Richard Perle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former adviser to various Republican administrations, is widely considered a core representative of the neoconservative political faction. Perle has played a key role promoting militaristic U.S. foreign policies since the 1970s, first as an adviser to the late Sen. Henry Jackson, later as a Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, and then as head of the George W. Bush administration's Defense Policy Board during the launching of the "war on terror." More recently he has been a high-profile advocate of using military force to halt Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
Since stepping down from his post as chair of the Bush administration's Defense Policy Board in 2003, Perle has generally kept a low public profile, while at times offering contradictory public evaluations of the Iraq War and urging U.S. military action in other Middle Eastern countries.
In early 2013, Perle served as a representative of the Clarion Project—a controversial advocacy group that has produced several Islamophobic and anti-Iranian films—in its efforts to capitalize on the Boston marathon bombings to promote its political agenda. Claiming that "jihadist ideology continues to motivate a sophisticated worldwide terror network and that America remains a target," Clarion urged the public to view its 2008 film, The Third Jihad, and offered Perle and Clare Lopez for interviews. The press release, wrote Inter Press Service reporter Jim Lobe, appeared to suggest that "Perle, a long-time member of the strongly pro-Chechen, anti-Russian American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus (formerly the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya) and many, many other neo-con letterhead organizations, has now associated himself in some way with the ultra-Islamophobic Clarion Project."
Previously, Perle broke with many of his fellow neoconservatives in expressing regret about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. However, since the election of President Barack Obama, Perle has become an increasingly vocal critic of the U.S. foreign policy and become a high profile proponent of attacking Iran.
In a 2011 interview with the conservative outlet Newsmax.com, Perle said: "The Iranians are killing Americans at every opportunity in the places where we're now fighting. They support terrorism around the world, and they're headed toward nuclear weapons. … I think Obama believes wrongly that he can talk the Iranians out of their nuclear weapons program. He's been trying to do that since he became president. The previous administration tried it too. It isn't going to work."
When asked during an interview with Russia Today whether his views on Iran should be considered legitimate given the errors in judgment on Iraq, Perle responded defensively, stating: "What are you suggesting? That we stop trying to figure out whether Iran has nuclear weapons, because there were intelligence errors with respect to Iraq? Should the U.S. dismantle its intelligence organizations? Of course not!"
Like many of his colleagues in the rightwing "pro-Israel" community, Perle has expressed concern about the emergence of conservative Muslim parties since the "Arab Spring," particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He told Newsmax in 2011: "The Muslim Brotherhood is potentially a very serious problem, since it is committed to the global expansion of an extreme approach to Islam, which is strict shariah law. And it will be very difficult if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power."
Reviving arguments he used during the 1970s and 1980s to promote extravagant weapons programs to deter the Soviet Union, Perle has criticized the Obama administration's arms control negotiations with Russia. In a 2010 op-ed for the American Interest, he wrote, "Obama's approach to Moscow smacks of appeasement, an eagerness to accommodate unreasonable Russian positions made worse by an exaggerated focus on refurbishing the antique arms control arrangements of the Cold War while embracing a utopian vision of a world without nuclear weapons."
Perle has characterized the Obama administration's foreign policy as naïve and ill-informed, while at the same time using right-wing scare tactics in an effort to delegitimize the president. "What if," Perle wondered, "we are witnessing the deliberate, measured implementation of a deeply entrenched ideology reflecting such influences as the scarcely acknowledged Bill Ayers and the once inconveniently visible Reverend Jeremiah Wright? What if they shaped Obama's worldview in the years when they were ministering to and counseling a young, charismatic politician? Americans have never been tempted to elect a 'blame America first' President,' and now they are 'not so sure' about Obama."
Iraq War Advocacy and Reversal
Perle's role in promoting the invasion of Iraq centered largely on his capacity as chair of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, which serves as a quasi-idea factory for the Defense Department. Paralleling the efforts of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a leading neoconservative advocacy group with which Perle was associated, as well as those of then-Pentagon number two Paul Wolfowitz, Perle convened a meeting of the DPB shortly after the attacks to produce policy responses for the administration. Perle invited as a guest to one of the board's classified meeting Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile and longtime confidant of Perle who served as the head of the Iraqi National Congress, which had for years been pushing for regime change in Iraq.
Although the DPB typically has little or no influence in setting policy, many commentators saw Perle's efforts as part of a larger, neoconservative-led initiative to coordinate public pressure from both inside and outside the administration. Commenting on this apparent coordination, Jim Lobe and Michael Flynn wrote: "It appears that after 9/11, the network of hawks and neoconservatives that had coalesced around PNAC's founding agenda had mobilized in a highly coordinated way to fashion the administration's response to the terrorist attacks and rally the public behind their new agenda" (see the Right Web special report, "The Rise and Decline of the Neoconservatives," November 17, 2006).
In late 2006, as the U.S.-led war in Iraq devolved into an increasingly bloody counterinsurgency campaign, Perle became a high profile turncoat with respect to the decision to invade Iraq. In a widely noted interview with Vanity Fair that year, Perle argued that the war in Iraq had turned out to be a mistake. He said: "I think if I had been delphic, and had seen where we are today, and people had said, 'Should we go into Iraq?,' I think now I probably would have said, 'No, let's consider other strategies for dealing with the thing that concerns us most, which is Saddam supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.' ... I don't say that because I no longer believe that Saddam had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, or that he was not in contact with terrorists. I believe those two premises were both correct. Could we have managed that threat by means other than a direct military intervention? Well, maybe we could have."
Responding to Perle's change of heart, Gary Schmitt, a founder of PNAC and Perle's colleague at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), told the BBC: "I do not agree with Richard Perle that we should never have gone in. I do argue that the execution should have been better. In fact, I argued in late 2003 that we needed more troops and a proper counterinsurgency policy."
Also in seeming opposition to other neoconservatives, Perle gave an equivocal reaction to the controversial decision by President George W. Bush in early 2007 to "surge" the number of troops in Iraq. While most neoconservatives were supportive of the surge plan, even eager for a larger commitment than 20,000 additional troops proposed, Perle expressed doubt that sending more troops was the answer. He told the New York Sun, "I don't think the additional troops are the key to the strategy [Bush] has announced, it is how effectively those troops are managed." He added: "The big question in my mind is whether we can implement some practical and prudent measures. I don't know if we can. It will depend significantly on the command in the country."
Perle later claimed that his remarks about the invasion had been taken out of context, insisting that he had actually meant to criticize the U.S. occupation and administration of the country. "The mistake in my view—and I can't prove this; nobody can prove this—the seminal mistake was getting into an occupation and not turning things over to the Iraqis," he said. "I doubt that they would have handled the postwar situation as badly as we did. We sent thousands of Americans over there to run a country they knew nothing about." He added, " I think the decision that was made to remove Saddam was right."
Perle's pessimism on Iraq stood in stark contrast to his trademark hard-nosed militarism, which has been a staple of his rhetoric for more than two decades. Reflecting core aspects of what many regard as the neoconservative worldview, Perle's discourse typically reflects a combination of warrior worship, existential conflict, and extreme moral righteousness. As the Australian journalist John Pilger reported shortly before the war in Iraq: "One of George W. Bush's 'thinkers' is Richard Perle. I interviewed Perle when he was advising Reagan; and when he spoke about 'total war,' I mistakenly dismissed him as mad. He recently used the term again in describing America's 'war on terror.' 'No stages,' he said. 'This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. All this talk about first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq ... this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war ... our children will sing great songs about us years from now.'"
Like many neoconservatives, Perle seems to have been particularly influenced by his views of the Holocaust, a theme that has repeatedly popped up in his rhetoric. Said Perle in a 2003 interview with BBC: "For those of us who are involved in foreign and defense policy today, my generation, the defining moment of our history was certainly the Holocaust. It was the destruction, the genocide of a whole people, and it was the failure to respond in a timely fashion to a threat that was clearly gathering. We don't want that to happen again; when we have the ability to stop totalitarian regimes we should do so, because when we fail to do so, the results are catastrophic." Similarly, in his 2004 book An End to Evil, he and coauthor David Frum argued: "For us, terrorism remains the great evil of our time, and the war against this evil, our generation's great cause ... There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust."
Prescriptions on the Middle East
This radical outlook on foreign affairs deeply influenced both Perle's reaction to 9/11 and his initial response to the growing turmoil in the Middle East in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. For example, despite the growing violence in Iraq by late 2005, Perle remained committed to a larger "regime change" strategy for the Middle East that included both Syria and Iran. On Syria, Perle hosted meetings in late 2005 between Chalabi and Syrian exile Farid Ghadry, who was head of the Syrian Reform Party. Ghadry told the Wall Street Journal: "[Chalabi] paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria." Said Perle: "There's no reason to think engagement with Syria will bring about any change," adding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that."
On Iran, Perle lambasted the State Department and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for being weak on the "mullahs." In a July 21, 2006 piece for AEI, Perle contended that the offer of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program amounted to "appeasement." He wrote: "Proximity is critical in politics and policy. And the geography of this administration has changed. Condoleezza Rice has moved from the White House to Foggy Bottom, a mere mile or so away. What matters is not that she is further removed from the Oval Office; Rice's influence on the president is undiminished. It is, rather, that she is now in the midst of—and increasingly represents—a diplomatic establishment that is driven to accommodate its allies even when (or, it seems, especially when) such allies counsel the appeasement of our adversaries."
During the summer 2006 conflict in Lebanon, Perle also remained on message, arguing that Israel was involved in an "existential struggle" with Hezbollah. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Perle wrote: "Israel must now deal a blow of such magnitude to those who would destroy it as to leave no doubt that its earlier policy of acquiescence is over. This means precise military action against Hezbollah and its infrastructure in Lebanon and Syria, for as long as it takes and without regard to mindless diplomatic blather about proportionality. For what appears to some to be a disproportionate response to small incursions and kidnappings is, in fact, an entirely appropriate response to the existential struggle in which Israel is now engaged."
Perle has for decades supported the work of a number of hardline think tanks and advocacy groups, including the Committee on the Present Danger, PNAC, AEI, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Hudson Institute, and the Center for Security Policy.
In 1996, Perle participated in a study group that produced a report for the incoming Likud-led government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that urged the country to break off then-ongoing peace initiatives and suggested strategies for reshaping the Middle East. Among the group's arguments was the idea that "removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq [was] an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right." The report—titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" and coauthored by Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser—also recommended working closely with "Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll back" regional threats and using "Israeli proxy forces" based in Lebanon for "striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon." If that should "prove insufficient, [Israel should strike] at select targets in Syria proper." Further, "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, even rolling back Syria." This would create a "natural axis" between Israel, Jordan, a Hashemite Iraq, and Turkey that "would squeeze and detach Syria from the Saudi Peninsula." This "could be the prelude to a redrawing of the map of the Middle East, which could threaten Syria's territorial integrity."
In 1998, Perle signed a PNAC letter to President Bill Clinton that argued, "Current American policy toward Iraq is not succeeding, and that we may soon face a threat in the Middle East more serious than any we have known since the end of the Cold War." The threat from Iraq was characterized as being of such a magnitude that the "only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power." Other signatories included future Bush administration officials Elliott Abrams, Richard Armitage, John Bolton, Zalmay Khalilzad, Peter Rodman, Robert Zoellick, Donald Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz.
In 2001, Perle also signed the now notorious post-9/11 PNAC letter to President Bush arguing that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism. The United States must therefore provide full military and financial support to the Iraqi opposition. American military force should be used to provide a 'safe zone' in Iraq from which the opposition can operate. And American forces must be prepared to back up our commitment to the Iraqi opposition by all necessary means."
Perle has been heavily criticized for his sometimes-questionable business interests, which have been the focus of several investigative reports by journalists. When the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh documented Perle's business dealings in the Middle East with the venture capital firm Trireme, Perle threatened to sue the journalist, saying that he was the "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist."
Hersh's article, "Lunch with the Chairman," discussed possible conflicts of interest resulting from Perle's dual role as chairman of the Defense Policy Board and as a partner for Trireme, a company that invests in homeland security and defense-related industries. Hersh recounted how Perle met with Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi arms dealer, and another Saudi businessman in early 2003. Various people interviewed by Hersh, including Khashoggi, indicated that Perle and Trireme seemed to be sending the message that in return for Saudi investment backing, the "Chairman" would use his Pentagon connections to influence U.S. policy.
Soon after the Hersh piece was published, columnist Maureen Dowd and other journalists documented Perle's relationship to Global Crossings, a bankrupt communications giant and defense contractor that was seeking Pentagon permission to be sold to the Asian company Hutchinson Wampoa (the same Hutchinson Wampoa whose interests in Panama sparked an anguished round of right-wing hand-wringing about a Chinese attempt to take control of the Panama Canal). Although Perle denied any wrongdoing, he admitted through his attorney that he was hired by Global Crossings to consult with a reluctant Department of Defense about the deal.
In late March 2003, Perle announced that he was stepping down from his post as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, writing in his resignation letter to Rumsfeld: "I have seen controversies like this before and I know that this one will inevitably distract from the urgent challenge in which you are now engaged. I would not wish to cause even a moment's distraction from that challenge. As I cannot quickly or easily quell criticism of me based on errors of fact concerning my activities, the least I can do under these circumstances is to ask you to accept my resignation as chairman of the Defense Policy Board."
Apparently undeterred, however, Perle continued to make eyebrow-raising business arrangements, particularly in the Middle East. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that Perle was exploring investing in oil interests in Iraq and Kazakhstan, a curious decision given the salient claims by Iraq war opponents that the war was waged over access to Iraq's oil. Perhaps more surprisingly, Politico reported in 2011 that Perle also twice traveled to Libya with the Monitor Group, a consulting firm that named Perle a senior adviser in 2006, as part of an effort to "burnish Libya's and [then-dictator Muammar] Qadhafi's image" in the United States.