The armchair general

He's been beating the drums of war for a decade. Can Beltway hawk Richard Perle finally persuade the U.S. to wage war with Iraq?

Published September 5, 2002 7:55PM (EDT)

News that congressional leaders huddled with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday to discuss a possible war with Iraq may convince even skeptics that the administration's talk of removing Saddam Hussein is serious. Although recent polls show that Americans are roughly split in their support for military action, Wednesday's news certainly cheered at least one Beltway insider: Richard Perle, the man who's done perhaps more than anyone to lay the intellectual and political groundwork for a preemptive strike against Iraq.

Perle is arguably the Beltway's most influential foreign-policy hawk, an outside-insider who's used his bully pulpit as chairman of the quasi-official Defense Policy Board to argue on behalf of neo-conservatives that a full-scale, preemptive strike against Iraq must be the next move in America's post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.

For months, Perle has been appearing on television programs and newspaper Op-Ed pages urging the U.S. to topple Saddam. A formidable Washington heavyweight who for decades has been expertly maneuvering his way in and out of the highest levels of government (and newsrooms), Perle now finds himself the public point man for the looming war with Iraq.

The role is not a new one. The former Reagan administration arms-control expert and pro-Israel hawk has been urging a U.S.-led regime change in Iraq for the last decade. Perfecting his rhetoric about Saddam Hussein's insatiable appetite for weapons of mass destruction and how one day soon they will be unleashed on America, Perle, through sheer dint of sound-bite repetition, helped lay the groundwork for serious talk of war with Iraq. (Perle did not return calls seeking comment for this article.)

"His goal appears to be to push the extremes of what people are proposing; that way, he moves the center of the debate over to the right," says P.W. Singer, an Olin fellow in the foreign-policy studies program at the Brookings Institution. "He presses buttons and makes bold predictions that are not substantiated. And that's fine if you're outside the government. The worry is, people actually listen to him."

But there are signs that even some Republican statesmen and generals are concerned about what Perle and his allies have unleashed. Writing on the New York Times' Op-Ed page, former Secretary of State James Baker recently struck a cautious tone on Iraq, and took issue with the freelance campaign being waged by the president's "advisers and their surrogates" to generate support for a war with Iraq.

Perle is by far the most prominent of those surrogates. During the 1970s he gained notoriety inside the Beltway as an influential staffer to Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, D-Wash., who at the time was among the most fiercely anticommunist and staunchly pro-Israel members of the Senate. In 1981 Perle was appointed deputy secretary of defense, where he earned the nickname "Prince of Darkness" for opposing arms-control agreements with the Soviets.

Today, Perle maintains a platform through constant Op-Ed submissions and television appearances, as well as his chairmanship of the Defense Policy Board. Formerly an obscure civilian board designed to provide the secretary of defense with non-binding advice on a whole range of military issues, the Defense Policy Board, now stacked with unabashed Iraq hawks, has become a quasi-lobbying organization whose primary objective appears to be waging war with Iraq.

"It's amazing that he [Perle] is not part of the administration but he has this immense amount of power," notes Yvonne Haddad, professor of Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

For Perle, the unpaid Defense Policy Board position allows him to say he's not speaking for the administration when he advocates war with Iraq during media appearances, and to articulate extreme positions that government officials perhaps cannot. (It's also unlikely he'd have been approved by the Senate if given a post that required confirmation.) Yet his constant contact with senior administration hawks -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, and the State Department's Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton -- means that Perle is a major player with the Bush White House.

"If at any point Perle was too far out in front and his status as a semi-official spokesman for the administration became a problem, they'd pull him off TV," says John Pike, director of, a nonprofit defense policy group. "That hasn't happened."

True, but some Republican critics have Perle in their sights. Fed up with his constant advocacy of war with Iraq, Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who volunteered for Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts, suggested perhaps "Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad." Perle, like many Beltway hawks, has never seen military service. Nonetheless, he recently urged Bush to dismiss "the unsolicited advice of retired generals" when contemplating war with Iraq.

During the '90s, Perle's advocacy of launching a preemptive strike against a country like Iraq, based on what Iraq might do to the U.S., rather than what it had done, was relegated to the fringes of foreign-policy debate. There, the hawkish think-tank fixture was limited to signing off on indignant open letters to President Clinton urging him to take action against Saddam Hussein.

Today, with fellow hawks (i.e. "the string of Perles") in high places throughout the Bush administration, and an unprecedented global war against terror underway, Perle has found his opening. All this despite the fact that no solid link between Saddam and Sept. 11 or the anthrax attacks was ever established. Nor have Perle and his allies been able to provide irrefutable evidence of Iraq's nuclear arsenal.

Critics charge the real objective of Perle and his colleagues is not merely regime-changing in Iraq, but the beginning of a far-reaching American military offensive. "What people are not adequately grasping here is that after Iraq they've got a long list of countries to blow up," says Pike. "Iraq is not the final chapter, it's the opening chapter."

In fact, Perle is a former Cold War warrior who subscribed to the rollback school of deterrence, which meant aggressively trying to roll back, or shrink, the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. Adopted by Ronald Reagan's White House, rollback was why the U.S. helped wage war in Nicaragua: to try to drive communist Sandinistas out. The countervailing strategy for the Soviet Union was containment, which aimed to simply limit its sphere. Pike says Perle and neo-cons have now applied rollback ideology to rogue nations who sponsor terror or possess weapons of mass destruction. But since such nations are not aligned under an umbrella such as communism, it means launching preemptive wars and knocking them off one by one.

Another clear goal of Perle's rollback strategy is to preserve the largest possible territory for the state of Israel. For decades he has been among Israel's strongest, most ardent right-wing allies in Washington.

In July, Perle made waves when he invited Laurent Murawiec, a former follower of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, to brief the Defense Policy Board about Saudi Arabia. The emphasis of Murawiec's presentation was that the country should be counted among "our enemies," and that, if necessary, the U.S. should threaten Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, which are located inside Saudi Arabia.

Embarrassed by the revelation of such fringe, anti-Arab theories being advocated inside the Pentagon, Rumsfeld declared Saudi Arabia a loyal ally, and said that the analyst's view was not U.S. policy. Perle claimed ignorance, insisting he didn't know what Murawiec was going to say.

"The presentation was ludicrous," complains Haddad at Georgetown, who says it nonetheless reflected Perle's bias. "There's not a single Muslim country he likes. All of Perle's arguments are about how to empower Israel, not America."

Perle has often made a habit of mixing his Israeli passions with domestic American politics, often consulting both governments and trying to marry up his hard-line objectives with both. For instance, writing in 1996, Perle emphasized that removing Saddam from power represented "an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right." Today, the Israeli government is alone in the world in publicly backing Bush's talk of war with Iraq.

In 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and President Clinton were meeting at Camp David, Perle made news when he warned Barak not to let Vice President Al Gore become involved in the peace summit, for fear it would boost Gore's election prospects. He also told Barak to "walk away" from a peace plan if it left the thorny issue of a divided Jerusalem unresolved. Working as an advisor to candidate Bush, Perle warned Barak he would urge the Texas governor to condemn any peace plan that gave the PLO a foothold in Jerusalem. The Bush campaign quickly distanced itself from Perle's remarks.

Even the staunchly pro-Israel New York Post editorial page slapped Perle for his heavy-handed move: "Perle injected an improper note that can only be interpreted as politically motivated interference with the discharge of presidential responsibilities. It's one thing to advise Gov. Bush to oppose an unwise agreement -- it's quite another to press upon a foreign government in advance a negotiating strategy that itself plays into domestic U.S. politics."

While the topic of Israel remains on the periphery of the Iraq debate, there seems to be a growing fear, even within Republican Party and national-security circles, that Perle has won the upper hand in that debate. Republican politicians, statesmen and generals have in recent weeks stepped forward, hoping to plant a stop sign in front of the Defense Policy Board chair and his allies.

The turning point for some may have been the Aug. 16 article in the New York Times that quoted Perle as saying that Bush essentially had no choice now but to attack Iraq: "The failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism."

Two days later, Lawrence Eagleburger, who served briefly as secretary of state for President George Bush Sr., complained on national television that Perle was "devious." Hagel, of course, made his suggestion that Perle be sent to fight in Iraq. And conservative columnist George Will, noting the relatively simple scenario Perle routinely outlines for overthrowing Saddam, warned darkly: "If America goes to war on Perle's cheerful surmise, any surprises will not be pleasant ones."

A key element of Perle's regime-changing plan is that it will be a tidy little war, since Hussein's empire is "a house of cards," as Perle recently told a PBS interviewer. He contends that an Iraq invasion could replicate the Afghanistan war; U.S. special operations units would assist rebels inside Iraq much the way the U.S. helped the Northern Alliance topple the Taliban.

"The Iraqi opposition is kind of like an MRE [meal ready to eat, or U.S. Army field ration]," Perle once told U.S. News & World Report. "The ingredients are there and you just have to add water, in this case U.S. support." (Eagleburger recently quipped about Perle's band of much-touted anti-Saddam rebels, "I think there are at least six of them.")

Two weeks ago Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones called the idea of simply transferring the Northern Alliance blueprint to Iraq "foolish." And Baker wrote in the New York Times that regime-changing in Iraq would have to look an awful lot like the Gulf War, using hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. Baker didn't mention Perle by name, but the target of this jibe seemed obvious: "Anyone who thinks we can effect regime change in Iraq with anything less than this is simply not realistic. It cannot be done on the cheap."

For years, though, Perle has argued it could be done on the cheap. How many American troops would it take to unseat Saddam? Before Sept. 11, Perle's answer was, in effect, zero. Appearing on ABC in 1998, Perle insisted all America had to do was supply "skillful" air power to protect anti-Saddam forces who, embraced by the Iraqi people and aided by military defectors, could topple him on their own.

That same year he told a reporter that removing Saddam "is not something we should attempt to do with U.S. military force. It is something the Iraqis should do for themselves."

And testifying before Congress in 2000, Perle insisted, "We need not send substantial ground forces into Iraq when patriotic Iraqis are willing to fight to liberate their country, although measured numbers of Special Forces should not be ruled out."

Even though militarily Iraq remains essentially unchanged in 2002, Perle now says tens of thousands of American troops will be needed for the regime change. In a plan of attack leaked to the New York Times last month, unidentified sources said the so-called "inside out attack" would feature American troops swooping down in central Iraq, neutralizing Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and then attacking outward and conquering the entire country.

About 80,000 troops were needed for the "inside out attack," the Times reported. And according to a United Press International report, the plan was devised in part by Perle.

Eighty-thousand troops? This spring Perle told the Nation's David Corn only 40,000 troops were needed. Yet by comparison, in 1989 the U.S. sent 24,000 troops into Panama City, Panama, to change the regime of Gen. Manuel Noriega. That messy mission took 14 days, even though the U.S. used military bases in Panama, a country of just 2.3 million people at the time of the U.S. invasion. Today, Iraq boasts more than 20 million people and a standing army of 400,000, and the U.S. not only doesn't have bases inside the country, but it has yet to secure the use of any in nearby countries. (In 1991, Bush Sr. was able to use Saudi Arabia.)

There are other similar gaps in Perle's logic. Trying to allay fears of protracted warfare in an Aug. 6, London Daily Telegraph Op-Ed, Perle in one breath dismissed "the competence, morale and ultimate loyalty of [Saddam's] army" as being "a third of what it was in 1991, and it is the same third, 11 years closer to obsolescence." Yet just two paragraphs later, trying to gin up urgency, Perle compared Hussein with Hitler at the height of the Third Reich's mighty military buildup.

The other lingering question about the pending war is what the internal Iraqi reaction to an armed invasion will be. Perle insists that once anti-Saddam forces make their presence felt, Iraqis will welcome the cause and help drive Hussein from power themselves.

Yet nearly a decade ago, as U.S. troops stood poised to battle Iraqi troops in the Gulf War, Perle also predicted that Saddam would be driven from power by his own people and he turned out to be dead wrong.

Interviewed in January 1991 for a television program called "American Interests," Perle told host Morton Kondracke, "There'll be a new leadership in Iraq, I think almost independent of what happens in the next several days. Saddam Hussein promised his people victory, he promised them glory. He's obviously not going to deliver either, and I doubt that they'll keep him in power. So there'll be a new regime in Iraq."

Perle has been wrong about Saddam plenty of times in the past. Days after the USS Cole was bombed by al-Qaida forces in 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors, Perle, conceding that he had no evidence to support the idea, told the Jerusalem Post that perhaps the Iraqi leader was behind the terrorist attack. (Perle serves on the newspaper's board of directors.)

Likewise, in a 1998 London Sunday Times Op-Ed, Perle complained that the Clinton administration did not vigorously investigate the bombing at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans in 1996. Why? Because, according to Perle, the evidence might have implicated Saddam. Perle also backs up the conspiracy theory advanced by author Laurie Mylroie that Saddam was behind the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 as well. To date, American investigators have not found any evidence that connects him to any of the three terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, Perle was virtually mum about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden in those years. Despite his many public pleas to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Perle rarely mentioned bin Laden or al-Qaida, according to a Nexis database search covering the last 10 years.

"You will detect little concern about bin Laden before 9/11," says Pike. "The rollback crowd has now wrapped itself in the bloody flag and basically exploited Sept. 11 to advance a lifelong agenda and vision of America's role in the world. Sept. 11 presented a unique historical opportunity to enact that plan, because the subtext of this entire Iraq debate is, 'What is the hurry?' The hurry is, it's much easier to continue fighting a global war than to start one. If America's at peace, an unprovoked attack against the Butcher of Baghdad would be a tough sell."

And even after bin Laden was connected not only with 9/11 but with a string of well-documented terror attacks against America in previous years, Perle told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that Saddam should still be considered more dangerous to America because of what he may one day do.

Of course, Perle's many war plans fall apart under the weight of their inconsistencies. He's never adequately answered the question, for instance, as to what would keep Saddam Hussein, a "psychopathic" madman with weapons of mass destruction, from using those weapons if American troops and Iraqi rebels were storming Baghdad. Perle merely insists the Iraqi strongman wouldn't be able to find a single person in his entire army to carry out such an order -- amazing sang froid from someone who's normally so nervous about Saddam's strength.

And yet Pike thinks Perle is right about one thing: It may well be possible for U.S. forces to overthrow him and keep American causalities limited to the hundreds.

"That's what concerns me," he says. "Because then Perle and his crowd will say, 'That didn't hurt so much, let's blow up Iran and North Korea and Saudi Arabia.' And we'll spend the rest of the decade blowing up countries on a preemptive basis to make us safe."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Donald Rumsfeld Iraq Middle East