Richard Perle is a hot ticket these days.
As chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a key advisory panel to the Defense Department, the former Reagan administration official has privileged access to the Pentagon — where he has many friends in senior positions.
But as he likes to remind his audiences, Perle speaks only for himself and can therefore speak freely — a gold mine for reporters eager to peek inside the thinking of an administration known for its secrecy and tight image control. So when Perle showed up February 13 in New York for a speech, the ballroom at the Regency Hotel was packed with journalists eager to understand how the administration hawks would like to reshape the Middle East and the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Perle recognized the situation and spent most of his time taking questions, the vast majority from European reporters concerning the tensions between the United States and Europe over Iraq.
Perle was clearly at ease, providing articulate responses peppered with provocative words in his confident and quiet tone — a firebrand with a velvet glove.
“History could be in the making in the trans-Atlantic alliance,” Perle said matter-of-factly, pointing to the ongoing “dismantlement” of the United Nations and the sidelining of France within NATO. Striking the same “Old Europe versus New Europe” chord as his “good friend,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Perle blasted the “failure of leadership” of France and Germany. He hailed the leaders of Great Britain, Spain and Italy for supporting an invasion of Iraq despite the increasingly anti-war views of their publics.
Perle also had the pens scribbling furiously when he described his opposition to the series of international treaties barring the spread of weapons of mass destruction. In place of the multilateralist approach of the Clinton administration, he advocated “the posse approach.”
“We take a few countries, we get together and we stop them,” Perle said, outlining his preferred approach to countries aiming to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Reporters questioned Perle on why the administration seems fixated on removing Saddam Hussein, even though North Korea is developing nuclear bombs and Iran has announced progress in its ostensibly civilian nuclear program. Perle responded by pointing a finger at the Clinton administration, saying that American flip-flopping on Iraq during the 1990s had left President Bush with little choice but to move firmly against Saddam.
Perle backed Bush’s more cautious approach to North Korea, insisting that the situation there is difficult. As for Iran, he expressed confidence that the country’s Islamic regime would fall apart.
Asked about the pre-emptive strike doctrine adopted by the White House — a policy that most observers believe he had a key hand in shaping — Perle said it was nothing new, though he urged caution in its implementation. He cited the 1981 Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor as an example of a strategic pre-emption with minimum collateral damage. The Israelis, he explained, decided to attack not because the reactor was about to produce nuclear material — the plant was under international supervision and years away from producing plutonium — but because the Iraqis were about to put fuel into the French-built reactor. Had the Israelis not taken pre-emptive action, he said, they would not have been able to attack without causing many civilian casualties.
Perle rejected the arguments of those advising caution for fear that an attack on Iraq might prompt more terrorist attacks against the United States. Not acting now would send a message of weakness, he warned.
“If we retreat, terrorists will be dancing in the streets,” he said. “If we go, Iraqis will be dancing in the streets.”
Perle repeated the neoconservative mantra that an invasion would herald the spread of democracy in the Middle East — the new domino theory envisioned by his allies in the Pentagon, deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz and undersecretary Douglas Feith.
Perle said he hoped the Iranian people would be inspired by a regime change in Iraq, and that Lebanon would be freed from Syrian occupation.
As for Syria and Saudi Arabia, regime change there is unlikely, he said. Instead, Perle predicted that the installation of a democratic government in Iraq would increase the pressure on those countries to stop harboring and financing terrorism and to initiate democratic reforms.
Then he issued an ominous warning: If countries continue to harbor terrorist groups, then the United States might intervene militarily.
Many eyebrows went up. Perle just smiled. Confidently.