Richard Perle, the veteran neocon hawk who helped cheerlead the United States into the Iraq war, is back. As the fight intensifies over ratifying the START treaty limiting the nuclear stockpiles of the US and Russia, Perle has emerged as a prominent conservative voice urging Senate Republicans to say no to the treaty. Writing on the National Review's website this week, he and Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation slam the treaty "as a throwback to the Cold War paradigm, a bilateral treaty in a multilateral world." Perle, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, insists that the treaty "threatens our freedom to deploy ballistic-missile defense," and he contends "that the Russians need this treaty, while we do not."
Perle has been trading on his past experience as a Reagan defense official to back up his gripes about the START treaty, noting in a recent Wall Street Journal column (co-written with Edwin Meese III, Reagan's attorney general) that when he was with Reagan during a summit in Iceland with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he watched Reagan ditch "an otherwise desirable treaty with the Soviet Union precisely because it would have impeded work on his Strategic Defense Initiative." (Five former GOP secretaries of state—Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Colin Powell—say the new START agreement does not block US missile defense.) And in an interview with a conservative website, Perle again played the Reagan card, maintaining that this START accord is "certainly not the kind of treaty Ronald Reagan fought for and accomplished."
What Reagan might say about this START pact is a speculative matter. More to the point, there's Perle's past record. How on-the-money was he when he last figured into a high-profile national security debate—that is, when he was advocating war in Iraq before the 2003 invasion? Did that performance enhance his credibility? Here's a look at the record:
- Five days after the 9/11 attack, Perle, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board advisory committee, was suggesting that Saddam Hussein ought to be the target of US retaliation because he was an ally of Al Qaeda. He told CNN, "Even if we cannot prove to the standard that we enjoy in our own civil society they are involved, we do know, for example, that Saddam Hussein has ties to Osama bin Laden. That can be documented." (Former CIA chief George Tenet in 2007 recalled that in the days after 9/11 Perle told him, "Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility." Perle denied saying this.) In July 2002, Perle claimed that the State Department and CIA were wrong in drawing a distinction between Al Qaeda and Saddam. Yet no evidence of a significant tie between Saddam and Bin Laden was ever unearthed. The 9/11 commission found there was no evidence of "a collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Iraq and that "we have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States."
- Trying to whip up support for the Iraq invasion, Perle suggested that a war against Iraq would be a cakewalk. In 2002, he said, "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." That's not what happened. The war took years, in part because Saddam supporters fueled an insurgency that US forces could not vanquish.
- Perle contended before the invasion that the US could topple Saddam without a sizable military effort. On PBS, he said, "I would be surprised if we need anything like the 200,000 [troops] 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." And in May 2002, he told me, "The Army guys don't know anything" about the number of troops necessary for success in Iraq. Perle said that only 40,000 soldiers would be required. After the war, it was clear that the 200,000 or so troops deployed by the Bush-Cheney administration was not a large enough force for the mission.
- In 2002, Perle asserted that Saddam was "working feverishly to acquire nuclear weapons." The Iraqi dictator was not. His nuclear program was kaput.
- Before the invasion, Perle downplayed the cost of any postwar reconstruction in Iraq: "They can finance, largely finance the reconstruction of their own country. And I have no doubt that they will." That did not happen.
There was no alliance between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Saddam was not, as Perle insisted, "on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons." The war in Iraq was not completed in a short time, and military action required more than 40,000 troops. Iraq's recovery was not self-financing. That is, Perle was wrong about almost everything.
In January 2009, Perle wrote a 4,600-word article for The National Interest defending his stance on Iraq. He took issue with the charge that he had been an "architect" of the war, writing, "had I been the architect of that war, our policy would have been very different." Indeed, there would have been fewer troops dispatched, and these forces would have been deployed on the basis of mistaken assumptions about Saddam's military and support. And Washington would have relied even more on the Iraqi National Congress led by the shifty Ahmad Chalabi, whom Perle fancied.
Perle blew the call on Iraq and joined fearmongering neocons in hyping the case for the war. Given this record, his warnings about START deserve more than a pinch of salt.