silence. And it was clear that nobody quite had the audacity to sit there with a straight face and say that they believed the Soviets would give up all the chemical weapons in their possession.
"Then the question became: What are the consequences of an agreement in which we give up ours?" he said.
Perle persuaded Weinberger -- "It wasn't hard work, it was his natural instinct" -- and, later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Weinberger's support ensured that the Perle option was put before Reagan. And Reagan went along.
"It may mean that we can't get an agreement on that basis; they simply may not be prepared to agree to that degree of inspection," Perle said. But he said that an agreement without such safeguards would be worse than none at all.
Similarly, Perle persuaded Weinberger, who persuaded Reagan, to support the Zero Option as a negotiating position in talks with the Soviets on medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe -- which is that the United States would not deploy any if the Soviet Union would dismantle hundreds already deployed.
Haig wrote in his memoirs that "it was absurd to expect the Soviets" to agree but that Weinberger pushed the idea "on the basis of its potential for attracting public support." Perle argued that fairness, not negotiability, should be the goal.
"There's no doubt that Richard's goal in all of this is to prevent an arms-control agreement," said Jeremy J. Stone, director of the Federation of American Scientists and a lobbyist for arms control. "The right sees a three-front war. The Russians are part of it, but the immediate problem is to keep the defense budget up and to keep the alliance together. From that point of view, arms control is dangerous."
Perle's record would seem to confirm Stone's view. As an aide to Jackson, he gave then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger fits during the fight to ratify SALT I, exacting conditions that made SALT II's passage far less likely.
Behind the scenes he orchestrated a nearly successful fight against President Jimmy Carter's nomination of Paul Warnke as arms negotiator on the grounds that Warnke was too much of a dove. Perle says he wrote speeches for 15 or 16 senators who supported Jackson in the debate. Then he helped kill SALT II after Warnke brought it home.
Perle said he opposed earlier agreements because they gave the appearance of modifying Soviet behavior, lessening western resolve to keep up in defense spending, without really limiting Soviet military growth. He said he would favor an agreement that would reduce both sides' arsenals but that chances for such an agreement are slim.
Stone said Perle's view has tended to prevail, in part, because stopping agreements is easier than pushing them through and, in part, because conservatives now can engage in hardball tactics.
"The more right you are in Washington, the more secure you are, so the more outrageous your tactics can be," Stone said.
"People on the right have their own problems," Perle said. "There's a patronizing quality of the left view of the intellectual arguments on the right. Conservatives are thought of as primitive and ignorant."
Perle will be in Geneva next week when Secretary of State George P. Shultz meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko. He will be making his arguments and worrying, as he has for the past four years, that pressure for a pact will get the better of him.
"The sense that we and the Russians could compose our differences, reduce them to treaty constraints, enter into agreements, treaties, reflecting a set of constraints and then rely on compliance to produce a safer world -- I don't agree with any of that," Perle said.