Richard Perle Redux

Richard Perle discussed his recent article, “Ambushed on the Potomac,” at TNI last week. Click here for a one-on-one interview and full coverage at the

Richard Perle discussed his recent article, "Ambushed on the Potomac," at TNI last week. Click here for a one-on-one interview and full coverage at the Washington Post. "Ambushed on the Potomac" is reprinted below.


Ambushed on the Potomac

FOR EIGHT years George W. Bush pulled the levers of government-sometimes frantically-never realizing that they were disconnected from the machinery and the exertion was largely futile. As a result, the foreign and security policies declared by the president in speeches, in public and private meetings, in backgrounders and memoranda often had little or no effect on the activities of the sprawling bureaucracies charged with carrying out the president's policies. They didn't need his directives: they had their own.

Again and again the president declared "unacceptable" activities that his administration went on to accept: North Korean nuclear weapons; North Korean missile tests; Iran's nuclear-weapons program; the Russian invasion of Georgia; genocide in Sudan; Syrian and Iranian support for jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere-the list is long. Throughout his presidency, Bush demanded that these states change their ways. When they declined to do so, policy shifted to an unanchored, foundering diplomacy engineered by a diplomatic establishment, unencumbered, especially in the second term, by even the weak, largely useless scrutiny it had come to expect from the National Security Council. When Condoleezza Rice moved to the Department of State, the gamekeeper (however ineffective) turned poacher, and the Bush presidency-its credibility gravely diminished-became indistinguishable from the institutional worldview of the State Department. There it remains today.

Those who expect an Obama foreign policy to differ significantly from the most recent policy of the outgoing administration will be surprised by what is likely to be a seamless transition: not from White House to White House, but from State Department to State Department. On all the main issues-Iraq, Iran, Russia, China, Islamist terrorism, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, relations with allies-Obama's first term is likely to look like Bush's second.

It will not be easy to assess objectively the foreign and security policy of the Bush administration anytime soon. Its central feature, the war in Iraq, has generated emotions that all but preclude rational discourse. And it will be nearly impossible to persuade those whose minds are made up-often on the basis of tendentious reporting and reckless blogs-to reconsider what they firmly believe they know. Too much has been written and said that is wildly inaccurate and too many of those who have expressed judgments have done so, not as disinterested observers, but as partisan participants in a rancorous debate. Nevertheless, I have tried in what follows to offer a view of what the Bush policy was in the beginning and what it became in the end.


I SHOULD say at once that while I believe Bush mostly failed to implement an effective foreign and defense policy, I also believe he got some very large issues right, especially the immediate response to 9/11 and a still-developing strategy for countering terrorism. And, right or wrong, he acted honestly and courageously, doing what he thought necessary to protect the country that elected him and the Constitution to which he swore fidelity. The charge that he lied about Iraq is itself a lie, and an unrelenting effort to show he was untruthful has not produced a shred of evidence. Guileless to a fault, George W. Bush has been among the most straightforward American presidents in my lifetime. And, contrary to his critics, he was far less inclined to play politics with national security than either his predecessors or his opponents in Congress. Becoming president at a moment of unprecedented American primacy, he could not have anticipated that he would lead a White House at war, a fractious, dysfunctional executive branch and a deeply divided nation.

Since it has been so widely and inaccurately reported, readers are entitled to a word about my own relationship to the Bush administration. During the 2000 campaign I was one of several people who worked, mostly at a distance, on foreign- and defense-policy issues. I would have been delighted to claim great influence but the truth is I cannot. During the campaign, the only issues I discussed at any length with the candidate were arms control and whether and how to enlarge the NATO alliance. The only time I saw President Bush after he took office was from my seat in the audience when he addressed the American Enterprise Institute on February 26, 2003.

At Donald Rumsfeld's request, I served as chairman of the Defense Policy Board (DPB) from 2001 to 2003, having been a member of that advisory group since 1987. A bipartisan group that meets quarterly, the DPB's twenty-two members review current issues in defense policy for a day and a half, then meet with the secretary of defense to share their independent views. Many of those members participate, and during the sixty or ninety minutes with the secretary, a broad variety of individual views are expressed. The board has no agreed-upon or collective view, and the frequent disagreements among the members are shared openly with the secretary. The board makes no findings and has neither the authority nor inclination to act as a decision-making body.