The Politics of Perle

September 11, 2002 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Gulf War

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.

A: If there is military action, that will obviously have a bearing on what Saddam Hussein chooses to do. And you can't exclude the possibility that he will try to deliver a chemical weapon, perhaps targeted at Israel or directed at our military forces on the ground.

Again, almost everything we are concerned about only gets worse as time goes on. But he certainly has a very limited capability today, his inventory of SCUD missiles is very small. Th won't get better if we give him time to assemble more SCUD missiles and develop chemical and biological weapons further so that they can be effectively delivered by SCUD missiles. It isn't going to get smaller over time, it is only going to get larger. So that danger does exist.

Once he has nuclear weapons, then you have a very different situation. At the moment, I think, he probably, it is probably the case, he would have to think twice about using a chemical weapon against Israel. Israel's capability to retaliate is much greater with nuclear weapons--without question. Once Saddam has nuclear weapons, it is not so obvious that you can respond with a nuclear weapon. So, this is yet another sense in which in only gets worse over time. I think crossing the nuclear threshold is a very important change, and I think that it is vital that we not permit him to do so. The Israelis thought that too, when they destroyed the French-built reactor at Osirek in 1981.

Even if you assume, however, that Saddam would decide to launch at a weapon of mass destruction at Israel, he faces the following problems:

First, he has very few launchers.

Second, while there are no absolute guarantees, we have a much greater capacity today than in 1991 to detect and locate weapons, particularly after one is fired, but even before the launch, because we have surveillance systems that we didn't have before.

Third, the Israelis do have some interception capabilities with the ARROW system.

Finally, it is not at all certain that an order to carry out a criminal act of that magnitude will be carried out. I have no doubt that Saddam would do it himself if he were at a SCUD launcher in the Western Desert, but are other people going to carry out an order to do that?

Q: So Saddam's lieutenants are not likely to follow him on a path leading to self-destruction …

A: I believe--although no one can prove this-but I do believe that at the point at which it becomes clear to Saddam that it is all over, it is also clear to the people around him. So, if I had to guess, I would predict that Saddam will ultimately be destroyed by his own forces, whose loyalty he has good reason to question. His uncertainty about their loyalty is the reason why he is constantly rotating, arresting, executing, and mutilating his own officers.

Q: Is "regime change" simply the removal of Saddam Hussein, or does it imply that the United States has a specific plan for the future of post-Saddam Iraq?

A: I think there are many possibilities. In the turbulence of a military situation, things can happen that one cannot anticipate. Different people have different views. My own view is that Iraq is more capable of democratic reform than almost any other country in the region, and so I would hope that if there is military action, our objective should not be to simply to remove Saddam Hussein, but to replace him with a decent regime, ideally a regime that, at least, in the long term could become pluralist and democratic.