At Large

How Little We Know

Richard Perle and his confrères know all about the big picture -- but guess who will have to fill in the details?

By 4.3.03

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Say this about Richard Perle: He is not hobbled by inconsistencies, and he keeps his eye on the big picture. Perle, who stepped down recently as chairman of the Defense Policy Board after allegations he had a conflict of interest, although he will still remain on the board, is a longtime advocate of regime change in the Middle East: Iraq today, and Syria and Saudi Arabia tomorrow. The precise ways of doing this, however, have been unclear, and to Perle and his like-minded colleagues they seem to be irrelevant. The important thing is the big picture, and they insist on their superior knowledge. Their record, though, is not inspiring.

In 1998, for example, Perle told a Senate committee that "it would be neither wise nor necessary to send ground forces into Iraq when patriotic Iraqis are willing to fight to liberate their country." The key in the war of liberation, he insisted, would be Basra. "Once Basra changed hands," he declared, things would "change dramatically." Apparently rebellion would break out all over Iraq. And whose troops, Perle was asked, would bring about this change of hands? "I think opposition elements with relatively light armament could accomplish that," he replied, "provided they were backed up by air power."

But Perle, of course, was wrong about this. As this is being written, heavily armed British troops, amply backed by air power, have been besieging Basra for two weeks, and only now have just begun to move into the city. Perle's confident assertion about the "opposition elements" was absurd.

Perle, in fact, was always a dubious choice as chairman of the Pentagon advisory board. In place of judgment, he substitutes hubris. ("The Iraqi opposition is kind of like an MRE [meal ready to eat]," he also has said. "The ingredients are there, and you just have to add water, in this case U.S. support.") The recent criticism of Perle, however, has focused on his financial dealings and not his Middle East expertise. The New Yorker reported that in January he had met with two Saudi businessmen -- one of them alleged to be Adnan Kashoggi, the old Iran-Contra fixer -- in an attempt to get funding for his venture capital outfit, Trireme Partners, which invests in defense and security companies.

Perle, however, has denied any improprieties, and might have escaped further criticism. But then it was disclosed that he was to be paid $750,000 by Global Crossing, the bankrupt telecommunications company that wants approval to sell its assets to a Chinese company. The Defense Department and the FBI, though, object to the sale on the ground that the Chinese company would control the fiber-optic network that the U.S. government uses. For $750,000, Perle would presumably persuade the Defense Department and the FBI to suspend its objections.

But Perle has once again denied any improprieties, and suggested that the allegations of conflict of interest stem from a leftist conspiracy. Whatever the truth behind any of this, there is no question but that Perle has done very well for himself in that interstice where policy makers and the people who want to influence them meet. In 1983, it was disclosed that he had been paid for representing an Israeli arms company. He has also had Turkey as a client. A visitor to Perle's house in Provence has described it as "luxurious."

BUT THE MORE IMPORTANT ISSUE NOW is Perle's role in foreign policy. He is, of course, a prominent hawk, and his views are well known. Long before 9/11 and the White House's shaky contention that Iraq had a part in it, Perle wanted to topple Saddam Hussein. Indeed that was to be only a way station on the road to other things. In 1996, Perle and Douglas Feith, who is now undersecretary of defense for policy, collaborated on a now celebrated briefing paper for Benjamin Netanyahu, then the new Israeli prime minister, that was more or less a blueprint for rearranging the Middle East.

The briefing paper, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," urged Israel to adopt a more aggressive posture while it forged closer ties with Turkey and Jordan. "This effort," it said, "can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right, as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."

Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has now put Syria on his watch list, and so most likely he agrees. There is not much disagreement among hawks these days, and in the Pentagon, in particular, dissent is not tolerated, and so very little is found. In a BBC interview the other day, when a timorous news presenter asked Perle whether there was "a military/civilian split" over U.S. war policy, he neatly sidestepped the question. There was only, he said, "a certain amount of disgruntlement from retired officers."

But that was not at all true. Many Pentagon professionals -- civilian and military -- have been unhappy ever since Rumsfeld took office. They have been superseded by political appointees committed to a single point of view, and they have been given a choice: They can either get with the program, or get out. The three-week, $250 million war game called "Operation Millennium" that the Pentagon staged last summer was revealing about this, although the press hardly noticed.

The war game pitted the Blue, or U.S. forces, against the Red, or Iraqi forces. But the fix was in, and the result was pre-ordained. When Paul Van Riper, the retired Marine lieutenant general who commanded the Red forces, attacked first and sank most of the Blue fleet in the Persian Gulf, the control group overruled him. It restored the ships to duty as if the attack had never occurred. Then it determined that electronic warfare planes had disrupted the Red microwave communication systems, and that the Red forces would have to use cell phones and satellite phones to transmit messages.

But Van Riper said no; the Red forces would use motorcycle messengers, and make announcements from mosques. It is not clear what the control group did next, although from then on Van Riper apparently spent his time on the sidelines. He told a British newspaper later that "nothing was learned from this," meaning the war game, and then added: "A culture not willing to think hard and test itself does not augur well for the future."

That no doubt is true, especially on matters of war, and it is remarkable how little informed discussion there has been about the Iraqi invasion and what will follow it. There was never any question but that the U.S. would defeat Iraq, or that American troops would behave bravely and well. That, however, was never the issue. But it was argued in this column recently that the Iraqi invasion could destabilize the Middle East, much to our disadvantage, and that rather than deterring terrorism it would more likely promote it; and while I will not reprise the argument now, it is a view I still hold. At the same time I think there are reasons for the absence of informed discussion.

For one thing, our elected politicians do not seem to know very much; a fog hangs over Congress. The CIA held a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week about the rising tide of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, and, as Newsweek reported:

"As agency officials discussed the depth of hatred for U.S. actions, the senators fell silent. There were delicate discussions about the uncertainty, if the war was protracted, of 'regime stability.' After the briefing, 'there were senators who were ashen-faced,' said one staff member. 'They were absolutely depressed.' Much of what the agency briefed would not have been news to any close watcher of the BBC or almost any foreign news broadcast. 'But they [the senators] only watch American TV,' said the staffer."

But the larger reason, I think, that Perle and his neocon colleagues are ascendant is that they pretend to certainty, and in doing so they fill a void. Iraq has been mostly a blank spot to U.S. policy makers, and few voices arise to contradict them. In his book, See No Evil, Bob Baer, the former CIA agent who worked with the Iraqi opposition to Saddam in the mid-1990s, wrote this:

"The CIA didn't have a single source in Iraq…Not only were there no human sources in the country, the CIA didn't have any in the neighboring countries -- Iran, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- who reported on Iraq. Like the rest of the U.S. government, its intelligence-gathering apparatus was blind when it came to Iraq."

Baer worked principally with the Iraqi National Congress, whose leader is Ahmad Chaladi, the one-time banker with a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago; he is also the Iraqi opposition leader most favored by the neocons and other conservatives, and while the CIA and the State Department are said to distrust him, the Pentagon holds him in high regard, and has relied on him for intelligence. He once wrote a paper that said "Iraq is on the verge of spontaneous combustion," and that fit in nicely with neocon thinking. (And Baer, incidentally, is also the "Bob from the CIA" who told a House staffer in 1997 about Roger Tamraz, the oil pipeline promoter and Democratic party donor who was trying to get to Bill Clinton.)

Meanwhile the end of the war is now in sight, and, according to the White House, we will now remake Iraq into a beacon of democracy for all the rest of the Arab world. This is an absolutely mad idea, but any number of supposedly bright people now embrace it, and that is the kind of thing that happens when there is no informed discussion.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.