July 11, 2002: What are the chances that Saddam Hussein is feeding chemical and biological weapons to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda? And, if so, how prepared is the U.S. to respond? Would a regime change in Iraq bring greater stability to the region or muddy the waters further? James P. Rubin discusses the issues with Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, and a former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.
James P. Rubin: Joining us now to talk about Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, and weapons of mass destruction is Mr. Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a group that advises the Pentagon on national security issues. He’s a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was assistant secretary of defense for international security during the Reagan administration. He’s speaking today on his own behalf. Richard, welcome to Wide Angle.
Richard Perle: Thank you.
James P. Rubin: Well, you’ve just seen Gwynne Roberts’ film. And it raises some very explosive charges. I wonder if you could help us connect the dots. Why should the American people be concerned and what should they think having seen this film?
Richard Perle: Well, the thing that is brought home so clearly in this film is the connection among terrorist organizations now implicating Saddam Hussein directly with Al Qaeda, with a global terrorist movement that ultimately wishes to destroy the United States. What I think we’re discovering is that terrorists, like criminals, are in touch with one another around the globe. I think if a safe cracker in Phoenix needs a safe cracker in Manchester, England, somehow they connect (Laughs). And the terrorists are connecting. They’re working together, they’re reinforcing one another, and they’re sharing their tradecraft. And the result is that if we are going to prevail over the terrorists, we have to take them seriously wherever they are and we have to take this war to them in their countries, on their territory. Because if we have to stand and fight on our own territory, many Americans will die in the process.
James P. Rubin: You’ve been an advocate of intervention in Iraq. And one of the arguments you’ve used is that if we wait, that someday Saddam Hussein will transfer weapons like biological weapons to terrorist organizations. Having seen the film, do you think there is now a new rationale for early military action against Saddam Hussein?
Richard Perle: Well, the film of course confirms one’s worst fears and apprehensions. Because the thing that many of us have speculated about is happening. There is that interchange. It is likely that chemical weapons, biological weapons in the possession of the Iraqis derived during the cold war from the Soviet Union are now being disseminated to terrorists. I don’t see how we can ignore those connections that are made so clear in this film. So every day we wait is a day during which a plan may well be forming that could result in the deaths of a great many Americans. Time is not on our side.
James P. Rubin: You’re the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a group that advises Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and many of your colleagues that you’ve worked with in government serve in very high posts in this administration. Could you give our viewers a flavor of how you are able to consult with your colleagues and how freely in your outside role you are able to, if not have influence, make some suggestions or be a successful advisor?
Richard Perle: The Defense Policy Board is a unique institution in many ways. It as such has no view, although individual members do. And it’s a distinguished group. It’s people like Henry Kissinger and James Schlessinger, Harold Brown, all former, cabinet officers. Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley. It’s bipartisan. They come together for quite intense discussions, usually 18, 19, 20 hours over a couple of days. And then meet with the secretary. And they’ve had a chance to review issues like the situation in Iraq, like the war on terror. And while it would be inappropriate for me to say what they think, let me say that very few people on that board would be shocked – they would be interested of course in what has been revealed in this film and it would reinforce what I think are their natural tendencies.
James P. Rubin: The State Department puts out an annual report, The Global Patterns of Terrorism. And this year’s report, based on all the intelligence information available to the United States Government, makes very scant mention of Iraqi involvement in terrorism. It talks about things that happened many years ago and it’s a very minor part of the State Department’s concern. You’ve watched the film. The film suggests that Saddam Hussein is in the business of training Al Qaeda operatives in weapons techniques for chemical and biological weapons – not transferring them the weapons themselves, but the techniques.
How do you account for the fact that journalists have picked up this, at least, charge and the State Department’s report, which covers all of the intelligence available to the US Government, really doesn’t think Saddam’s in the terrorism business?
Richard Perle: Well, I think they’re wrong about that. Saddam is in the terrorists business. The easiest thing for intelligence organizations to do is unconsciously slip into a world-view that becomes a filter that causes you either not to look, or even when you see, to ignore and fail to register information inconsistent with that world-view. And it has been the view of the intelligence establishment for a long time now that Saddam, who is secular and not a religious fanatic like Osama bin Laden, behaves in a manner different from the terrorists.
So they’re not looking. Even when there’s evidence; they tend to discount the evidence. I think they’re simply wrong about this. And the evidence that we’ve seen in this film is very powerful, very impressive, and I hope that there is enough open mind left at the State Department and at the CIA so that they will re-assess the attitude they’ve taken on this issue.
James P. Rubin: Now, in your role as an advisor, would you recommend that the administration and the Pentagon, where your group advises the secretary of defense, take these new charges that are in this film and do a real investigation to find out whether this kind of chemical and biological training has in fact happened?
Richard Perle: There should be a thorough investigation. The people who contributed to this report should be interviewed again, others should be found. We should have a team of people in the area exploring every nook and cranny, because this is terribly important. In fact, we’ve been remiss. Not only that. When there were earlier suggestions, not nearly as detailed as what we’ve seen, that Al Qaeda elements might have been working with Saddam, the Central Intelligence Agency, and I think it was true of the State Department as well, suggested that they had been unable to collect information because of the lack of cooperation on the part of the Kurds.
The Kurdish foreign minister told me outright that that was not true, that they had been trying to get the CIA and the State Department to come and examine what they had unearthed, and they were unable to elicit any interest.
This should be investigated thoroughly on two fronts. First, we need to get the facts, because the facts are important, and we need to expand the knowledge we have of what has gone on here, because there are lives at stake. We need to know what chemicals, what individual practitioners might have been involved. And, secondly, I think we need to investigate the investigators. We need to understand why it took a team of journalists presenting this information to the American public on television rather than our intelligence agencies to bring this to public attention.
James P. Rubin: The Intelligence community and many of the officials that you’re referring to tend to argue that they don’t see a rationale for Saddam Hussein to get into bed with America as public enemy number one, that he would be crazy to be behind September 11 because he would know that if it were found out, the United States would for sure invade his country and overthrow him. So how do you account for his thinking? It’s not a fun place to be, getting in Saddam Hussein’s head, but maybe if you could give us your take on why those who disagree with this theory think he would be crazy to do it.
Richard Perle: I think the root of our failure in dealing with Saddam over many years has to do with our inability to see the world as he sees it. We come at these issues as Americans, thinking like Americans. So former President Bush, for example, was convinced that Saddam couldn’t survive the defeat that had been inflicted on him in 1991, because no American could survive a debacle like that. Saddam survived it.
What we think of as crazy is normal for him. It’s crazy to murder some of your closest associates. He does it all the time. It’s crazy in a sense to dismember your opponents and deliver body parts to their families. It’s psychopathic.
James P. Rubin: But if you’re trying to use fear to stay in power, and if your number one objective is to stay in power, provoking the United States to invade is a pretty dumb thing to do.
Richard Perle: Well, quite right. But so, one could argue, was the invasion of Kuwait. Now, he calculated that we wouldn’t respond. But even after that lesson, he now may miscalculate that we will not respond to his involvement in acts of terror. And I have to say that not everyone would respond. I think this president will. I’m not sure that other presidents would have responded.
So Saddam is calculating all the time what can he accomplish, what can he get away with, what will the response be.
And we went through eight years in the Clinton administration in which there was no substantial response to one bold act after another. Look at the expulsion of the inspectors. Was it crazy for Saddam to throw the inspectors out, anticipating that nothing would be done in response? It turned out that very little was done in response.
James P. Rubin: All right. We’re 18 months into the Bush administration. The president has spoken out very clearly about his desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But in practice the new policies appear to amount to a modification of the economic sanctions regime and providing some greater support, but rather minor, to the opposition to Saddam.
What is your recommendation to the president and the secretary of defense when you’ve had your opportunity of what should be done, and how do you account for the fact that it’s still 18 months and not much has changed?
Richard Perle: It takes a little while to make a transition. But it’s in process now. I would hope the president and others in the administration will see this film. I think it would have an influence on them. When the president made his State of Union message, it was very clear he intends to remove Saddam from office. I don’t think he’s ever wavered in that, based on everything that he’s said. Precisely how we go about it, the nature of the force that’s assembled to do it, the relationship between American forces and the Iraqi opposition, all of that I assume is being discussed intensely within the administration.
But that this president understands how dangerous it is to leave Saddam in place, of that I have no doubt. And when you consider that we’ve seen his involvement in chemical and biological weapons and he is working feverishly to acquire nuclear weapons, you have to ask the question, what will our options be when he crosses that nuclear threshold. There’s something unique about the possession of nuclear weapons that will change everything in the region, and so narrow, so diminish our capacity to deal with him that it would be catastrophic if he got there first. So we have no time to lose, and I think the president understands that and it’s probably taken too long already, but I don’t think it’ll be much longer.
James P. Rubin: All right. So it won’t be much longer. Let’s talk about what the “it” is. There are basically two views. One view appears to be that we can use a model like we used in Afghanistan, where we have allies on the ground, American air power helping them, and see the overthrow of a terrible regime, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and hopefully Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Another view is that the opposition on the ground is rather weak by comparison to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and the United States has to be prepared from the beginning to put forward a large, massive ground operation. How do you come out in this debate?
Richard Perle: I’m not normally in the middle of a debate like this. But in this case I think I am. I think the opposition has much greater potential than we give it credit it for. The Northern Alliance looked pretty feeble on the day the first American arrived to examine their capabilities after September 11. That opposition includes the Kurds in the north, who have had lots of combat experience. It includes …
James P. Rubin: We saw some of that in the film.
Richard Perle: Indeed. And they’ve got a strong motive, as we’ve seen in the film. There are the Shi’a in the south, who have been the victims of Saddam in many ways for a long time. I think there’s a great deal of potential there. Secondly, Saddam is much weaker than we think he is. He’s weaker militarily. We know he’s got about a third of what he had in 1991. But it’s a house of cards. He rules by fear because he knows there is no underlying support. Support for Saddam, including within his military organization, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder.
Now, it isn’t going to be over in 24 hours, but it isn’t going to be months either. And if I had to guess I would guess that a strategy that combines effective collaboration with the opposition and a readiness to send in Americans if necessary is where we’ll wind up.
There’s one last point. The evolution of American air power since the last war against Saddam Hussein has been phenomenal. We can now see what’s going on on the ground, and from a safe distance. And what we can see we can destroy with great precision. Saddam has no notion of what’s coming. But what’s coming is the ability to target precisely everything of consequence in his military establishment.
James P. Rubin: Those who advocate large ground force to be used to overthrow Saddam Hussein believe that you can’t be sure that our allies on the ground in the north, the Kurds, will succeed. And they may in fact not succeed and be subject to slaughter from Saddam Hussein’s forces, leaving us in a situation where we provoke them to act and allowing them to be slaughtered. So that we need a large ground force to be ready, to be deployed, and to be able to be put in place quickly. Do you agree that we have to be ready for the worst scenario, namely that Saddam doesn’t collapse in a matter of days?
Richard Perle: Yes, of course we have to be ready for the worst scenario. But a proper integration of the opposition in Iraq with American air power, backed up by American Special Forces, and ultimately a larger force if necessary should be sufficient. Both to assure that we won’t have a debacle, we have to have an integrated approach. And that means the use of American air power to prevent Saddam from massing his forces to attack the opposition on a …
James P. Rubin: And what about American ground forces?
Richard Perle: Well, we’ll need some American forces.
James P. Rubin: So what would your guesstimate be of the level of effort that would be involved?
Richard Perle: Well, I would be surprised if we need anything like the 200,000 figure that is sometimes discussed in the press. A much smaller force, principally special operations forces, but backed up by some regular units, should be sufficient. Of the 400,000 in Saddam’s army, I’ll be surprised if ten percent are loyal to Saddam. And the other 90 percent won’t be completely passive. Many of them will come over to the opposition.
James P. Rubin: So let’s talk about that ten percent, the hard core. In the Gulf War it has been judged that Saddam Hussein did not use the chemical and biological weapons that he had because he was deterred. He knew that if he did, the United States, as President Bush and Secretary of State Baker indicated, would use overwhelming force against him. If we set as our objective overthrowing Saddam Hussein, there is a strong body of opinion that he would issue orders to use chemical and biological weapons that you believe he has.
So do you think that those responsible will carry out that order? And how big a risk do you think it is that chemical and biological warfare will result from this invasion?
Richard Perle: There is certainly some risk of that. These are not effective weapons in terms of the outcome of military engagement. They’re weapons of terror. The United States is not going to be defeated by a chemical or a biological weapon. If we go into Iraq, we will destroy Saddam and his regime. So the question is, in an act of vindictiveness will he use chemical weapons or biological weapons probably against his neighbors, against the Israelis, against the Saudis, against Kurdish villages as he’s done before?
And there can be no guarantee that he won’t. We have to make it very clear to the people who would carry out orders to use these weapons that they will be held individually accountable for war crimes. And the extraordinary thing about the Saddams of the world is that when it becomes clear that they are vulnerable, when it is clear that they are headed for the ash heap of history, they have no friends. So I think there’s a reasonable chance that those orders will not be carried out. And there’s also a reasonable chance that we will be able to prevent the physical movement of those weapons and the effective delivery of those weapons.
James P. Rubin: Let’s focus in on that. If we assume that there are several thousand hard core supporters of Saddam Hussein that stay with him because they know if he goes, they go with him, how many people does it really take to use chemical and biological weapons. By the experts estimate, 150, 200 people, well trained, as they have been, could use chemical and biological weapons against the American soldiers or the alliance forces that are on the ground trying to take control of Baghdad. Don’t you think we have to assume given that we’re starting this war because he has these weapons, that he’s going to use them in this conflict?
Richard Perle: We would certainly not allow American troops to be completely exposed and vulnerable to chemical weapons. There are things we can do to deal with that. Not 100 percent effective to be sure – but it’s important to recognize that Iraqis who today may believe that if Saddam goes they’re going with him will have a new choice once there’s an actual military engagement. And it will be up to us to say we are in this to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime, those of you who are ordinary soldiers have a choice to make.
We saw this in Afghanistan. Many people who had choices made the right choice. They wanted to survive. And as between a suicidal act of the release of chemical or biological weapons and survival, I think a lot of Iraqis who today associate with Saddam Hussein will make the right choice.
James P. Rubin: So we’ve looked at this film, we see some rather disturbing charges in the film, dangerous possibilities. You believe the government should investigate it. And you’ve been a strong advocate of taking action against Saddam Hussein. How quickly do you think we should act and what specifically do you think the United States should do militarily in this situation?
Richard Perle: This evidence is very powerful. There is collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, which means to destroy us. It entails chemical weapons, biological weapons, training in their application. And he’s working on nuclear weapons. The message is very clear – we have no time to lose, Saddam must be removed from office. Every day that goes by is a day in which we are exposed to dangers on a far larger scale than the tragedy of September 11.
James P. Rubin: So what specific military plan would you put forward and discuss with your colleagues and friends in the government right now?
Richard Perle: There is an internal opposition to Saddam Hussein. The Kurds in the north, and we’ve seen what their motives are for his removal, the Shi’a in the south, who have risen up without support in the past, together with American air power, American special forces, and potentially American ground forces beyond special forces, we have the ability to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime. And it will be quicker and easier than many people think. He is far weaker than many people realize.
James P. Rubin: Top officials of the Pentagon, top Department of Defense officials, top military officials from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down appear to be telling members of Congress and the media that the only serious way to go about this problem is to deploy a large ground force that can deal with all unexpected contingencies. You’ve put forward an optimistic scenario, and it may be right, but don’t you think it’s the job of the administration to be prepared for the worst? And what is your reaction to the military’s suggestion that you need 200,000-plus forces for this mission?
Richard Perle: The 200,000 number sounds large to me. But if we’re going to err, we should err on the side of too many rather than too few. Provided that reaching for that large number doesn’t make it impossible for us to establish the base and the infrastructure from which to operate. If it were self-defeating then it would be foolish. I think we discovered in 1991 that we really didn’t need the very sizeable force that we sent in. It was over very quickly with little resistance. There were people surrendering to journalists after all.
You always want to err on the side of caution. But it’s possible to be too cautious.
James P. Rubin: So you would agree that one has to prepare for a large ground force. Whether one needs to use it in the end is an open question. In preparing for that force, many experts have suggested that we will be signaling our intent and even the public discussion of overthrowing Saddam signals our intent. And in that window between now and when you overthrow Saddam Hussein, he will decide to lash out and use these very weapons that we are trying to prevent him from using.
Is there a danger that during the time between our decision and its implementation that he will use chemical and biological weapons that you’re worried about against the American people here at home perhaps by some of these terrorists he’s been training?
Richard Perle: Yes, there certainly is a danger, and that danger would exist whether we were planning to remove him or not. It could happen tomorrow. The target could be the United States, it could be Americans abroad, it could be American forces deployed now in the region, and it could the Israelis or the Saudis. He has the capacity to do great damage, and at any moment he may do so. If the conclusion we draw from that is that we shouldn’t take action against him, then I think the situation only gets worse – it deteriorates.
He gets more chemical weapons; more biological weapons, makes them more effective, and develops new means for their delivery. And at the same time – and I can’t stress this too much – he is working on nuclear weapons. And he will cross the nuclear threshold – it’s simply a question of when.
James P. Rubin: Isn’t there a risk that we’ll provoke Saddam Hussein into using the very chemical and biological weapons against Americans here at home that he has not done for ten years? He’s been capable of doing that, he’s chosen not to do it. If we announce our intention to overthrow him and we build a force to do so, might we provoke the very reaction we’re trying to prevent?
Richard Perle: He has the capacity to do great damage to us, and has probably had it for some time. And has in fact done considerable damage, not least of all as we’ve seen by collaboration with Al Qaeda. I think in a case like this you have to ask yourself is it safe to leave him in place, is the provocation, as you term it, a larger risk than giving him the freedom to choose a time and place when he may take action against us.
James P. Rubin: You’ve put forward some optimistic scenarios, I think you would agree, but they may turn out to be realistic. They’re certainly more optimistic than any in the military. They fear that if we get started with this mission and the American people haven’t been prepared for the difficulties, the uncertainties, the unknowables, that they wouldn’t be doing their job. Do you think that we need to very carefully prepare ourselves for all the problems that may exist, whether it’s their weapons of mass destruction or whether it’s needing more troops rather than less troops? And isn’t there a risk that we all might think this is too easy?
Richard Perle: Of course we need to be prepared, and we need to assume that things will not go as we hope they will. – that engagements will not turn out as we anticipate. We have to be ready for contingencies. I think you can worry the problem to the point where you’re paralyzed, where you take no action. It isn’t going to be easy. I don’t mean to suggest it will be easy. But neither is it the enormously risky undertaking that some people anticipate both because Saddam is weaker and we are stronger. But of course we have to be prepared for things turning out as we did not expect.
James P. Rubin: The use of chemical and biological weapons, for example.
Richard Perle: Well, we would certainly not put American forces on the ground without the chemical and biological protection that we have. It’s not perfect, to be sure. That may be one of the reasons why …
James P. Rubin: We have to be prepared for significant casualties at the hands of Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons. Is that fair?
Richard Perle: We have to do two things. We have to be prepared for his use of these weapons resorting to those protective measures that are available to us. And we have to design a strategy that minimizes his capacity to do that. That means moving quickly, it means using air power to the maximum possible extent. It will affect the way that American forces on the ground are engaged in a military operation.
And it also means sending a very clear message to those Iraqis troops who might be asked to use chemical or biological weapons. And the message must be “if you follow Saddam’s orders, you like he will be destroyed.” Because it’s not at all certain that when it becomes clear Saddam is not going to survive this campaign that those he is counting upon will carry out his orders.
James P. Rubin: So let’s project forward. We use military force and it goes reasonably well. There is some use of chemical and biological weapons, significant casualties, but not overwhelming. Saddam is gone. How do we make sure that what comes next is not some other form of Iraqi dictator that will still have access to these chemical and biological weapons spread out among the country, and we’ll change Iraq’s policies so that we can disarm Iraq finally after ten long years?
Richard Perle: This is a very important question. And what we need to do is work together with a reasonable successor government. That means political collaboration now with the opposition. It means associating ourselves with those Iraqis who are committed to pluralism, democratic institutions, and the renunciation of weapons of mass destruction.
The Iraqi National Congress, which is an umbrella group of organizations opposed to Saddam, has adopted a program very much like that. And I think we should be working closely with them and with others in whom we can have some confidence.
James P. Rubin: But in order to be sure that that kind of group is the one that takes power, that will require an American presence on the ground. Would you agree that we need to be prepared for a long-term American presence on the ground in Iraq, perhaps as long as a decade or many years certainly?
Richard Perle: Yes. I think that we have to be ready to assure that what emerges after Saddam Hussein is the kind of Iraqi government that will govern the Iraqis decently and will be a friend and ally of the United States.
James P. Rubin: That means a long-term commitment and a financial commitment. And here’s where we get into the question of allies. We in the United States have had our allies often pay for much of the peace keeping and the nation building and the reconstruction of places like Afghanistan. Right now the United States appears alone in terms of advocating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein – perhaps the British support us. Isn’t there a risk if we don’t get allied support before we undertake this action that they won’t be there to help defray the billions and billions and billions of dollars we’ll need to spend for a long time in Iraq?
Richard Perle: We’ll get lots of allied support when it’s over, when it’s clear that the result was as we anticipated.
James P. Rubin: Plaudits, yes, but money?
Richard Perle: Well, first of all, Iraq is a very wealthy country. Enormous oil reserves. They can finance, largely finance the reconstruction of their own country. And I have no doubt that they will. The Iraqis are enormously talented. They’ve suffered horribly under Saddam Hussein. You liberate …
James P. Rubin: They’re still doing pretty well even after …
Richard Perle: Well …
James P. Rubin: … ten years of sanctions. It’s remarkable, isn’t it?
Richard Perle: It’s partly because Saddam controls and manipulates the flow of money. This idea that the sanctions have been killing women and children – there are billions of unexpended dollars that could be going for food and medicine. Saddam has an iron grip today. Once that’s gone I think we will see the very talented Iraqis re-build their country and use the resources available to them. So I don’t think we need the Europeans and their bank accounts.
James P. Rubin: But would it be preferable? And certainly it would be preferable to have support from our allies in a post-Saddam environment where there may be some reconstruction, there may be some terrible damage done in this war. And there may be a need for a long-term Western presence to help this kind of regime you want in power to be in power. It would be preferable, wouldn’t it?
Richard Perle: Yes. The same phenomenon that leads the Europeans to tolerate Saddam Hussein – that is they accept whoever is in power – will lead them to support the successor regime to Saddam. They will change quickly. And they’ll change as they see the result.
James P. Rubin: But would we want them to make financial contributions? Or you’re not too concerned about that?
Richard Perle: I’m not terribly concerned about that. They’ll do what is in their own interest. I mean, they’re jamming the hotels in Baghdad now to sign contracts that will take effect when the sanctions are lifted. They’ll be in the same hotels looking for the same contracts with the next regime.
James P. Rubin: So in speaking to European heads of governments, I’ve gotten the impression that they really have two big issues when it comes to Iraq. One is what comes next -and we’ve just talked about that. And the other is that their publics need to know that they have gone through at least trying to solve this problem as per the Gulf War Resolution of 1991, namely weapons inspectors. I suspect you have some skepticism about that, but I think you’d agree they did destroy an enormous amount of weaponry between ‘93 and ‘95. Is there any harm in trying to get the UN weapons inspectors back to Iraq if that will get us greater international support?
Ricahrd Perle: Yes, I think it’s a bad trade-off. Whatever you get in the way of international support you lose in giving Saddam additional time and opportunity to go on building the nuclear weapons and improving his chemical and biological weapons. The inspectors are not going to find anything. Everything has been moved. Things today that were stationary before the inspectors were expelled have now been made mobile. We don’t have the database to find the things that we know are there.
So he will go on with a clandestine nuclear program. He’ll go on with chemical and biological weapons. The inspectors will flounder if they’re permitted to return. And because he controls the territory and the terms of the inspections, we’re never going to find anything of consequence. So we would participate in the illusion that we were accomplishing something while he went right on�
James P. Rubin: But if we imposed a tight regime and were rigid in our demands and said the moment that he flouts it either by not letting them back in, restricting access to the facilities, or denying access, the game’s up, wouldn’t we increase the chance that countries like Britain, our ally, and countries like Germany and other countries in the world, the Russians, etcetera, would be on our side? And so if we got in a war with Iraq and something went wrong, we wouldn’t be alone?
Richard Perle: If you said to me that we can only prevail if we persuade these others to join us, and we could only persuade them if we allowed the inspectors back, I’d have to give that some serious consideration. But we don’t need these others in order to do what needs to be done. They’re not going to be with us, in my view, in any case. In the meantime, the illusion that we are accomplishing something with the inspectors is really quite dangerous.
It’s never black and white, of course. What will happen, Jamie, is that you’ll have inspectors on the ground, in the best case, they will get information that there is a critical element in a clandestine nuclear weapons program at a certain location. And the Iraqis will be unaware that they have this information. So they will announce a spontaneous inspection and set out for that site. And then the word will come back that there’s been a terrible accident on the highway, the highway is closed. And so the convoy of inspectors will have to wait until the accident is cleared.
Now what do you have? You have an incident that you go to war on? Can you prove that there was not an accident? He’s perfectly capable of staging an accident if he needs to do so. So it’s never going to be the black and white situation that triggers the automatic response and then everybody gets behind us. It will be vague, it will be inconclusive and we’ll be worse off if we indulge in the fantasy.
James P. Rubin: But let’s remember, President Bush has said that he should let the inspectors back. Your view on this appears not to have carried the day, because the administration has said they want the inspectors back, and Saddam doesn’t let the inspectors back, then we’ve gained something. Because we’ve gained world support without the difficulties and the technicalities and the gray that would come about if the inspectors actually went back. Would you agree with that?
Richard Perle: Look, if you design an inspection regime that has some plausibility to it, that would be a different story. Let me tell you what such an inspection regime would look like. It would be not only the right to go anywhere at anytime, with all of the mobility that one needs, with the helicopters and all the rest. It would include the right to interview people outside Iraq together with their families. Because you can’t get a straight answer from somebody who’s family going to be destroyed.
It would include the ability to go into Saddam’s palaces and his intelligence headquarters and his military establishment with a fine-tooth comb, and it would include an inspection force in the tens of thousands. Now, if you have an arrangement like that, it’s worth considering. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a handful of people largely incapable of moving without approval and in some cases even the support of the Iraqis themselves and no ability to interview people in safety. That isn’t going to produce a result.
James P. Rubin: So you think the president made a mistake in advocating and making the standard of weapons inspectors returning now an administration policy?
Richard Perle: Well, I don’t know that the president has accepted the kind of regime that has been under discussion. And, don’t forget that these inspection regimes are cooperative ventures. I don’t believe you can cooperate with Saddam Hussein.
James P. Rubin: But President Bush has called for Saddam to let the inspectors back.
Richard Perle: But we have not yet seen the terms and conditions under which the president would deem the arrangements appropriate. And I’m quite sure that the current arrangement in which the Iraqis have to consent to be inspected would not be adequate from the president’s point of view.
James P. Rubin: Let’s talk a little bit about the views in the administration. And you’re, again, an outside advisor. You have friends and colleagues and close collaborators in the Pentagon, the State Department, the vice president’s office, elsewhere. It seems as if the very strongly held view, the so-called hawkish view that you’ve adopted, has not been adopted by the president.
We’re now ten months since September 11 and there’s still no movement. How do you feel the balance of views in the administration is shaping up?
Richard Perle: Well, I think we’re moving not nearly fast enough, but clearly in the right direction. Bureaucracies are sluggish. And, we had an administration that wasn’t prepared to contemplate military action to remove Saddam. So it was a standing start. Then you had September 11 and the preoccupation in dealing with the immediate crisis. I think things are now moving along in the right direction. And if I had to guess, I would guess that the president will not wish to address the Congress again in the State of the Union message without having something to say about what he said last year on the state of the Union.
James P. Rubin: You think we might be ready to go by early next year?
Richard Perle: I would be surprised if he would mount that podium without some good news about how we’ve dealt with Saddam.
James P. Rubin: Okay. The State Department, the Secretary of State, his job is to tell the president here is how your policies will be felt around the world, here is what our allies will say, and here is what the problems may be. Do you think the Secretary of State has done a good job in bringing to the president’s attention the potential problems with allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, others, and our allies in Europe, France, Germany, Italy, or has he done too much to try to use our allies as a reason not to do so?
Richard Perle: No, I have enormous admiration for Colin Powell, and I, without having participated in those conversations, would assume that he’s given the president very accurate and incisive reporting on the attitude of our allies. He’s also enormously articulate and effective in changing those minds and those attitudes among our allies and others. So I have no doubt that he will be a very important element in any campaign against Saddam in helping other governments to understand why we believe we have to do what I believe we’re going to do and why it is in their interest that Saddam be removed.
James P. Rubin: So do you think, in the end, the president will have a consolidated view in the administration for an overthrow of Saddam Hussein?
Richard Perle: I have no doubt about that. It’s not quite the case that the president has the only vote that counts, but his thumb on the scale is not insignificant. And I don’t think he’s meeting a lot of resistance, frankly. I think the other senior officials of the administration have come to the same conclusion he has. We saw what happened to people who were unable to protect themselves against Saddam Hussein. We must never allow Americans to be in that situation.
James P. Rubin: Let’s address one of the concerns of the critics of an American attack against Iraq. And that is that the Arab world will explode in anger against the United States, that in overthrowing one of their own leaders we will generate hundreds of millions of angry Arabs and that we risk alienating governments that we need and care about.
Richard Perle: You know, it would be a real tragedy if Arabs felt they had no choice but to support a murderous tyrant like Saddam Hussein. I think Arabs, like the rest of us judge leaders and they do not hold Saddam Hussein in high regard. It makes a great difference whether we are seen as invaders serving only our own purposes or whether we’re working with the opposition to liberate Iraq from the scourge of Saddam Hussein.
And I have no doubt that when it’s over, Iraqis will consider that they have been freed from a nightmare regime that has practiced the most brutal murderous repression. So at the end of the day, there may be a brief period when people are confused, but this will be seen as an act of liberation. And the Iraqis themselves will welcome the change.
James P. Rubin: Let’s talk a little bit about the Kurds. In this film we saw the terrible, terrible suffering of the Kurdish people at the hands of Saddam Hussein. But we also heard reference to the many times in which the Kurdish leaders and their people have felt that the West, and particularly the United States, has abandoned them, let them down, misled them. Why will the Kurds, if we want them to be our allies in a new attack, think that this time in the end they won’t suffer?
Richard Perle: It’s certainly the case that we have betrayed the Kurds in the past. We’ve aligned ourselves with them only to abandon them in moments of crisis.
James P. Rubin: Going back decades.
Richard Perle: Going back decades. It’s the responsibility of the president, the administration, to sit down with the Kurdish leaders, with Talabani and Barazani, two …
James P. Rubin: The heads of the two parties.
Richard Perle: And persuade them that we are serious. They understand that there is no future for the Kurds under Saddam Hussein. And they fear rightly that after Saddam it will be another Saddam. They want this opportunity to see a government in Baghdad that will permit them to have a decent life. So they’re prepared to take risks. But of course they want to be assured that we’re serious this time. And I believe this president is serious this time and will succeed in persuading them.
James P. Rubin: But some argue that the Kurds are in a relatively good position right now. They’re living far, far better than the rest of the Iraqis because of the way in which the UN aid program works. They have American protection in the air. Saddam seems to be leaving them alone, relatively speaking. And aren’t they risking this relatively good situation for people who have been suffering for decades for all the unknowables and all the uncertainties and the possibility that he’ll lash out at them if war starts?
Richard Perle: There’s no question the Kurdish leaders, who I think are quite brave, will be taking a risk. On the other hand, I think they understand that at any time what little freedom and autonomy they’ve succeeded in achieving could be taken away from them, what progress they’re making could be reversed. They know who is in Baghdad, and they know there can be no real victory for the Kurdish people until he’s out of there.
James P. Rubin: Let’s talk about the charges that are raised in this film, the possibility that Saddam Hussein has been training terrorists to use chemical and biological weapons, not yet transferred the weapons, but training terrorists to do so. We haven’t yet seen evidence that a global terrorist organization like bin Laden’s has used chemical and biological weapons. Do you think this is the next threat that the American people face, the civilized world faces, that these terrorists who are prepared to blow up the World Trade Center are prepared to spread weapons of mass destruction into our lives?
Richard Perle: Clearly this is the threat with which we must be preoccupied, because the consequences are so extreme. The spread of an infectious disease could involve millions of people- around the world, not just, in the United States. People exposed in New York are on airplanes on their way to London or Frankfurt or Pakistan, for that matter. So it could be a scourge affecting the whole world. We know that we are dealing with fanatics, we know we’re dealing with people who want to kill large numbers of Americans. And the only way they can do that is if they resort to weapons of mass destruction.
They can bomb a building; they can bring down an airliner. But success for them means killing large numbers of people, and that means chemical, biological, or nuclear or radiological weapons. And the challenge we have is to prevent them from moving to that level of destruction.
James P. Rubin: Some of the proliferation experts in this field believe that attacking Saddam will make the problem worse. They argue that right now he’s hoarding this material, protecting it under a dictatorial regime, and that in the aftermath of an attack we face the prospect that hundreds of liters of terrible biological weaponry or chemical weaponry will be spirited off by some of his cronies in the dying throes of a regime, and that it will spread it all out and it will end up being sold to terrorists as a result of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Is that a realistic fear?
Richard Perle: No. I think in fact the more important question is what happens if we leave Saddam in place. And having destroyed the Taliban in Afghanistan, having said, as the president has, that we will take this war to the terrorists and we will not distinguish between those who committed a terrorist acts and those who harbor them, if we now recoil from taking on Saddam Hussein, what we are saying to Saddam and others is that we are not prepared to take significant risks to follow through on the president’s commitment. We’ll go after the Taliban in Afghanistan, but we won’t go after Saddam Hussein. That will leave sanctuaries in place from which terrorists can operate, not only in Iraq but elsewhere. If we’re going to win the war on terror, we have to mean what we say when the president says we will take this war to the terrorists. We can’t afford to leave Saddam in place. And that would be true even if we did not worry that he’s on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons.
James P. Rubin: But let’s focus in on the materials. The UN came out of Iraq in 1998 and issued a report and guesstimated that there were tens of thousands of missing tons of chemical material and hundreds of liters of biological agent. Those are sitting there now. That’s what the threat is. What is the best way, in your opinion, to prevent that material from falling into the hands of the Al Qaeda people in the film he’s already trained?
Richard Perle: Well, assuming none of that material has already been disseminated, the best way is to remove Saddam as quickly as possible. If we take the view that an effort to remove Saddam would in fact lead to the dissemination of these materials, then we are already deterred and we would have to face the impossible situation of leaving Saddam there until he dies a natural death.
James P. Rubin: Well, would you agree there is some risk that in the dying throes of a regime, that the 500 to 1,000 people in control of this stuff may try to spirit it away and sell it to make their way in the world?
Richard Perle: Sure, there’s a risk. There’s a risk that some of it is already secured outside Iraq. But the larger risk is leaving Saddam in place.
James P. Rubin: This film suggests that Al Qaeda terrorists have been given chemical and biological training. And there have been a lot of other reports out there about the possible access bin Laden’s group has had to chemical and biological weapons. And this has been out there for several years. Why do you think almost a year has gone by since September 11 and they still haven’t used chemical and biological weapons?
Richard Perle: It’s not easy to do, although it is, unfortunately, possible to do. I don’t think we can answer that. We simply don’t know. But every day that goes by the threat that they will acquire, if they don’t have them, or use them if they have acquired the biological and chemical weapons carries on.
So the sooner we can come to grips with the Saddam Husseins of the world, those who harbor terrorists, who train them, who potentially supply them, the sooner we can say to ourselves we have done everything we know how to do to protect our people.
James P. Rubin: Richard Perle, thank you for joining me.
Richard Perle: It’s a pleasure.