Neo-Cons Fire Away at Bush Policies on Iraq

Vanity Fair magazine editor David Rose interviewed a collection of prominent neo-conservatives, among them Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and David Frum. Ardent supporters of the Iraq invasion, they are now openly questioning the Bush administration's current policies.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. A number of leading conservatives who backed the war in Iraq now say the war is failing because of incompetence at the top levels of the Bush administration. Among the critics is Richard Perle, who chaired a committee of Pentagon policy advisors in President Bush's first term. In hindsight, Perle now says if he'd known how the war would turn out, he would have opposed it. These new critiques of the war and the administration come from a soon-to-be-published article in Vanity Fair written by David Rose. Mr. Rose joins us on the line from Oxford. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID ROSE (Writer): Hi there.

YDSTIE: You interviewed a number of neo-conservatives for this article - Richard Perle, Ken Adelman, David Frum, to name a few. Many of them are considered architects of the Iraq policy, but now they're distancing themselves from the administration's conduct of the war.

Mr. ROSE: Well, I think one of the reasons why they agreed to give me these interviews is that, as Perle himself put it, they're sick of being described as architects. They were certainly very prominent advocates of regime change in Iraq, and indeed had been so for many years. What they're saying now is that while they advocated regime change, and of course to that end did support very strongly the armed invasion by America and its allies in 2003, they were not architects in the sense that they did not design what happened afterwards. And they feel very cross, very bitter, very let down, by the missteps and policy failings which have made the Iraq war so much more difficult to win, so much more costly in terms of both Iraqi and American lives, and indeed its outcome so much more doubtful.

YDSTIE: And who do they blame specifically? What are they saying specifically?

Mr. ROSE: Well, they are basically blaming the administration. They are blaming, first of all, because the buck does stop with him, President Bush. They're saying that the way his administration is set up and the way the decisions are taken inside the administration is, to use a term used by Ken Adelman, dysfunctional. In fact, Ken Adelman tells me that when the administration took office, he believed that this would be the most talented national security team since the time of President Truman. Instead he say it's turned out to be among the most incompetent. And he says that while individually the key players - Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, the president himself - had numerous flaws individually, together they were deadly. They were completely dysfunctional.

And what these guys are really doing is identifying failings in the interagency process where disputes between different bureaucracies inside the administration are hammered out. The failings within the decision-making - when decisions were needed to be made in a timely fashion, they would drag out for months in the interagency process in the National Security Council. And they particularly identify the NSC as a place which just didn't do its job properly.

And so what you have is a situation where you have bureaucracies with very different views at each other's throats in many cases over issues of vital importance, the NSC failing to define what the points of disagreements are, instead embarking on a futile search for common ground, which just doesn't exist, and then the president failing to impose his own will and authority.

YDSTIE: Of course the person who was running the National Security Council at this time was Condoleezza Rice, now the secretary of state. Why, if it wasn't functioning properly, wasn't something done about it?

Mr. ROSE: The problem was that the National Security Council was failing. It just wasn't doing its job under Condi's stewardship. Condi had what Richard Perle described to me in part of the interview as a familial relationship with President Bush. I think the difficultly here is that that close relationship, they're saying, blinded him to her failings. She was not doing her job properly as national security advisor, as chairman of the national security council. She wasn't getting those decisions processed in a timely way. And instead of taking the tough decisions that another kind of manager might have done, seen that she was failing in that job and either fire or move her or do something about it, he just let it ride because he was perhaps blind to her failings. I think that is what they're saying.

YDSTIE: Did any of these people that you talked to - Richard Perle, Ken Adelman, David Frum - assume any personal responsibility, you know, that maybe the policy they advocated was flawed? That while deposing Saddam and establishing democracy in Iraq might be a fine goal, that believing it should be accomplished by force might have been naïve or even arrogant?

Mr. ROSE: What they're all saying now is that in 2003 they continued to believe that Iraq was a doable do, that had it been executed properly, then the outcome would have been very different. And although there might well have been an insurgency, it would have been much easier to contain. And I think the central thing that they're arguing here is that the problem was that from the very beginning it was seen as an occupation, not as a liberation. It wasn't a fatally flawed or doomed idea, but the way that it has been executed has made it far more difficult.

YDSTIE: Why are these conservatives coming forward now? Are they simply trying to save their own reputations?

Mr. ROSE: Well, I think the simple answer is that I approached relatively recently and asked them to do interviews with me. And I've written an article. So I, you know, I can't say that this is any kind of collective decision on their part to speak out. And indeed, I have no evidence that they knew other than when I told them. I think it is, however, significant that they all have strong criticisms to make of the way the war has been conducted and particularly of the administration.

And I think there was another point which angers them considerably, which is perhaps quite pertinent. There has been for a very long an insistence by the administration that everything is going much more smoothly than the media would have you believe, that really this is still very much a winnable project. As Ken Adelman, again, puts it, this is not a public relations problem. It is a problem in Iraq.

YDSTIE: What do these people see as the likely outcome in Iraq?

Mr. ROSE: None of them are quite willing to totally give up hope here, but they're pretty gloomy and clearly defeat in Iraq, complete defeat in the sense of an American withdrawal leaving something like a failed state or a raging civil war, is a pretty ghastly prospect. And it's something that right now can't be ruled out. And as David Frum puts it, one of the problems is that the Americans have not shown that they can protect anybody from the insurgency, and that makes it very difficult to win, because if people feel too frightened to cooperate with the Iraqi government, then it's very hard to defeat that insurgency when that level of terror exists throughout Iraqi society.

YDSTIE: David Rose, thank you very much.

Mr. ROSE: Thank you.

YDSTIE: Mr. Rose's article on these issues in Vanity Fair will be on newsstands in early December. You can find a link to excerpts from his article at our Web site, npr.org. Our attempts to reach Richard Perle and Ken Adelman for comment were unsuccessful. In a comment on the Web site Huffington Post, David Frum says that Vanity Fair editors and publicists took his remarks out of context in the excerpts they posted on the Web. But he also says that author David Rose is a well-known critic of Saddam Hussein and a supporter of the Iraq war and has earned a reputation as a truth-teller.

Frum adds, Obviously I wish the war had gone better. It's true I fear there is a real danger that the U.S. will lose in Iraq, and yes, I do blame a lot that has gone wrong on failures of U.S. policy. My most fundamental views on the war in Iraq remain as they were in 2003. The war was right. Victory is essential. And defeat would be calamitous.

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