Perles of Wisdom
An interview with Richard Perle. By Amir Taheri

His political enemies have labeled him "The Prince of Darkness" while his friends claim that he is one of the "best strategic brains" in Washington. All agree that Richard Perle, who chairs the Defense Policy Board, is one of the key hands in shaping President George W. Bush's global strategy.

One of the architects of the policy of "regime change" in Iraq, Perle plays a crucial behind-the-scenes role in all diplomatic, political, and military aspects of what looks like a deepening crisis.

In an exclusive interview with Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born journalist and frequent contributor to NRO, conducted during a recent visit to London, Perle responded to some questions.

Amir Taheri: Some people in the Arab world believe that Saddam Hussein works for you.

Richard Perle: Why is that?

Taheri: It's a long story. But the main theme is that Saddam, by threatening and sometimes actually invading Iraq's neighbors, forced many countries in the region to come under the U.S. umbrella and even invite American military presence. He also waged war against the Khomeinist revolution in Iran for eight years, helping you contain that particular enemy at no cost to yourself. The result of all that is there is now a quarter of a million American troops where there was none just three decades ago. The U.S. has some military presence in all but five of the Arab states. And now, by making an unequal war inevitable, he is just trying to present Iraq to you on a golden plate...

Perle: Interesting analysis. But I can tell you one thing: Even if Saddam worked for us it is time for us to chuck him out. We are not interested in maintaining troops outside our own territory just for the fun of it. The United States was not designed or destined to become an imperial power. You will not find anywhere in the world where we intervened militarily and set up a colonial empire. Our problem with Saddam Hussein is twofold. First, he is clearly determined to build up his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction which he could sue against our allies in the region and, later, even against Europe and the United States. The simple truth is that we cannot trust him. Therefore, we cannot turn our face away and let him to do whatever he likes in violation of the ceasefire accords of 1991 and 18 Security Council resolutions. The second reason for our position is that we believe the Iraqi people deserve a better government.

Taheri: Some Arabs believe you want Iraq's oil…

Perle: The answer to that question will be given by what we shall all see very soon. Iraqi oil belongs to the people of Iraq and whoever is prepared to buy it at world prices. Even now the American market absorbs most of Iraq's oil.

Taheri: Some Arabs see you as an enemy…

Perle: They are wrong. Saddam Hussein is not the symbol of Arab dreams, hopes and aspirations. No one has harmed Arab interests as much as he has in the past few decades. All that I want is for Arabs to be able to elect their own governments, hold them accountable, and not be afraid of disagreeing with their rulers on all issues if necessary. All I want is for the Arabs to have a robust open market economy so that they can have a share in the fantastic prosperity created by the new global economy. Why is it that the Arab countries are absolutely the only ones whose real income per head has fallen in the past two decades? A friend is not one who flatters you and congratulates you for your weaknesses. A friend is he who criticizes you. I want the Arabs to ask themselves why are they weak and confused? The answer is: because they are not free. Because they have suffered from dictators like Saddam Hussein.

Taheri: Are the Arabs ready for the kind of Western-style system you preach?

Perle: I think they are. At least they must be given a chance. When they had a chance, before the military coups ruined the Arab world, several Arab countries were slowly building democracy- among them Iraq and Egypt. And today several Arab states are taking risks with reform and change. The Arabs have a great culture and civilization behind them. So, why should they be shut out of contemporary civilization by brutal and corrupt dictators?

Taheri: So, you think that post-Saddam Iraq will be a model for all Arabs?

Perle: I don't believe in models. You can never generalize in these things. Each country has its own traditions, its own dynamism for reform. It is not for us to tell anyone how to do things. All that we are saying is that people should not be imprisoned or killed because of their opinions, that governments should be answerable to people, and that the national economy is not a thieves' bazaar for the rulers.

Taheri: One of your former advisers Laurent Murawiec says that Saudi Arabia should be regarded as "Enemy Number One" of the United States and even invaded and carved into five mini-states. Do you agree?

Perle: No, I don't. Saudi Arabia is a valuable ally. There are aspects of Saudi policy with which we disagree just as there are aspects of our policy that the Saudis do not like. So we tell them what we think and they tell us what they think. I must also tell you that Saudi Arabia is not a monolith. Not all Saudis think and behave alike. There is a wide-range of opinion on all key issues in the kingdom where we have solid friends. The reform plan proposed by Crown Prince Abdallah Ibn Abdel-Aziz contains some interesting suggestions. It could provide the Arabs with a roadmap for collective change.

Taheri: There are frequent reports about plans to persuade Saddam Hussein to step down and go into exile, thus preventing a war.

Perle: I know. But we will not accept fudge. We will not accept a half solution under which the Iraqis will end up with a light version of Saddam. What we are talking about is regime change, not just a change of personnel. Saddam is both the cause and the effect of an evil system that has brought so much suffering to the people of Iraq. That system must go. If Saddam's departure into exile is the first step to the kind of change I am talking about, very well. If not, no thanks.

Taheri: From what you say it seems to me that war has become inevitable…

Perle: War was never ruled out as an option. But nothing is inevitable until it has happened. Obviously, the final word must come from President George W Bush.

Taheri: Could it come soon? And how long do you think the war would take?

Perle: My hunch is that it will come soon. My understanding is that we can wrap the whole thing in 30 days.

Taheri: So there is no chance that in November 2004 when there will be another U.S. presidential election we shall still have Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad pointing to the scalp of a second President Bush on his wall?

Perle: No chance. Guaranteed.

Taheri: Will the U.S. go to war even without a second U.N. resolution?

Perle: Anyone with a smallest dose of fairness would know that, legally speaking, we do not need a second resolution. We didn't even need 1441. The Security Council gave Iraq 60 days to disarm back in 1991. One thing is certain: we will not allow maneuverings over a second resolution to be used as a tactic to buy Saddam more time.

Taheri: What if France vetoes a second resolution that authorizes the use of force?

Perle: That won't happen. The last time France vetoed an American resolution was in 1956. At that time the U.S. wanted French, British and Israeli forces to immediately evacuate the Sinai that they had captured from Egypt in the Suez War. The French veto had no real effect. The U.S. succeeded in making sure that Egyptian territory was evacuated.

Taheri: Does this mean the U.S. will ignore a French veto?

Perle: Certainly. If a veto can dictate our policy then France would be regarded as the master of the world. In any case, there will be no French veto. The French know that if they veto we shall ignore them. They would also know that Saddam Hussein couldn't win. So, what would be the sense of antagonizing a victorious U.S. to please a losing Saddam?

Taheri: I don't know. But I can tell you that President Jacques Chirac seems determined to make life as hard as he can for you. He cannot accept that the U.S. should have the power to go around changing regimes it does not like…

Perle: I don't agree with your analysis. Just before the war starts France will jump on our side. It has happened all the time, most recently in Afghanistan. The French behaved in exactly the same way last time when Saddam had invaded Kuwait. Let me tell you something more important: The French attitude makes war more likely. It gives Saddam false hope that things can be dragged on and on until the next American presidential election. Thus Saddam sees no reason why he should really show his weapons to the inspectors. That gives us the clear reason we need for attacking him. Thus, Chirac's policy will, in the final analysis, lead to Saddam's destruction.

Taheri: Isn't there a subtext to the French position, one linked to French oil interests in Iraq?

Perle: The French company Total has signed a $40 billion oil deal with the Iraqis. Paris is, therefore, anxious to preserve that. But many Iraqis say the contract is unfair and one-sided. They want it to be renegotiated in favor of Iraq. But that is not an issue for us. It is the future Iraqi government that would decide what do with the country's oil and other resources. There is no reason why France, which has a long presence in Iraq, should be excluded from normal and mutually beneficial deals. Let me repeat that we are not in this for oil. We are in this for something much more important than oil: our future security and the security of our allies in the region.

Taheri: Is there enough Arab support for the American position?

Perle: More than enough. Not a single Arab state is making the slightest move against our policy on this issue. And at least a dozen are actively cooperating with us in whatever field we require.

Taheri: Could you tell us which ones?

Perle: No. I am not their spokesman. What interests me is that almost all Arab states are showing a sense of realism and an understanding of their own interests on this issue.

Taheri: Secretary of State Colin Powell told us recently in Davos that the U.S. had 12 allies in the coming war…

Perle: As soon as it becomes clear that we are going to war we shall have plenty of allies. But even if we didn't have a single ally, we would still do what needs to be done. One way or another, and sooner rather than later, Saddam Hussein must go, that's the message.

Taheri: Who will be your next target? Iran, Syria, Libya?

Perle: Change is needed in all those three countries, and a few others besides. But the Iraqi case is unique. I think Iran can be changed by the action of the Iranian people. We shall provide whatever support they need to ensure the success of the reform movement. I believe that Syria, too, can organize change from within. As for Libya, it is a weird case. For the time being it is out of world reality. But the colonel knows that we have our eyes on him.

Taheri: In Davos, Colin Powell told us that there would be a Palestinian state by 2005...

Perle: 2005 is a long way off. Once the Iraqi situation is settled we can move faster. The president's "two-states" vision is already clear. We also have a road map. We are convinced that without the settlement of the Palestinian issue, no new political architecture of the Middle East would be possible.

Taheri: Can the U.S. handle the Iraqi conflict and the North Korean crisis at the same time?

Perle: Certainly. For the past 20 years we have worked on a strategy that enables us to fight at least two major wars simultaneously. We are not going to let North Korea off the hook simply because we are working to get rid of Saddam.

Taheri: Do you plan to impose a military occupation of Iraq?

Perle: No. Our first task is to topple the dictatorship and destroy its weapons. We shall then have the task of ensuring security and law and order for a brief period during which the new Iraqi government establishes itself and rebuilds its police and armed forces. The Iraqis will have the opportunity to have a new constitution, hold elections and produce a government of their own choosing. Once that government asks us to leave, we shall leave.

Taheri: So, all this talk about an American ruler for Iraq is out of placed? I have heard many names including Colin Powell and even former Senator George Mitchell...

Perle: Mitchell? You must be kidding. No, Iraq does not need an American ruler. We had to assume direct rule in Germany and Japan after the Second World War because there were no alternative forces in those countries at the time. The majority of the Germans had supported Hitler and the majority of the Japanese had endorsed the policies of their military rulers. In Iraq, however, the majority is against Saddam Hussein. There are Iraqis from all shades of opinion to come together and create a pluralist system. You can have two-dozen political parties covering the whole spectrum in Iraq. There are also many competent, experienced, well-educated and dedicated Iraqis to assume control of their country and rebuild it. They won't need an American ruler. Iraq is to be a model of democracy, not a model of American military rule.

Taheri: A word about Turkey and Iran. Do you have their support?

Perle: As much as needed. Turkey is an ally, and Iran knows what it must do.

Taheri: Nevertheless, the Turks are making noises about the Treaty of Lausanne that gives them the so-called " right of observance" in northern Iraq, especially in the oil regions of Mosul and Kirkuk. Iran, for its part, talks about the Erzerum Treaty that gives Tehran some say in the affairs of the Shiite holy shrines in southern Iraq.

Perle: I don't know about all that. All I can say is that we shall not allow anyone to threaten Iraq's independence, territorial integrity and full sovereignty. Turkey has received assurances about the Turkmen minority in northern Iraq. It is also aware of the fact that it cannot create an empire in northern Iraq. As for Iran, whatever the Shiites do about their shrines is their private matter. The new Iraqi government will not allow any foreign intervention.

Taheri: What is the timetable? Would there be a new Iraqi regime in time for the Arab summit, perhaps in spring?

Perle: Why not?