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Richard Perle on the New Approach to War in Iraq


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Richard Perle is one of the group of men known as neo-conservatives. They urged the invasion of Iraq and helped shape pre-war policy. Perle was chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board until the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. Once close to the Bush administration, many of the neo-cons have become disillusioned with the conduct of the war. Perle and others recommended an interim Iraqi administration comprised of opposition groups to Saddam Hussein rather than a full-blown American occupation. Now with the departure of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the probable appointment of former CIA director Robert Gates, we wanted to ask Richard Perle about his current views. He joins us on the line from Provence, France. Welcome to the show.

Mr. RICHARD PERLE (American Enterprise Institute): Thank you.


SEABROOK: Do you think that Gates is a good choice? Do you think he'll be able to do what needs to be done in this war, in other words?

Mr. PERLE: Well, I think it is beyond the capacity of the United States to do the most critical thing, which is - which can only be done by the Iraqis themselves. So we can encourage, we can nurture, we can support, but we're no substitute for an Iraqi prime minister that people will respond to. We're no substitute for an interior minister who knows how to organize and discipline the security forces. We're no substitute for a defense minister. So I'm afraid the fate of this enterprise is where it really always has been, but is now undeniably in the hands of the Iraqis themselves.

SEABROOK: So how long does the United States stay while this country is working out its internal politics?

Mr. PERLE: Well, there's a strong argument against leaving in circumstances in which there will be a complete collapse after we go. A defeat of that kind for the United States would be a victory for terrorists around the world. I think you'd see the queues at recruiting stations all over the Arab world. So it has important implications. And to that reason, I think despite the election, despite the change at the Pentagon, despite the Baker commission, we will not see a radical shift in American policy.

SEABROOK: Now, the American public has just watched the years pass, three years and plus of this war, has watched the intelligence that said that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq be discredited, has watched Saddam Hussein's ties to terrorists be discredited. Can you blame them for voting against this policy by voting out Republicans in large part?


Mr. PERLE: Well, the intelligence about Saddam's stockpiles appears certainly to have been wrong. I don't believe it's correct to say that his ties to terrorists have been discredited. There were numerous links between Iraqi intelligence and various terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda. Those have been documented, and I frequently hear people say that there's no evidence. It's simply wrong. I've seen the evidence.

SEABROOK: But much of that evidence that I've heard other analysts say on both sides of the aisle, and from several different policy points of views, has in fact been discredited, that most people it seems now are saying that Saddam Hussein didn't have any serious connection with terrorists.

Mr. PERLE: Well, I simply think that's wrong. I've looked at the evidence and have come to a different conclusion.

SEABROOK: Going into Iraq was part of a larger plan for the Middle East, part of a larger picture of spreading democracy in the Middle East, at least for the Bush administration and I gather for you. Is that still viable and has that idea been fatally hurt by what's gone on in Iraq?

Mr. PERLE: Well, that was not the idea. The idea was to deal with Saddam Hussein, who we believed posed a threat to the United States and who I still believe posed a threat to the United States. The fact that a decent government might emerge in Iraq thereafter, and hopefully a representative government, a democratic government, was icing on the cake. But the cake was an effort to manage a threat that we could have chosen not to deal with, and it's impossible to say how that would have turned out. So when you're managing a risk like that, although it's always gratifying with hindsight to make judgments about who was right and who was wrong, when you're managing a risk like that in real time, you have to do what you think the situation requires. And the idea that we went into Iraq to impose democracy on the Iraqis or on the region is just nonsense.

SEABROOK: Richard Perle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and has served as chairman of the Defense Department's Defense Policy Board during this administration. Thank you so much, sir.

Mr. PERLE: Not at all. All the best. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.