Perle, the New York Times, and Chutzpah

Marking the impending fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sunday’s influential ‘Week in Review’ section of the New York Times asked “nine experts on military and foreign affairs to reflect on their attitudes in the spring of 2003 and to comment on the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wished they had considered in the prewar debate.” Of the nine, two were serving in the military at the time, two others were war sceptics (Anthony Cordesman — who memorably called the notion that the Iraq war would democratize the Middle East “neo-crazy” — and Anne-Marie Slaughter), and the rest were public boosters of the war, including L. Paul Bremer III, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, and — not one, not two, but — three fellows from the hard-line neo-con American Enterprise Institute (AEI): Frederick Kagan (who became formally affiliated with AEI well after the occupation had begun); Danielle Pletka; and Richard Perle who, in addition to his AEI responsibilities in the run-up to the war, served as chairman of Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board (DPB) until he resigned his chairmanship (while maintaining his membership) just before the war. Of the latter three, only Pletka admits she may have been mistaken in a key assumption — that “all who year for freedom, once free, would use it well” — an assumption, incidentally, that I don’t think was in any event central to her support for the war. But confirming Jacob Heilbrunn’s thesis that neo-conservatives always know “they were right,” Perle’s contribution is, predictably, pure chutzpah, a rewriting of history that defies virtually everything that is known about the decisions and the way they were taken in the early days of the occupation.

For those who aren’t fully acquainted with both the meaning of chutzpah (it’s about a man who kills his father and mother and then throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he’s an orphan) and Perle’s penchant for using it, I am reprinting below (the link to the original appears to have gone bad) a story entitled “Chutzpah, Thy Name is Perle” that I wrote for three years ago after Perle blamed the CIA for faulty intelligence regarding Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). I also published several items, which you can find here, here, and here, on my blog last spring about Perle’s efforts to rewrite his own role in championing the Iraq war and occupation.

What’s so remarkable about Perle’s latest version of events is that he lays the primary blame for the failure of the occupation neither on Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, nor on anyone (God forbid) in the Pentagon — not on Donald Rumsfeld, not on Paul Wolfowitz, and definitely not on his protege, Douglas Feith, who owed his job as Undersecretary for Policy to Perle’s personal intervention with Rumsfeld. Rather, the occupation failed, according to Perle, as a result of the decisions of all those senior officials whose advice, according to virtually every other account (with the dubious exception of Feith’s, of course), was most consistently ignored or marginalized both in the run-up to the war and in the occupation’s early days.

“Rather than turn Iraq over to Iraqis to begin the daunting process of nation building, a group including Secretary of State Colin Powell; the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice; and the director of central intelligence, George Tenet — with President Bush’s approval — reversed a plan to do that,” according to Perle’s account. What is even more remarkable is that he goes on to partially excuse Bremer himself, insisting that he “did his best to make a foolish policy work.”

Bremer himself has written and testified several times that his orders for policy shifts came directly through the Pentagon command — from Rumsfeld down through Feith. And, of course, one of the occupation’s most controversial and destructive policies — de-Ba’athification — was virtually hatched at AEI where it was championed most strongly by Perle’s own AEI associates, including Pletka, Michael Rubin and Reuel Marc Gerecht.

In fairness to Perle, he has long maintained that the occupation would have gone perfectly well had Washington first created a government-in-exile under the leadership of his friend, Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which would then have taken over the country after U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad. And, indeed, it was Wolfowitz, apparently with Cheney’s okay (thus circumventing Powell, Rice, Tenet, and Bush himself), that Chalabi and some 700 of his “Free Iraqi Forces” were flown into the country in the early days of the invasion, presumably to take on precisely that role. “I was astonished (and dismayed) that we did not turn to well-established and broadly representative opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime to assume the responsibilities of an interim government while preparing for elections,” writes Perle in an apparent reference to the INC and Chalabi. (As documented by reporters on the ground, Chalabi’s “Free Iraqi Forces,” which he promised would restore order to a chaotic Baghdad in mid-April, quickly lost whatever discipline it had after grabbing and securing various prime parcels of real estate that could be of use to Chalabi’s political and financial ambitions.)

Perhaps Perle’s preferred scenario would indeed have worked out just as he had predicted, although the notion that Chalabi, whose party famously failed to win a single seat in Iraq’s last elections, was either “well-established” or “broadly representative” appears utterly ludicrous in retrospect. And the fact that Perle’s friend may have been more than inclined to help Iran asserts its post-war interests in Iraq — or may even have been an agent of the mullahs — seems still never to have penetrated his otherwise vivid imagination. Yet, according to Aram Rosten, Chalabi’s biographer (via Laura Rozen’s blog), Chalabi’s main Iranian interlocutor just before and after the invasion was a top Quds Force general who in January was named by the Treasury Department as one of four individuals subject to U.S. financial sanctions for his role in “threatening peace and stability in Iraq”.

In any event, one has to ask why the Times, which, after admitting that its pre-war coverage of Iraqi WMD was highly misleading and journalistically irresponsible, then added a pro-war propagandist like William Kristol to its stable of regular columnists, would not only offer a disproportionate amount of space to people whose judgment with respect to Iraq and Iraqis has proved so disastrously wrong, but also, in Perle’s specific case, offer it to someone with such a long-standing and proven record of contempt for the historical record. I guess it shows that chutzpah has its rewards.

UPDATE: The Times has an important and relevant story Monday on the other major disastrous decision enforced by the occupation (and the Pentagon) in addition to the sweeping de-Baathification order that was so vigorously advocated by Rubin, Pletka, Gerecht, and Perle’s other proteges at AEI and at the Pentagon; namely, the decision to disband the Iraqi Army. While major responsibility for this decision clearly belongs to Bremer and his liberal hawk deputy, Walter Slocombe, it seems clear that from the various accounts included in the article that Rumsfeld and his neo-con advisers, including Feith, willingly went along with the idea, if not helped to ensure that it was adopted. (AEI fellows had been arguing for a massive purge of the officer corps and a drastic down-sizing of the army before the invasion, let alone before Bremer arrived on the scene.) The article makes clear that the State Department and other relevant agencies, including the Joint Chiefs, were left completely out of the decision by Bremer and the Pentagon.

As Bremer states, “I had clear instruction from the president to report through Rumsfeld. I was following the chain of command established by the president.” And here’s a revelatory sentence: “A memo from Mr. Feith’s office to Mr. Slocombe notes that the joint staff, which serves as a secretariat for the Joint Chiefs, provided comments on a draft of the decree to abolish the Iraqi Army. But the disbanding of the army came as a surprise to the officers working on Iraqi reconstruction issues.” The articles goes on to quote the Joint Chiefs chairman at the time, Gen. Richard Myers, as saying that the issue had never been debated by the chiefs. In other words, even as of May 23, 2003, when the decree formally disbanding the Iraq army was issued by the CPA, all of the individuals blamed by Perle for screwing up the occupation — Powell, Rice, Tenet — were unable to exert influence on policy, and the Pentagon — with Perle’s friends there firmly in charge — was making the decisions.

In any event, here’s the 2004 story:

Chutzpah, Thy Name Is Perle

Feb 03 2004

Chutzpah—a Yiddish word that the dictionary defines as “unmitigated effrontery or impertinence, gall”—is best illustrated by a much-cited anecdote.

“Chutzpah is when a man kills his mother and his father and then throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he is an orphan.”

In the last few days in Washington, however, prominent neoconservatives, particularly arch-hawk Richard Perle, are giving new meaning to the word.

It wasn’t enough that Perle, author of a new book titled An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terrorism, gave the keynote speech last week at a rally at the Washington Convention Center in solidarity for an Iranian rebel group officially listed by the State Department as a “foreign terrorist organization.” (A self-described terrorism expert, Perle later pleaded ignorance about the rally’s purpose, despite the fact that the Red Cross and the La Leche League had figured out the connection and withdrawn their own association with the event.)

No, now Perle and his fellow neoconservatives are hailing chief U.S. weapons-of-mass-destruction hunter, David Kay. On resigning from his post last week, Kay charged that the intelligence community, and particularly the CIA, clearly exaggerated the size and scope of Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD programs. “I don’t think they existed,” he said, insisting that he himself, as well as the intelligence community, “were almost all wrong” about Iraq’s alleged WMD stockpiles and reconstitution of Iraq’s nuclear-arms program.

“I have always thought our intelligence in the Gulf has been woefully inadequate,” Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board (DPB), confided to The New York Times after Kay disclosed his findings.

You would think from that remark that Perle had spent the run-up to the Iraq invasion warning Congress and the public that the intelligence community had hyped the WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

But, if you thought that, of course, you would be dead wrong. No, Perle and his close associates—such as Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney and former CIA director James Woolsey—said quite the opposite: their single-minded message, repeated endlessly in op-ed columns, television interviews and Congressional testimony, was that the intelligence community was consistently underestimating the Iraqi threat in a deliberate effort to undermine the drive to war.

Their campaign now—and there is an orchestrated campaign underway, make no mistake—is to blame the CIA for exaggerating the Iraqi threat must rank right up there with parenticidal orphans.

It was Gaffney, a long-time Perle protégè who worked under him in Sen. “Scoop” Jackson’s office and later at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, for example, who was raising alarms over Hussein’s non-existent “atomic and perhaps even thermonuclear weapons” even before 9/11.

Hawking The War

“He (Hussein) has weapons of mass destruction,” Perle stated unequivocally as early as November 2001—even as his friends in the Pentagon were setting up their Office of Special Plans (OSP), an informal intelligence unit whose job it was to mine raw intelligence to find and disseminate the most threatening possible evidence of Iraq’s WMD programs and alleged ties to Al Qaeda that the neoconservatives thought the CIA or even the Pentagon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency had not given adequate credence.

Perle even used his good offices as DPB chairman to ensure that “defectors” handled by his good friend Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC)—such as Khidir Hamza, a former nuclear scientist who stoked totally unfounded fears that Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear-weapons program—were given the widest possible exposure to policy-makers. Senior intelligence officials have since identified the INC’s defectors as the source of a great deal of the mis-, if not dis-information, that skewed its assessments.

For Perle, Hussein’s WMD program was simply a given. “If (Hussein) eludes us and continues to refine, perfect and expand his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons,” he testified to Congress in the fall of 2002, “the danger to us, already great, will only grow.” The problem, of course, was that the arsenal whose existence was never subject to the slightest doubt by Perle and his friends didn’t exist.

Indeed, just two weeks before his friend Kay acknowledged there were simply no weapons to be found, Perle insisted to an audience at his home base, the American Enterprise Institute, “I don’t think that you can draw any conclusion from the fact that stockpiles were not found.”

While Perle clearly assumed the existence of a massive WMD threat as described by his INC sources, he was even more expansive in the run-up to the war about Hussein’s alleged operational ties to Al Qaeda, a notion for which only the political appointees at OSP could ever find even the slightest, but almost always uncorroborated, evidence.

Perle, for example, has always insisted that 9/11’s operational mastermind, Mohammed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence official, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, at a Prague cafe five months before the suicide hijackings, despite the fact that the CIA and the FBI have both concluded that Atta was in Florida at the time of the alleged meeting. When al-Ani was captured by U.S. forces last July, Perle declared that his version of events would soon be confirmed, but then, in a suggestion that the CIA could not be trusted, added, “a lot depends on who is doing the interrogating.” By all accounts, al-Ani has steadfastly denied ever meeting Atta, a problem Perle has not addressed lately.

An Axe To Grind Against The CIA

Perle and his fellow-neocons’ contempt for the CIA dates to the 1970s when he and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the agency of being naive about Soviet strategic capabilities and intentions. That set the pattern. To Perle, the CIA, like the State Department, has long been a haven for naive and foolish “liberals” incapable of understanding just how dangerous and threatening the enemy—any enemy—really is.

“Over time, it has become an agency with very strong, mostly liberal policy views, and these views have again and again distorted its analysis and presentation of its own information,” Perle wrote in An End to Evil, which was co-authored by former White House speechwriter, David Frum.

“The CIA is blinded, too, by the squeamishness that many liberal-minded people feel about noticing the dark side of third world cultures,” he continued, arguing that this is especially true of the Arab world. “The CIA’s reports on the Middle East today are colored by similar ideological biases—exacerbated by poor understanding of the region’s culture and a politically correct disinclination to acknowledge unflattering facts about non-Western peoples.”

“(D)ata yields useful information only if it is analyzed without ideological prejudices or institutional biases,” according to Perle’s book. “A good intelligence analyst must constantly question his own ideas about the phenomena he studies.”

Good advice. Now, if only Perle and his fellow-neocons had applied it to themselves, their own assessments might not have been so much worse than the CIA’s.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.