Richard Perle on Rethinking Iraq

Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, is the guest for the first in a series of interviews with current and former policymakers on what should be done in Iraq.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

As the violence in Iraq escalates - the death toll for American troops so far this month stands at 91 - key members of Congress are calling for a new approach. Recommendations from a bipartisan panel are due out shortly after Election Day. And yesterday, the White House announced that the president will no longer use the phrase stay the course.

Amidst this reconsideration, we're inviting current and former administration officials and military officers to discuss what they think should happen next and to take your calls. We begin with Richard Perle, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, as chairman of the Defense Policy Board earlier in the current Bush administration. He was among the intellectual architects of the war and a lightning rod for criticism.

If you have questions for Richard Perle about the way ahead in Iraq, our number is 800-989-8255, or you can send us an e-mail: talk@npr.org. Richard Perle joins us by phone from his office in Maryland. Nice to speak with you again.

Mr. RICHARD PERLE (Former Chairman, Defense Policy Board): Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: Is it time to rethink Iraq?

Mr. PERLE: Well, I would hope that there's been a constant process of rethinking. At least with respect to how we dealt with an emerging situation. You obviously can't predict every twist and turn that something like that is going to take. If we haven't been making a more or less constant reassessment, we should have.

CONAN: Do you see evidence of this sort of ongoing reassessment where we keep talking about tactical changes, but in terms of organizational goals, operational goals, strategic goals - those don't seem to have changed.

Mr. PERLE: No. I think the strategic goal has been fixed pretty much from the beginning. And that is to bring the Iraqis to the point where they can both achieve security and build the institutions of a decent representative government going forward. That isn't going to change.

What will change and what should change is how we go about best assisting the government of Iraq. And here I think we made some very serious mistakes early on in slipping into an occupation, rather than turning things over to the Iraqis more or less immediately. But we're beyond that now, and I think everyone agrees that the key to success in Iraq is the Iraqis themselves.

CONAN: And do you agree with this idea that some have rooted - included a lot of Democrats - that really the Iraqis need to be - it needs to be made clear to the Iraqis that they're going to have to be responsible, and that maybe the best way to do that is to reduce the American military role quickly and decisively.

Mr. PERLE: We certainly want the Iraqis to understand that their destiny, their very lives, are in their hands. Whether the way to do that is to raise questions about our readiness to assist them, I'm not at all sure about that. We want to nudge them, certainly, but we don't want to take premature punitive action that would have the effect of lessening their chances.

CONAN: They face, and nobody would dispute this, very difficult decisions in terms of disciplining militias that are part of the party structures of their own government coalition. These are not easy decisions to make. How do you get them to make these difficult choices if they think they have an open-ended commitment from the United States?

Mr. PERLE: Well, there's suffering on all sides. The Shia are suffering, the Sunnis are suffering - the Kurds less than anyone else. There's a lot of bloodshed, a lot of violence. That's a very powerful incentive for trying to pull the country together and deal with those problems.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line, and this is Tom. Tom's calling us from Cleveland.

TOM (Caller): Yes. This administration has made a complete mess of this war. I personally think that we need to rectify the situation by opening up the draft and bringing a large amount of troops, American troops and international troops, to stabilize the situation regardless of the cost.

CONAN: Richard Perle, do you think more American forces would be an answer?

Mr. PERLE: No, I really don't. I think that would, in fact, stand in the way of making the transition to an Iraqi-led, Iraqi-managed process of building their own country.

TOM: So are you saying that we need the exact amount of troops that we have, or are you telling me that we need to draw down the troops?

Mr. PERLE: That's a decision that has to be made in real time as…

TOM: This is real time, sir.

Mr. PERLE: Yeah, I understand. But I don't believe that I can give you a number today that will be valid three months from now. I think the number that is in there now, involved especially in training and in fighting alongside the Iraqi forces, seems to me to be about right. The must be the judgment…

TOM: Are we losing more troops, or are we losing less troops? Are we losing more Iraqis or less Iraqis?

Mr. PERLE: I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand.

CONAN: I think he's talking, that he's suggesting that…

TOM: I'm sorry, Neal. Is the conflict being inflamed?

Mr. PERLE: Well, the conflict has ups and downs, if you mean in terms of the number of fatalities, and particularly if you mean the number of fatalities of military and police forces. Because the killing of civilians is pretty much random, and a single car bomb can skew those statistics. Look, it's a very difficult situation in which there's a tremendous amount of random violence against innocent civilians. We can't stop that.

We're not in a position to stop it. The degree of control over the society that would be required to reduce that threat would make it a police state under martial law, and we're not prepared to do that. And I think it's right that we're not prepared to do that.

How quickly the Iraqis can assume responsibility, that's the challenge. We should've started even before we went into Iraq. We wasted two years after Saddam fell before we trained the first Iraqi, which was an extraordinary failure to comprehend the situation. But we are now doing what we can to train Iraqis, and the rest of it - which is in my view the more important issue - is whether the Iraqis will find competent, effective and courageous leaders, because that more than anything else will determine the outcome.

CONAN: Let's talk with Harry, Harry with us from Rockingham, North Carolina.

HARRY (Caller): Yes. I just would like to ask Mr. Perle - I was in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah in the late ‘70s, and the day that I woke up after the Shah had left, my neighbor said to me we're so tired of this American puppet government for 25 years. As the only Shiite country that is led now by a theocracy, and with a majority of the Shiites in Iraq wanting the same kind of government, what kind of bombast do we have to walk in to say you're going to have a democracy? I just don't understand why we couldn't have learned that lesson.

I spent 30 months flying helicopters in Vietnam. I don't want to go to Iraq, and I just don't understand why we couldn't learn the simple lesson that you don't give people who don't want your form of government your form of government. We both stand for majority rule, I believe.

Mr. PERLE: Sure. We didn't go into Iraq in order to impose a government on Iraq. We went into Iraq because it was believed by the administration that made the decision and a great many other people that Saddam Hussein both possessed weapons of mass destruction and was capable of sharing them with terrorists. And after 9/11, we didn't want to take the risk that he might do that.

Now obviously, when the United States goes in in a situation like that, it tries to leave something better behind. We went into Afghanistan because they didn't turn over bin Laden, but we want to leave something better behind. So it's not a question of our having gone into Iraq in order to create democracy. And by the way, if you were to poll Iranians today, I think you would find very few are happy with the dictatorship that resulted from the collapse of the Shah's regime.

CONAN: Harry…

HARRY: But it's their problem for them to fight.

Mr. PERLE: I agree with that.

CONAN: Yeah. Harry, thanks very much for the call.

HARRY: Okay.

CONAN: Richard Perle, what do you make of the so-called revolt of the generals, the former generals who earlier this year called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld?

Mr. PERLE: I think there are always going to be some generals - we have several thousand - who don't like the policies of the administration. And sometimes they speak out, usually after they've retired. I've seen very few generals in 35 years I've been working on these matters resign while they still wore the uniform. There are bound to be differences of opinion, and it's probably a healthy thing that there are differences in opinion.

CONAN: As I suspect you know, there's open speculation that Secretary Rumsfeld will be replaced after the election. Of course, I think there was similar speculation two years ago. But do you think it's time for him to go?

Mr. PERLE: I think he's the best judge of when he considers that he can't do that job. Anyone coming in now has a very steep learning curve. Rumsfeld has been dealing day in and day out with issues in Iraq. Getting up to speed is not easy now. If one could argue that he fundamentally misunderstands the situation, that would be a powerful argument for removing him. But that's not the argument one hears. What one hears is that mistakes were made in the past, and therefore he should be punished by removal. I don't think that's a very constructive approach.

CONAN: Well, you also hear remote, arrogant, difficult to work with.

Mr. PERLE: Well, it's a question of who's judging that.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. PERLE: And you've got to compare the incumbent with whoever would come in after him. This is an unpopular war. All wars in this country have been unpopular since World War II. And in World War II, in the early stages until we were attacked, wasn't all that popular. And a certain amount of discontent has to do with the war itself and not with the secretary personally.

CONAN: We just have a little bit of time left with you, and I wanted to ask you, do you think that the American - given the stakes involved, do you think the American people are being impatient that the level of casualties, which people are finding increasingly difficult to tolerate, the apparent lack of progress - obviously, we have an election coming up in two weeks. People are going to vote for themselves.

Mr. PERLE: I think the administration has done a poor job of explaining what are strategy is in Iraq - why we're there, what the stakes are and what we are doing in the aftermath of the rise of an insurgency to cope with that insurgency and to eventually leave Iraq under circumstances that do not constitute a humiliating defeat, which would be a huge encouragement to those who want to destroy this country and, indeed, Western civilization.

And the great danger is that if we leave Iraq in a way that is interpreted around the world as a defeat for the United States, the argument that the terrorists have been making, that just as the Soviet Union was defeated by Muslim fighters, the United States will soon be defeated in the same way. The terrorists will be lining up for recruitment around the block, around the world.

So there's a great deal at stake here. It's much more than the day we went into Iraq. And those issues have to be discussed, and discussed openly. I think the American people are pretty sensible. And if the administration would do a halfway decent job of explaining itself, it will find sufficient tolerance to deal with this in a responsible way.

CONAN: Richard Perle, thanks very much.

Mr. PERLE: All the best.

CONAN: Richard Perle served as assistance secretary of defense under President Reagan, was chairman of the Defense Policy Board earlier in this administration, now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Rethinking Iraq continues next week. Our guests include retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, the first American administrator to oversee the interim administration. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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