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Richard Perle: The Making of a Neoconservative
Ben Wattenberg: Hello. Richard Perle, the infamous and famous Richard Perle, thank you for joining us on Think Tank.
Richard Perle: Itís a pleasure to be with you Ben.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, why donít we pick up the Perle story at that swimming pool. Whose swimming pool was it and what were you doing there?
Richard Perle: It was Albert Wohlstetterís swimming pool in the Hollywood Hills. Albertís daughter, Joan, was a classmate at Hollywood High School. We sat next to each other in Spanish class. She passed, I didnít, but she invited me over for a swim and her dad was there. We got into a conversation about strategy, a subject I really didnít know much about. Albert gave me an article to read, that was typical of Albert. Sitting there at the swimming pool I read the article which was a brilliant piece of exposition and obviously so. We started talking about it andÖ
Ben Wattenberg: About nuclear weapons and that kind of stuff?
Richard Perle: It was the called the ďDelicate Balance of Terror.Ē It became quite a famous article in foreign affairs, and it was a way of looking at the strategic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and the product of the serious piece of research that he had done as the director of the Research Council at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica.
Ben Wattenberg: And Albert Wohlstetter is regarded by some as sort of the grandfather of this hawkish mode of looking at things in America? Is that right?
Richard Perle: Well, it happens that a number of people who like to regard themselves as protťgťs of Albertís can probably be described as hawks, but it isnít so much that Albert was a hawk, itís that Albert was extraordinarily rigorous. For Albert, it was just impermissible to assume anything. You had to run down every fact, every proposition. He was a mathematical logician by training.
Ben Wattenberg: Who were some of his protťgťs?
Richard Perle: Well, Paul Wolfowitz was one.
Ben Wattenberg: Whoís now Deputy Defense Secretary.
Richard Perle: Yes. Paul was his student in his doctoral thesis under Albert, and Paul Kezemchek whoís now at Dartmouth. But almost everyone who got to know Albert became his student formally or informally. Bob Barkley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal was a great admirer of Albertís and learned a lot from him. You couldnít help but learn from Albert because he was teaching all the time. And what he taught us to do was think hard about difficult issues, and if several of us wound up hawks, weíd like to think itís because thatís the product of thinking hard about the dilemmas that a difficult world poses, particularly for policy makers in democratic societies.
Ben Wattenberg: And then you ended up with Scoop Jackson? How did that happen? Senator Jackson, my hero, your hero, our hero, who really embodied hawkishness?
Richard Perle: In a good cause always.
Ben Wattenberg: Right.
Richard Perle: It was a complete accident although it traces back. Albert Wohlstetter phoned me one day. I was still a graduate student at Princeton doing some research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he said, could you come to Washington for a few days and interview some people and draft a report on the current debate shaping up in the Senate over ballistic missile defense, which was a hot issue in the Nineteen Sixty-nine debate. This was in Nineteen Sixty-nine. And he said, Iíve asked somebody else to do this too, and maybe the two of you could work together. The someone else was Paul Wolfowitz. So Paul and I came to Washington as volunteers for a few days, to interview people, and one of the people we interviewed was Scoop Jackson and it was love at first sight. I will never forget that first encounter with Scoop. Here we were a couple of graduate students, sitting on the floor in Scoopís office in the Senate, reviewing charts and analyses of the ballistic missile defense and getting his views on the subject. Before I went back up to Cambridge, Scoop said, you know, youíre neverÖ
Ben Wattenberg: To Cambridge or to Princeton?
Richard Perle: To Cambridge, well I was living in CambridgeÖ
Ben Wattenberg: Oh, I see.
Richard Perle: Öwhile working on my thesis from Princeton. Scoop said, youíre never really gonna understand how these governments work until you have some direct experience, so why donít you come and work for me for a year and you can work on your thesis in your spare time. But there was never any spare time working for Scoop, and I was there for eleven years.
Ben Wattenberg: You became very involved in his sort of signature legislation, the Jackson-Vanek Bill, which was the human rights side of his toughness. Could you explain that? It involves the Soviet Union, which is now Russia, and where we stand on that now?
Richard Perle: It all started in the Spring of Nineteen Seventy-two, when the Soviet Regime imposed a prohibitive tax on immigration. It affected principally Jewish immigration, but it was aimed at all immigrants, and the tax was so high that nobody could afford to pay it, and it looked as though they were about to close the door on the trickle of immigration that had been permitted, and Scoop looked around for some way to counter this. At about that time, Richard Nixon had proposed a new trading arrangement with the Soviet Union in which, among other things, the Soviets would be accorded what used to be called ďMost Favored Nation Status.Ē That is to say their products would be treated as well as the products of our closest friends and allies.
Ben Wattenberg: And most every country has most favored nation status?
Richard Perle: Most countries did, but very few Communist countries. In fact, at that point non at all. So Scoop got behind the idea of an amendment, which I had the privilege of actually drafting, that said to the Soviet Union if you want most favored nation status, you have to let people immigrate. Scoop believed that immigration was in some ways the most powerful of all the human rights because if people could vote with their feet, governments would have to acknowledge that and governments would have to make for their citizens a life that would keep them there. If you can imprison people you can do anything, but if people have the right to leave, youíd have to create a decent society, so that was the seminal human right for Scoop. And this legislation which ultimately passed, well, it was the first time I think in history that the United States or any other country had made its trading relationship contingent upon adherence to a fundamental human right.
Ben Wattenberg: I mean, it made human rights into a player in the international arena, not just sort of a do-good cause?
Richard Perle: Thatís right. It put teeth into the idea of human rights and it was a tremendous inspiration to those who were fighting for human rights in the Soviet Union. Andre Sakharov, who wrote an open letter in support of it, Natan Sharansky, who now is Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, then a human rights activist and ultimately sentenced to jail in part for his role in supporting Jackson-Vanek. They were all enormously encouraged by the fact that the United States was not only giving verbal support to the demand for human rights but was actually encumbering important interests in order to achieve that.
Ben Wattenberg: The other side of the coin was to be strong militarily and that got involved in all the arguments between Scoop Jacksonís office and the Senate and versus the White House about how those SALT Treaties, which stands for it, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Right? Youíve had to educate me on this over the years but in a nutshell, what was the argument?
Richard Perle: The argument was that the idea of legislating a military relationship by Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, that it was a pretty doubtful proposition. The Soviets were building up their military forces. It was the only thing they were any good at it, and about a third of their GDP was being poured into the military. We never spent more than six percent of GDP, so it was huge massive investment, and indeed, the militarization in the Soviet economy contributed significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Scoop was very skeptical about the idea that you could talk the Soviets into a set of arrangements that would restrain their appetite for military power, and so he set a very high standard. The only agreements he was prepared to support were ones that had a demonstrable effect on the military balance. We now know by the way, I mean, one of the benefits of the end of the Cold War is we can talk to people who were on the other side at one time. We now know that those agreements have virtually no effect on Soviet Military programs, and indeed, we know that they had twenty thousand more nuclear weapons than we ever attributed to them, and the number that they managed to keep concealed through the whole of the Cold War was larger by far than the total number that was ever brought under the terms of an arms control agreement. So Scoopís skepticism was, in fact, right.
Ben Wattenberg: Now, Scoop was surrounded by people who then and certainly now are called neoconservatives. Itís become a fashionable word now thanks to you and your colleagues because youíre all categorized that way. How did that come into your life, that whole school of thought?
Richard Perle: Well, I think the term has something to do with the sense that those of us who are now called neo-conservatives were at one time liberals, and in thisÖ
Ben Wattenberg: Irving Kristol said a neoconservative is a liberal whoís been mugged by reality.
Richard Perle: Right. And I think thatís a fair description, and I suppose all of us were liberal at one time. I was liberal in high school and a little bit into college. But reality and rigor are important tonics, and if you got into the world of international affairs and you looked with some rigor at what was going on in the world, it was really hard to be liberal and naÔve.
Ben Wattenberg: And you keep coming back to this word ďrigorĒ, that you have to do this careful analysis of whoís strong, whoís not strong, how do you go about that, and for that generation the great lesson was Munich and the appeasement of Hitler? Is that about right?
Richard Perle: The inter-war period, the period between World Wars One and Two, were categorized by a complete absence of rigor and will. Analytical rigor was wholly lacking because the evidence was there. We saw, or some people saw anyway the steady buildup of Nazi military power and thatÖ
Ben Wattenberg: Churchill for one.
Richard Perle: Churchill saw it and there were some civil servants in the ministry of defense and the admiralty who were feeding him information. It was there if you wanted to see it and understand it, and it could be explained away if you didnít. But the explaining away required a suspension of healthy skepticism and so the value of that skepticism or rigor is that it forces you to look at the facts as they are. Anyone who looked at the facts in Nineteen Thirty-six knew what was coming or could at least see that the balance of power was in the process of shifting from one in which the democracies could expect to contain this growing totalitarian threat in Nazi Germany to a balance in which they couldnít.
Ben Wattenberg: Richard, you are Chairman of the Defense Policy Board. What is that?
Richard Perle: Itís a group of volunteer civilians who advise the Secretary of Defense. It now includes a pretty illustrious list of people, Henry Kissinger, James Slessinger, Harold Brown, Tom Foley and Newt Gingrich, two former Speakers. These are wise men with deep experience who come together half a dozen times a year for extensive briefings, discussions, meetings, and advice for the Secretary of Defense.
Ben Wattenberg: And does the Board itself put out dicta? I mean, does it say, this is what we believe?
Richard Perle: No, no. But the term ďboardĒ is a little misleading. It sounds like a zoning board that either gives you or doesnít give you a permit. The Board doesnít take corporate views. Itís simply a means by which the Secretary of Defense can come together with a group of people who have interesting things to say and they, in turn, can look into whatís going on in the Defense Department and give him advice, but there are no votes or anything like that.
Ben: And in your case because you are the Chairman and because you are well-known in this whole argument, people impute to that role that you are a part of the Bush Administration. That is not correct?
Richard: No. Iím completely independent of the Administration. I think that prefer it that way.
Ben Wattenberg: Does Secretary Rumsfeld sometimes get a little agitated that you say things that they arenít necessarily ready to say and it says Chairman of the Defense Policy Board and it sounds as if itís linked?
Richard Perle: Yes. I go to great lengths to discourage people from identifying me as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, because it does confuse people and from time to time I say something that people wish I hadnít said. In fact, I sometimes say things that I wish I didnít say.
Ben Wattenberg: Right. And do they put some heat on you then?
Richard Perle: Oh, there have been a couple of times when it was brought to my attention.
Ben Wattenberg: You were calling attention to the Iraqi Regime under Saddam long before the Kuwait War. Is that right?
Richard Perle: Oh, long before. I was actually rather uncomfortable with the support that we gave Saddam during the war between Iraq and IranÖ
Ben Wattenberg: Which we did sort of for geo-political balance?
Richard Perle: Yes, the view was that the mullahs in Tehran were worst than the tyrant in Baghdad, and I understand that argument. I donít agree with it, but even for those who accepted that view, the right course immediately after the end of that war would have been to say to Saddam, now weíve had enough of you too, and weíre not gonna to tolerate it.
Ben Wattenberg: And we didnít do that?
Richard Perle: No, we didnít do that, and the indulgence of Saddam led to the invasion of Kuwait.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, people sayÖthey say two things. What are they gonna do to us and why now?
Richard Perle: Well, why now, because weíre late. We should have done it a long time ago. We should never have allowed the inspectors to be expelled four years ago. Bill Clinton didnít want a confrontation, so he allowed the expulsion of the inspectors. We should have done this four years ago. In fact, we should have dealt with Saddam decisively in Nineteen Ninety-one but we didnít. And in the years since, thousands of people have died at his hands and mostly his own citizens, and heís been working away at weapons of mass destruction, so now, because every day that goes by, we are incurring the risks that he will use those weapons.
Ben Wattenberg: But people say he wouldnít use them on America. He doesnít have the means nor the will if heís got a couple of atomic bombs, to drop one on America.
Richard Perle: First at all I donít know that anyone can say what he will do. And a lot of people could not have predicted what heís done in the past. Nobody predicted that he was going to go in and invade Kuwait, so I donít know what Saddam Hussein is going to do but this is a man who is almost unique among current heads of government. Heís used poison gas against civilians. He has killed people with his own hand, almost arbitrarily. He uses torture, rape and all the rest, as instruments of policy. So he is capable of doing almost anything. The man who once ran his nuclear program said he has no doubt that Saddam perhaps alone in the world is capable of giving the order to use a nuclear weapon and then going to sleep. But the assumption that he wonít do it and basing on our security on the hope that he wonít do something heís capable of, thatís not my idea of a tough-minded approach to international affairs. Itís certainly not rigorous.
Ben Wattenberg: You and some of your colleagues have been under attack. One for being chicken hawks. Hereís the Nation magazine. Theyíre not very good caricatures. The idea being that you and some of your colleagues who now take a hawkish position did not serve in the military. How do you respond to that?
Richard Perle: Well, I havenít seen any reference to chicken doves, so I assume that itís only if you take a hawkish position that the fact that you did not serve in the military is held against you. I think itís an intimidating McCarthyite tactic. It tries to de-legitimize the views of people on an entirely irrelevant measure. It is true that I did not serve in the armed forces. Itís in part because I was a student at a time when student deferments were a normal thing, and then I was married. And they werenít taking married men into the Army, so I didnít serve. I was not opposed in any way to service, but the notion that Iím not entitled to a view or at least not entitled to a view that somebody decides is hawkish because I didnít serve is just monstrously unfair.
Ben Wattenberg: As this argument has gotten rancorous, there is also an undertone that says that these neoconservative hawks, that so many of them are Jewish. Is that valid and how do you handle that?
Richard Perle: Well, a number are. I see Trent Lott there and maybe thatís Newt Gingrich, Iím not sure, but by no means uniformily.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, and of course the people who are executing policy, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Connie Rice, they are not Jewish as last report.
Richard Perle: No, theyíre not. Well, youíre going to find a disproportionate number of Jews in any sort of intellectual undertaking.
Ben Wattenberg: On both sides.
Richard Perle: On both sides. Jews gravitate toward that and Iíll tell you if you balance out the hawkish Jews against the dovish ones, then we are badly outnumbered, badly outnumbered. But look, thereís clearly an undertone of anti-Semitism about it. Thereís no doubt.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, and the linkage is that this war on Iraq if it comes about would help Israel and that thatís the hidden agenda, and thatís sort of the way that works.
Richard Perle: Well, sometimes thereís an out and out accusation that if you take the view that I take and some others take towards Saddam Hussein, we are somehow motivated not by the best interest of the United States but by Israelís best interest. Thereís not a logical argument underpinning that. In fact, Israel is probably more exposed and vulnerable in the context of a war with Saddam than we are because theyíre right next door. Weapons that Saddam cannot today deliver against us could potentially be delivered against Israel. And for a long time the Israelis themselves were very reluctant to take on Saddam Hussein. Iíve argued this issue with Israelis. But itís a nasty line of argument to suggest that somehow weíre confused about where our loyalties are.
Ben Wattenberg: Itís the old dual loyalty argument.
Ben Wattenberg: The idea that the sort of neo-con hawks have and the Administration has is that we would be able to oust Saddam Hussein and basically install a government that would become democratic, and the promotion of democracy has been a hallmark of this whole neoconservative hawkish view. Is that realistic in an Islamic country, that youíll get democracy? You really donít have any now.
Richard Perle: Well, Turkey is not an Islamic country, although itís a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim. I think there is a potential civic culture in Arab countries that can lead to democratic institutions and I think Iraq is probably the best place to put that proposition to the test because itís a sophisticated educated population that has suffered horribly under totalitarian rule, and thereís a yearning for freedom that, you know, I think we find everywhere in the world but especially in subject populations.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, why is it important to an American citizen that we promote democracy in other lands? I mean, the easy argument is, itís not our government, you know, let them do what they want.
Richard Perle: The lesson of history is that democracies donít initiate wars of aggression, and if we want to live in a peaceful world, then thereís very little we can do to bring that about more effective than promoting a democracy. People who live in democratic societies donít like to pay for massive military machines. Democratic societies donít empower their executives to make unilateral decisions to plunge countries into war. Wars have been started by tyrants who have complete control and who can squander the resources of their people to build up military machines.
Ben Wattenberg: So this really squares the circle on that ancient argument as to whether American foreign policy should be idealistic or realistic. What you and the Scoopites are saying is that idealism is the real realism?
Richard Perle: Thatís right and the realism of the diplomats in which you put great confidence in the United Nations, that corrupt and weak and ineffective institution, thatís not realism. Thatís not even idealism. Itís just plain stupid.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Letís close this out and, tell meÖlook ahead ten years. Are we gonna see democracies in the Middle East?
Richard Perle: I think we will. It wonít be uniform and it probably wonít be without reverses, but I think deep down, human beings everywhere want to make decisions about their own lives, and they donít want them dictated, and thereís gonna be a reaction to the extremity of Islamic law, Sharia, in which people were told what music they can hear and what clothes they can wear. We already see it in Iran where thereís tremendous restiveness among the population, but people basically want freedom. If you give them half a chance, theyíll find a way to get it.
Ben Wattenberg: And if they go down freedomís way, that is nice and makes us feel good, but it also makes our world for our children safer?
Richard Perle: Ultimately itís the only enduring safety and there may be moments of danger on the way because the process of introducing rule by a whole population can be messy. It can lead to turbulence and instability in the near term. But in the long-term the stability that comes from tyrannical governments is an interim step before catastrophe. Itís always been so.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you very much Richard Perle for joining us on Think Tank, and thank you. Please remember to send your comments to us via e-mail. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg
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