The Prince of Darkness Explains Iraq

It was late. The sidewalks were empty. Four blocks away, the dome of the Capitol shined brightly. In front of me stood the Prince of Darkness. With his dark eyes locked upon me, he was demanding information.

"Why do you liberals keep defending Saddam Hussein?"

Richard Perle, an assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, who earned that comic-book-villain nickname by being the most hawkish of the hawks, was continuing a debate we had just finished in a television studio.

His query was a telling one, in an anthropological way, for it provided insight into the thought patterns of the neocon tribe that has been beating the drums for war in the land of Mesopotamia.

I had expressed doubt about the necessity of invading Iraq and the ability of the Bush Administration to cajole any other Arab nation to endorse this crusade. And that, in Perle's mind, was equivalent to defending a thuggish dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own citizens.

Couldn't he see that opposing war was not the same as supporting Saddam? Apparently not. The fact that he was entrapped in a bipolar, Cold War-like perspective, was unsettling, for Perle now heads the Defense Policy Board, a group of outside-the-Pentagon military intellectuals that advise the Department of Defense. His prejudices and biases carry beyond the talk-show circuit.

Gamely, I tried to educate the man. Before taking the country to war, I said, President Bush was obligated to present a solid case to the American public, and so far Bush and his crew have only asserted that Saddam poses a threat. They have not proven that Saddam's supposed pursuit of weapons of mass destruction has made him a clear and present danger to the United States.

Before the United States attacks another nation -- and, intentionally or not, kills civilians -- an administration should show why such a drastic step cannot be avoided. This ought to be done to win public support -- at home and abroad -- and to persuade Congress, which would have to authorize the assault.

"What evidence do you need?" Perle asked with a grin.

Something is better than nothing, I said, and all we have gotten so far is nothing. What about intelligence reports? Electronic intercepts? Overhead satellite photographs? During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy released reconnaissance shots that showed Soviet missiles were being deployed in Cuba.

"Only trained photo-interpreters could tell what they meant." Perle replied.

That's true. But 40 years ago, the world of photo-interpretation was much smaller than it is now. If the United States were to release similar photos to demonstrate Iraq was close to obtaining nuclear weapons, there would be experts outside the U.S. government -- in the private sector and in other governments -- who could confirm or dispute the administration's reading of the data. But it need not be photos. The President could share whatever information he bases his call-to-war upon.

Perle moved closer and said, "Trust me."

Sorry, I answered, I don't think we should head to war merely on the say-so of a few government officials. Besides, I added politely, why trust you? Why not trust Scott Ritter?

Ritter was the chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq who quit the program in 1998 because he felt the Clinton administration was not being sufficiently forceful in its dealings with Saddam. At the time, he was hailed by conservatives.

These days, Ritter can often be spotted on television explaining that Iraq poses no threat to the United States at this time and that there is no justification for a U.S. attack.

Ritter, Perle huffed, is "unstable."

Low blow, I said.

Perle claimed he does not call everyone with whom he disagrees "unstable." But, he said, this was an appropriate term for a fellow who had changed his position 180 degrees.

What about Norman Podhoretz? I shot back, attempting an inside joke. Podhoretz, a founding father of Perle's neoconservative posse, had been a liberal before turning (famously and infamously) into a conservative.

"He explained it," Perle said, referring to the Pod's extensive writings. But, I retorted, so too did Ritter, who wrote the book "Endgame," published in 1999, which covered his adventures in Iraq and his short-of-war recommendations for US policy. With that, we said good night, and Perle entered the car waiting for him.

Stalemate? I doubt much convincing had occurred during this exchange. I certainly did not believe "trust me" was appropriate justification for war. And Perle never acknowledged there was anything problematic in such an approach to governing.

On the way home, I recalled the other dollop of insider wisdom he attempted to impart to me that night. When we first walked out of the studio, Perle sharply said, "Why do you think we need anyone else?" He was replying to my on-air skepticism regarding Bush's effort to win Arab backing for a military move against Iraq.

I noted there were widespread media reports saying an attack would require up to 250,000 troops. These soldiers could not all be air-dropped into Iraq. They would have to come from somewhere, such as Saudi Arabia. And a military action of this size would need extensive logistical support nearby.

Forget the 250,000 figure, Perle said: "The Army guys don't know anything. They said we needed 500,000 troops in 1991 [for the Gulf War]. Did we need that many to win? No."

What's the Perle Plan? I asked.

"Forty thousand troops." he said.

To take Baghdad? Nah, he replied. To take control of the north and the south, particularly the north, where the oil fields are. Cut off Saddam's oil, make him a pauper, that should do the trick.

"We don't need anyone else," he said, in a distinctly imperial fashion.

This was illuminating, for here was a top Pentagon adviser, a comrade of the get-Saddam ideologues of the Defense Department, asserting the United States could de-Saddamize Iraq with a relatively small force and without asking any other nation for assistance. Was anyone else at the Pentagon on this same page? Might Perle be reflecting proposals already drawn up there?

I admit I am no military expert -- but I do know a few. The next day, I described the Perle option to two of them. A military analyst, who had served many years in the Special Forces, replied (requesting confidentiality):

"The question that has not been asked or answered is what do we want to do in Iraq. We need to distill it down to its simplest form. Is our goal to kill Saddam (how can you exile him) or do you put him in prison for the rest of his life (a la Noriega)? Are we going after the weapons of mass destruction sites? Do we know where they are? (No!) Once you answer all of these questions, you realize that you need an army of occupation to run Iraq until we set up a puppet government. Do you really think that once we occupy Iraq we are going to allow the Iraqi people to elect anyone they want? Guys like Perle and [deputy defense secretary Paul] Wolfowitz are so blinded by their loyalty to Israel that they seldom look at the long-term consequences. Finally, once we occupy Iraq, the Perles of the world are going to say, 'Why don't we just go into Iran and solve that problem, too?' I really think occupation is something the Bush administration has not thought through yet. It will be a huge problem, especially if we decide to go it alone."

Another military analyst, who worked 20 years on US counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, was also doubtful:

"I think Perle is smoking dope, just like the majority of these guys who've held high level positions but never served a stitch of time in combat. It's a lot hotter on the battlefield than it is in the halls of the Pentagon, and the margin of error is much slimmer. I'm not sure what the number is, but I do know it's a hell of a lot more than 40K. And indeed we most certainly need the support of Arab allies in the region. Where else would we base the helos needed for quick recovery of downed pilots, immediate air support for ground ops, etc., etc, etc.?"

Retired Rear Admiral Stephen Baker, former chief of staff for the U.S. Navy's central command in Bahrain and the operations officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group during Desert Storm, also was kind enough to consider Perle's proposal for me.

He noted, "Yes there is a contingency to go in without Saudi Arabia being looked at. The base in Qatar is being replicated to have the same capabilities as Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia." But, he added, "I don't think a force of 40K (the size of the New York police department) will work, as the risk is too high. Anything less than victory is totally unacceptable."

By that, Baker meant politically unacceptable. As Baker, now a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, wrote recently, "The political impact of an unsuccessful campaign would be simply unacceptable to the Bush administration. Thus, any offensive would be an all-out, unrestrained war that would use overwhelming force and every conventional asset in the US inventory to assure success. A military plan is under construction, but not ready yet ... Such an operation would be no 'cake walk.' It instead would be very complicated militarily and politically. It will take time to get US forces in place and plans at a satisfactory level of detail and readiness to execute ... Up to 100,000 US troops and 25,000 support personnel would need to be pre-staged throughout the Gulf for a major ground offensive."

Like the two analysts quoted above, Baker sees a boatload of complexity in a war on Iraq: "Once Saddam's out, who's in? ... Questions regarding who will be responsible for internal security once the regime has been removed will have to be answered ... There are a number of tribal, ethnic, religious and political fissures that could easily generate tensions once Saddam's iron thumb has been removed, and these have the potential to spillover national boundaries ... Another strong man might be what is needed to keep the peace in Iraq. However, there is little reason to believe that the next tyrant will hold views regarding weapons of mass destruction, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel that are dissimilar to Saddam's own. The financial and political investment in a post-Saddam Iraq will have to be substantial, as will the risks."

Yet Perle, full of confidence and hubris, makes it sound as if Mission Iraq could be a breeze. I wonder if anyone in the Pentagon is listening when the Prince of Darkness says, "Trust me."

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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