Perle, Ricks face off

Richard Perle, a key proponent of the Iraq war, remains unrepentant in a forum with the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks and a hostile New York audience.

Published January 25, 2007 11:05PM (EST)

Richard Perle seemed to pull back from some of his sharpest comments on Iran here in New York last night, but even that couldn't win him any fans from an audience that came prepared to hate him. The former chairman of the Defense Policy Board was at the 92nd Street Y to participate in a forum with Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks and PBS producer Martin Smith, moderated by Robert MacNeil, that was part of the promotional effort for a new PBS series, "America at a Crossroads," which will run in April.

Recently, Perle said he believed the president would attack Iran if he thought the country was coming close to acquiring nuclear weapons, but in an excerpt of one of the films in the series, a documentary on Perle himself, he was shown as saying that it would be a mistake to send Marines to Iran, and that it was not being contemplated. This drew boos and laughter from the audience. Later on, Perle remarked that the quote had been filmed several months earlier and that he "can't say [the same] now."

The night was, in general, a rough one for Perle, who faced a hostile audience -- he was booed and hissed several times and at one point a man who screamed that Perle "benefited from 9/11," among other things unintelligible to this reporter, had to be escorted from the room -- as well as two co-panelists who seemed unwilling to listen to the man often credited, rightly or wrongly, with being a driving force behind the war. So when Perle expressed his support for the recently announced troop surge, Ricks and Smith would have none of it. Ricks called Iraq a "Shakespearean tragedy," and said that the nightmare scenario the president and others have warned of if U.S. forces pull out "will occur no matter what." He said that the Baghdad of a year ago, when he last visited, was a "pure Hobbesian state," and that the president's plan meant "going back into Baghdad as the biggest militia in the neighborhood, and the only militia that doesn't understand the situation." Smith concurred, saying it was "a fantasy that as we leave everybody picks up a letter opener and goes after their neighbor," and that American forces were already doing little or nothing to quell violence in some areas of Baghdad.

But perhaps the darkest discussion of the night centered around the "standing up" of the Iraqi police and military. Smith, who is working on a documentary that touches on that subject for the PBS series, said that what the U.S. is currently attempting to do in training an Iraqi army is tantamount to trying to raise a neutral army in Kentucky during America's own Civil War, and Ricks told a story he'd heard about the police station in Ramadi renting arms, for 12-hour periods, to insurgents.

We spoke with Perle after the event and asked him how he dealt with the kind of crowd reaction he faced. He shrugged it off, saying he'd faced worse, including a shoe thrown at him at one event in Portland, Ore., but said he was still disappointed. "I think you have a responsibility to take seriously the views of your fellow Americans," he said. "All [I] can do is try to explain what [I] believe."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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