Ambushed on the Potomac

Ambushed on the Potomac

Mini Teaser: One of America’s best-known neoconservatives gives his take on what went wrong over the past eight years, the role of the State Department in hijacking Bush’s foreign policy and why 50 million conspiracy theorists have it wrong.

by Author(s): Richard Perle

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.

People familiar with zoning boards, draft boards, boards of directors and the like have wrongly thought that the DPB either makes or significantly influences Defense Department or even national policies. This is simply not the case. Outside the eight meetings of the DPB I attended between 2001 and 2003, I could count on one hand the times I saw Secretary Rumsfeld to discuss policy matters.

I have digressed to describe my relationship to the Bush administration because I have been widely but wrongly depicted as deeply involved in the making of administration policy, especially with respect to Iraq. Facts notwithstanding, there are some fifty thousand entries on Google in which I am described as an "architect," and often as "the architect," of the Iraq War. I certainly supported and argued publicly for the decision to remove Saddam, as I do in what follows. But had I been the architect of that war, our policy would have been very different.


UNDERSTANDING BUSH'S foreign and defense policy requires clarity about its origins and the thinking behind the administration's key decisions. That means rejecting the false claim that the decision to remove Saddam, and Bush policies generally, were made or significantly influenced by a few neoconservative "ideologues" who are most often described as having hidden their agenda of imperial ambition or the imposition of democracy by force or the promotion of Israeli interests at the expense of American ones or the reshaping of the Middle East for oil-or all of the above. Despite its seemingly endless repetition by politicians, academics, journalists and bloggers, that is not a serious argument.

I may have missed something, but I know of no statement, public or private, by any neoconservative in or near government, advocating the invasion of Iraq primarily for the purpose of promoting democracy or advancing some grand neoconservative vision. As for oil, most neoconservatives believe in markets and think the best way to obtain oil is to buy it. And as for Israeli interests, well, the Israelis, who believed that Iran posed the greater threat, were strongly and often vociferously against the United States going into Iraq.

There are, however, a great many wrenched-from-context or even fabricated quotations in circulation. They are easy to spot since they are never sourced.1 Sometimes the attempt to defend these insupportable claims is laughable, as when Vice President Dick Cheney is first misrepresented and then described as a "neoconservative," or when two subcabinet Defense Department officials, the vice president's national-security adviser, one or two members of the NSC staff and a handful of commentators are said to have bamboozled the president, the vice president, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On the Left, George Packer's Assassins Gate and Jacob Heilbrunn's They Knew They Were Right share an obsession with neoconservative influence, but they fail utterly to describe or document that influence. The same is true of much of what has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, the Guardian and the New Yorker, among others. Pat Buchanan and his acolytes on the Right mirror the Left's obsession, along with Lyndon LaRouche, David Duke, Paul Craig Roberts and any number of conspiracy theorists. This neoconservative conspiracy is nonsense, of course, and no serious observer of the Bush administration would argue such a thing, not least because there is not, and cannot be, any evidence to substantiate it.

So if it was not a neocon master plan, how did we end up invading Iraq? What were the considerations that led Bush to bring down Saddam Hussein's regime by force? What was the role of neoconservatives in his decision to go to war in Iraq? Many people believe they know the answer to these questions because so much has been written, with seeming authority, by so many commentators. Could 50 million blogs be wrong?


I BELIEVE that Bush went to war for the reasons-and only the reasons-he gave at the time: because he believed Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States that was far greater than the likely cost of removing him from power. To recall his thinking we must go back to 9/11-which was, for Bush's foreign and security policy, the beginning of time.

Essay Types: Essay