The Politics of Perle

In September 2002, then-Chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle sat down with Nikolas Gvosdev and made his case for invading Iraq.

Is an invasion of Iraq the best possible solution to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? The National Interest's Nikolas Gvosdev sought the opinion of Richard Perle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy during the Reagan Administration and is a long-standing Pentagon advisor. He is also a member of The National Interest Editorial Board.

Q: Why is regime change in Iraq the best way to deal with the threat that Hussein poses?

A: Because as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power he will continue his program of developing weapons of mass destruction. He has already paid an enormous price for this program. He could have avoided sanctions years ago by coming clean and terminating the program. He obviously he attaches very high value to the improvement of his current capabilities and the acquisition of additional ones, and most certainly nuclear weapons.

Q: Some of our allies and partners, such as the French, maintain that Saddam Hussein, however much of a thug he may be internally, can still be effectively contained and managed on the international scene.

A: He can be managed, with respect to France. The French manage him by collaborating with him, by taking up his case. He can't be managed, however, with respect to the United States. And the important point is that the situation of the United States is very different from that of France or Germany or any other country. You don't see Saddam standing up and saying how he despises France, but you do hear him talking about the United States in vicious and really unlimited terms. We tend to dismiss that as hyperbole, but I do not believe that it is wise to ignore it. We have misread him in the past. Everyone we've been able to talk to, who know him, agree that once Saddam becomes "nuclear", he is perfectly capable of using the weapons.

Q: Has the Administration been able to make these arguments to our allies, to enlist their support for a potential campaign against Iraq?

A: To the best of my knowledge, we have not asked our allies to do ANYTHING. We certainly haven't asked them to commit themselves to a military action with respect to Saddam. And it would be astonishing if they would simply volunteer, particularly since they don't know what the United States intends to do. They don't know what our approach will be. They know that we are deeply concerned about Saddam, and they have heard what the president has had to say, but I would be astonished if any other country, at this point, would say anything that goes beyond what the United States has said. So far, the United States has not said that there will be military action with respect to Saddam.

The president has categorized Saddam, appropriately, as part of the axis of evil. Saddam has defied the United Nations. But, to the best of my knowledge, the president has not said we are committed to taking military action against Saddam. If I had to guess, I would guess that the president will undertake this course of action, because that seems to be the only way to separate Saddam from his biological, chemical, and in due course nuclear weapons. And, by the way, while working to develop nuclear weapons, he has continued, urgently, to improve his chemical and biological weapons. We believe that these are quite primitive now but will not remain so, with the passage of time and continuing effort.

So, in a sense, this debate is a bit premature, at least with respect to our allies. If and when the president makes a decision to use force, at that point we will have to see what the allies are prepared to do.

Q: Can a successful invasion of Iraq be launched without the active support of Saudi Arabia?

A: Saudi Arabia is certainly not indispensable. In 1991 they appeared indispensable because the nature of the force that was mobilized was so large it required the infrastructure available only in Saudi Arabia. I don't think that a conflict in Iraq now would entail anything approaching the scale of 1991. After all Saddam's forces are one-third of what they were in 1991. So if we just reduce our forces proportionately, it would mean a much smaller operation. Secondly, we must bear in mind the efficacy of our weapons--man for man, pound for pound, sortie for sortie--is much greater today than it was back then.

So if you start by recognizing that Saddam has one-third the force he had during the Gulf War, and then you factor in the improvements on our side-and the deterioration on his--you are not, in my view, looking at the kind of operation that we launched in 1991. That operation that did require a lot of support-airfields, fuel depots, ports -- that only Saudi Arabia could provide.

Q: Speaking of Saudi Arabia, there has been some criticism of briefings organized for the Defense Policy Board, with some intimating that the Board is some sort of secret think tank charting policy ...

A: That's silly. The Defense Policy Board doesn't take positions as a board, although everyone on that board has positions. In fact, the positions of everyone on that board are well known, and public. The board is a mechanism by which the Secretary of Defense is exposed to a variety of views.

Q: One of the arguments being made against an outright invasion of Iraq that has regime change as its goal is that it removes any incentive Saddam Hussein may have had from not using his weapons of mass destruction in a type of doomsday scenario, striking out both at American forces and at his neighbors, especially Israel.