TCS Daily

An Interview With Richard Perle

By Nick Schulz - November 5, 2001 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: Recently Tech Central Station E-Ring contributor Richard Perle sat down with TCS Editor Nick Schulz to discuss the ongoing war in Central Asia and terrorist threats to the United States.

TCS Host James K. Glassman has earlier interviewed Perle shortly after 9/11.

Tech Central Station: There was a recent report out of the Times of London claiming that Osama bin Laden has acquired nuclear materials. How concerned should we be about that?

Richard Perle: It`s simply a matter of time before one or more terrorist organizations, possibly Bin Laden, does in fact acquire nuclear material. Nuclear weapons are more difficult, but not impossible, which is one of the reasons why we can`t afford to delay in dealing with terrorism. Not only with respect to Bin Laden, but others as well. But I have no information that would confirm that.

TCS: Discuss the aftermath in Afghanistan. Do you think the current military operation should be pushed regardless of what comes after or is it in the interest of the U.S. to give opposition forces there the time to create a viable alternative to the Taliban?

Perle: In an ideal world we would want to construct a liberal democracy functioning effectively in Afghanistan. I don`t think that`s going to happen under any circumstances. And to try to forge a future Afghanistan in the crucible of the current war is a pretty daunting undertaken. It seems to me far more important that we win this war, and do what we can afterward to promote the most effective and humane government in Afghanistan. I think it`s a great stake, a conceit to believe that we can micromanage the further political evolution of Afghanistan. And in the mistaken belief that we can do that, we alter our military tactics so that we don`t win the war that would be a crushing defeat.

TCS: Let's touch a little bit on the question of Iraq. There`s a growing, what I would crudely call, "Bomb Baghdad" sentiment in some circles over suspicions that Iraq may be in some way behind 9/11 or the current Anthrax attacks or other terrorist attacks. Do you think the U.S. should, in any way, go after Baghdad and Saddam Hussein and on what grounds? What level of evidence is needed before doing something like that?

Perle: I very much favor going after Saddam Hussein`s regime and Saddam Hussein. And I think all the evidence that`s necessary is in. It has nothing to do with whether he`s involved with September 11 or with al Qaeda. What`s relevant here is that he hates the United States. He has weapons of mass destruction. He has used them against his own people and would not hesitate to use them against us.

And until now, we have taken the view that, despite all of that, he should be left alone because we can deter him from using weapons of mass destruction against us by the threat of overwhelming retaliation. What the arrival of Anthrax in people`s post boxes has demonstrated is that one can use weapons of mass destruction anonymously. And we must now consider that that is a very basic threat. And the question is can we afford to leave it up to Saddam to decide whether he will resort to those tactics or not because he has the means, and he has the motive.

TCS: Do you think that the Bush administration is down playing the "weaponized" Anthrax phrasing in order to downplay the question of Iraqi culpability? Do you get the sense that they don`t want to address that question yet?

Perle: No, I don`t think so. Even if the Anthrax that is now showing up has been weaponized -- that`s to say it has been manufactured in a way to make it most effective as a weapon -- that would not conclusively prove it had come from Iraq. But I think it is unnecessary to establish an Iraqi connection in order to recognize an Iraqi threat.

Suppose we take the position that we cannot or should not or will not act against Iraq unless there is overwhelming evidence of Iraq`s culpability in past hostile action. What does that tell us about Iraq`s potential for future hostile action? It tells us nothing at all. And everything we know about Saddam suggests that he`s perfectly capable of using weapons of mass destruction and against us. So, the simple issue in my view, is do we wait and hope for the best or do we take preemptive action.

In 1981, when the Israelis saw that a nuclear reactor that could have placed weapons-grade material in Saddam`s hand was about to be completed, they didn`t wait. They considered that that was an tolerable threat, and they destroyed that reactor. It is fundamental to our self-defense that we act preemptively when necessary to forestall attacks on our country.

TCS: Would you be surprised at all to find out that the anthrax letters that have been going around were done by home-grown U.S. terrorists, McVeigh types, and how certain are we that U.S. anthrax supplies haven`t been compromised?

Perle: I can`t answer that. I just don`t know. We certainly have been less than vigilant in a number of areas, and I suspect that the control of anthrax and other potential lethal agents may be one of the areas in which we haven`t been vigilant. I just don`t think we know.

But I also think it is less important than some people think it is. What matters is how we deal with the anthrax threat in the future, and there`s no question that whatever threat there may be from homegrown terrorists, there is a demonstrable threat from terrorists abroad. And we have to deal with the threats.

TCS: Washington is buzzing with talk about two camps that are competing for the president`s soul. Roughly speaking, it is a Wolfowitz-Perle camp that wants to pursue a wider war against state sponsors of terrorists -- Iraq and possibly others. And then a Powell-State Department camp that wants, certainly at this point, a less expansive approach. What do you make of that?

Perle: First I would redefine it a little bit. The president has said that we are at war with terrorism and the states that sponsor and harbor terrorists. So that suggests a so-called wider war. It is not simply limited to al Qaeda and Afghanistan and, therefore, the question is should we accept the council of those who want to narrow the president`s objective and define our purpose in way that would leave terrorists networks standing and leave states sponsoring terrorists in the business of doing so. And I think when you put it that way the question pretty much answers itself.

TCS: Do you know what Secretary Powell was talking about a couple of days ago when he said that he hopes the military campaign will be over in a couple of days? Sources close to the Pentagon tell us there are some Pentagon folks who were a little miffed at that because it seemed that he was the giving the impression of protecting the anti-terror coalition above all else.

Perle: Of course it would be foolish to protect a coalition that then became the instrument by which we failed to protect ourselves. The coalition, to the degree that it exists, and there is as much myth as reality in the coalition, is a means to an end. It`s not an end itself. If it becomes an end in itself, it will be an instrument of our own defeat. I don`t know what the Secretary of State had in mind, maybe he was more optimistic about the ease with which we could destroy the Taliban.

TCS: Talk a little bit about that. You mentioned there`s "as much myth as reality in the coalition." What exactly do you mean by that?

Perle: There are references, frequent references, to the coalition, but I don`t who`s in it. I don`t know what the basis of membership is. If you join, can you be expelled later if you don`t do whatever it is that`s expected of you? Is there a procedure for blackballing would-be applicants? Do we accept anyone, even countries that are themselves engaged in acts of terrorism? It`s a vague concept. And it seems to me, principally, to reflect the tendency to fight the last war.

In 1991, when we fought Iraq over its invasion and occupation of Kuwait, it was considered essential to have a coalition. And I believe it was in those days, not least of all, because there was so little support for that military action in the United States. And I was one of the people who worked on that. I co-chaired a committee with Ann Lewis from the Democratic National Committee, urging support for President Bush`s decision to go to war with Iraq. And we were very conscious of the fact that you didn`t have a clear majority in the Congress, therefore, the coalition became a means of legitimizing American action at home. That`s not the case now.

There is plenty of support for military action. And so the political requirement for a coalition in domestic terms doesn`t exist in this case. Now, there`s the argument, of course, that we want to keep other countries on our side. And I think that`s fine. If we can get other countries to support a successful prosecution of the war against terror, that`s great. But if we can get other countries only to support something less than a success, than we`re simply going to have to do this without their support.

And I believe we can do it without their support. We`re not globalizing half a million men, we don`t need bases and local support. We`re doing this very differently. And the need for a coalition is much diminished compared to 1991.

TCS: In the context of going it without a coalition, what do you make the response by moderate Arab leaders? What do you make of their response to what the United States has been doing and to their condemnations of 9/11 and of the terrorist actions? How would you size those up?

Perle: Well, talk is cheap. And we`ve had a lot of cheap talk. I don`t mean to disparage it; I`d rather have them saying the things they`re saying then the things they might have been saying. But, at the end of the day, it`s just words. And there are those who believe that it`s important, that it somehow legitimizes what we are doing. I think this is a case where we have been attacked. We have been attacked directly on our own territory and thousands of our citizens are killed. And, frankly, I don`t think we need anybody`s approval to defend ourselves.

Now, what we are not seeing among moderate Arabs is the battle that I hope will take place one day, between moderate Arabs and the extremists in their own ranks. I`d be a lot more impressed if we saw moderate Muslims -- and I think much of the Muslim world is moderate -- taking up the battle within the Muslim community and ostracizing the extremist fringe element that seems to have captured the rhetoric among Muslims.

TCS: Do you see any positive signs from over there?

Perle: I`m waiting. It takes time.

TCS: What would your rejoinder be to Chalmers Johnson and others who argue that we`re experiencing a "blowback" effect from U.S. intervention in the Middle East and a kind of reap-what-you-sow kind of reaction?

Perle: It`s rubbish. What we have seen from Osama bin Laden is an act of vicious hatred that has nothing to do with our policies. Except he`d like to see us out of Saudi Arabia so he can take over Saudi Arabia, and he`s made that very plain. He wants the power, he wants the position, the wealth, the oil, the money, and he wraps himself up in ideological cover because it has a broader appeal than sheer will to power and greed.

The fact that he`s an ascetic and lives in the wilds of Afghanistan should not confuse anyone. This is a man who`s hungry for power and it has little to do with American policy. There is no change in American policy that could alter the plans of Osama bin Laden and, had American policy been entirely different, you would still have men like Osama bin Laden doing the sorts of things he has done.

TCS: Your comments would suggest that -- and I think there`s evidence to this effect - that what Bin Laden wants is, in part, to format a wider civil war in the Arab world and, in part, to take over Saudi Arabia. But what is the threat of that actually happening and how concerned should the U.S. be about it and what is there to do about it?

Perle: I think Saudi Arabia is very shaky by any modern political standard, and it`s a corrupt regime in which the wealth of the country is expropriated by a small number of people at the top, which fundamental rights are routinely denied. There is no consent of the governed so it`s always difficult to know what the people of Saudi Arabia would do if they were free do it. They`re not because it`s a police state. But it, like the others in the region, is pretty fragile, and we need to recognize that.

TCS: Talk a little bit about the Israeli-Palestinian question. Do you think the administration is being contradictory in pursuing a war on terrorism but then hedging on going after Hamas and Hezbollah?

Perle: Yes. I wouldn`t attribute that view -- which is certainly contradictory -- to the administration. It seems to be the province of the Department of State, which is well schooled in the propagation of contradictions. Yes, it strikes me as extraordinary that while we are doing everything we know how to do to protect the American people, some State Department officials would have the nerve the Israelis they mustn`t defend themselves. And the Israelis, quite rightly in my view, have said, thank you for the advice.

TCS: What do you make of the Pentagon`s recent decision to suspend missile defense tests? and are there any implications for the ABM Treaty?

Perle: I think the ABM Treaty is history. It`s just a question of when is this finally interred. I think it is simply consistency with the announced policy of the United States. We do not violate treaties, and we have a choice. We can either conduct a test that was in violation of the treaty or delay the test while we sort things out with President Putin when he visits the United States, which is due to happen quite soon. And I suspect that on that occasion the appropriate notice of withdrawal will be given, and we will then schedule the tests when it is legal for us to do so.

TCS: President Bush keeps saying that the Cold War is over and, if that is true and it certainly seems that that`s the case, what does that mean for the NATO alliance?

Perle: It means that NATO is going to have to scramble to find a mission for the future because it has so far been unwilling to reconstitute itself, as I think it should, as the focal point of the defense policies of the Western industrial democracies and a few others around the world. And it continues to be rather narrowly preoccupied with European security, and the threats in Europe are vastly diminished over what they once were. So, if NATO wishes to survive it`s going to need to reorient itself. While there`s been some movement in that direction, it hasn`t gone nearly far enough.

TCS: How relevant can it be in pursuing this war on terrorism?

Perle: That`s a very interesting question, and people will have noticed that NATO declared pursuit to Article Five of the NATO Charter that the attack on the United States constitutes an attack against the alliance as a whole. That was done by the Secretary General on his own initiative. And I think pretty much, because he looked around and he said, if NATO is irrelevant to this, the first time the United States has been attacked, it`s the end for NATO. People will look back and say, NATO was only useful for the defense of European security. They helped the Europeans out of trouble, and when the U.S. got into trouble, it proved to be irrelevant. So there`s a scramble to demonstrate the relevance of NATO to American security.

Whether that turns out to be real or simply imagined will depend on what the NATO countries do in the future. And the counterpoint is going to come, frankly, when we take this war beyond Afghanistan, and we conceive where our NATO colleagues line up.

TCS: Right, it seems the Brits understand that but it`s a question of the other countries in the alliance.

Perle: And they will then be tested. It`s not that we will need them, we won`t. We really won`t. Everything we will need to do, virtually everything, can be done without them. In some cases it would be easier with their help, but it can be done without them. And in my view, we will have to do what we have to do with or without them.

TCS: In general, how do you think the administration has been doing so far and where, in your estimation is it falling short, if it`s falling short anywhere?

Perle: I think the administration has been doing pretty well. The deficiencies seem to be not on the military side but in two other areas: our intelligence is not adequate to the task. We need much better intelligence, that`s clear. And nobody wants recriminations now, so the inevitable review of this massive intelligence failure has not yet been started, but it will come. And when it does, I think we will discover that we are disparately deficient. And the intelligence community, not just the CIA but the rest of the community, needs to be radically overhauled and a number of people need to find employment in things they`re good at. Because they`re not very good at what they`ve been paid to do.

TCS: Are there any specific people or administration actions that are culpable, that we can point to say this is where things got really messed up?

Perle: I think the current inadequacy of the intelligent community has its roots quite far back actually in congressional meddling and second-guessing of the intelligence community, back in the days when it was pretty competent -- the Church committee, the Pike committee, things that took place in the 1970s.

The constant pressure that the CIA was under from liberal opinion to operate in a difficult and hostile world by standards that were appropriate for liberal democracies. The notion that we couldn`t recruit people who have doubtful records, as though people without doubtful records were in a position to help us.

There were a lot of misconceptions about what needed to be done. But on top of all of that there was a general slovenliness, a decline in quality. The chief Afghan analyst of the CIA doesn`t speak any of the Afghan dialects. The chief Saudi analyst doesn`t speak Arabic. Something is dreadfully wrong when people without the basic tool set to do their job are permitted to rise to senior positions in a system that clearly is not setting minimum standards. I don`t know either of these individuals, so there`s nothing personal about it, but it seems to me scandalous that we depend on analysts who have risen through a career in which they never found it necessary to master the languages of the country from which they`re responsible. That isn`t their fault, it`s the fault of the management that hired them and promoted them.

TCS: Is that some sort of indicator of how deep the problem is? Since we are talking in terms of not really having time when we`re talking about terrorist activities, how long is it going to take for a U.S. intelligence community to get up to a level that it needs to be?

Perle: Well, it won`t happen overnight, but it will happen faster than people think. I have seen Fortune 500 corporations turned around in three quarters, four quarters, five quarters. It`s a question of management from the top, it`s a question of inspiring people to apply for jobs and recruiting.

And I think the silver lining in all of this is a burst of intention to patriotism. I`ve had calls from people around the country saying, "I want to help. I do, I`m willing to take leave from my job, I`m willing to make a mid-career shift."

And I think we know that applications for government jobs in this area are up, in some cases, a thousand percent of historic averages. So Americans want to get involved in this, and there are a lot of talented people in this country. So I think it`s going to be easier than some people think. We`re going to have to do it in unconventional ways. We`re going to have to behave as if we`re at war and not as if it`s business as usual because business as usual is debilitating. So it`s going to be waiving lots of cherished concepts, clearing people for access to information a lot faster than the cumbersome process that we have now, by applying some intelligence to the process, by eliminating some of the bias in the system. If you`re from overseas or you`ve traveled extensively, you`re an easier suspect and it takes forever to check you out. And there are a lot of things that will need to be done, but I`m pretty optimistic that with the right management we can turn this thing around.

TCS: And is that management in place today?

Perle: It is not.

TCS: Richard Perle, thank you.

Perle: Okay, thank you.

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