Anyone who has listened to a single political speech knows that Washington, D.C., is a swampy morass controlled by pencil pushers, experts in bureaucratic intrigue. Richard Perle is one of these men. By dint of his mastery of the dark arts of memos and news leaks, Perle has become a Washington eminence, appearing on TV shows, publishing op-eds in the national dailies, and getting quoted (by name!) in news stories. He’s something you don’t hear about in politicians’ speeches: the faceful bureaucrat.
Consider his current appointment as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, the Pentagon’s advisory panel. It’s an important and influential job but typically a fairly anonymous post—the board, whose members are unpaid, is a pasture where washed-up politicos such as current board members Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley graze contentedly. Perle, however, has used the hitherto unremarked-upon position as a perch to establish himself as the official spokesman for neocon hawkishness, the leading voice calling on the Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein. Like many Washington insiders, Perle influences the powerful. Unlike many, he achieves a certain celebrity for doing so.
It’s a trick he’s pulled before. As a staffer for the fiercely anti-Communist Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, D-Wash., in the 1970s, Perle established himself as “the quintessential Washington operator,” as the Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser described him in 1977 in a nearly 3,700-word profile, an unusual amount of space to devote to a Senate staffer, even the right-hand man for the senator from Boeing. (Like some other neocons, Perle sometimes reminds reporters that he’s a registered Democrat, though he’s been associated with Republican administrations and candidates for two decades.) Under Jackson’s tutelage, Perle had become one of Washington’s most powerful figures, a Cold Warrior who worked to squelch arms control agreements and pushed the Senate to adopt a hard line against the Soviet Union. He helped Jackson scuttle detente, particularly by tying trade benefits to the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Over time, Perle’s influence extended beyond Jackson—during one unsuccessful effort to derail a Carter nominee whom Perle perceived as too soft on arms control, he wrote speeches for as many as 16 senators. And Perle’s tentacles reached into the press, too, which he manipulated through careful leaks of sensitive information. He was said to frequently use Evans and Novak’s column to push his agenda and to punish his foes. Later, Perle would add George Will and the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Bartley to his list of friends in the media.
After President Reagan’s election in 1980, Perle moved into the executive branch as an assistant defense secretary, a third-rank job where he again attained an unusual amount of notoriety. There were 10 other people with that title, but Perle was the only one to receive a three-part 11,000-word Post profile upon his resignation, not to mention the countless column inches dedicated to him in all the national dailies during his tenure. Using the skills and contacts he’d developed in Jackson’s office, Perle became the Reagan administration’s point man on arms control, becoming known as the “Prince of Darkness” by arms control advocates for his resistance to new treaties. Most notably, Perle devised the tough talk of the “zero option” for any agreement on medium-range nukes in Europe, which meant that the United States would not deploy any missiles in return for the Soviets withdrawing theirs. His influence was such that when Reagan headed to Reykjavik in 1986 for a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, Perle was the Defense Department’s sole representative. Some of his adversaries in the State Department viewed him, rather than Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, as the most powerful man in the Pentagon.
By the time he resigned as assistant secretary in 1987, Perle was well-known enough that Random House paid him $300,000 to write Hard Line,a roman à clef about his time in the Reagan administration. In it, Perle explained the methods he used to acquire so much clout. “Knowledge was power. The more you knew, the more you could use what you knew to expand your empire or advance your political agenda—or both,” he wrote. It was a “surrogate war”: “Since turf wars and ideological battles between the principals on such a high level attracted unwanted publicity, assistant secretaries did the fighting. Urbane guerrillas in dark suits, they fought not with AK-47s but with memos, position papers, talking points, and news leaks.”
Fifteen years later, after leaving office to cash in with a variety of private-sector jobs, Perle is back at his old game, conducting another surrogate war by saying what fellow hawks like Paul Wolfowitz cannot because of political constraints. “Basically, Perle is serving as this ventriloquist’s dummy and is making the administration’s case publicly but in a deniable fashion,” says John Pike, a defense policy expert and an old Perle foe. “Donald Rumsfeld adamantly refuses to talk about blowing up Iraq. Richard Perle talks about very little else.”
And once again, Perle has received the notice of the nation’s capital for his efforts. The Post’s Dana Milbank divided the capital’s Republicans into two camps in May, one led by Perle and one led by Brent Scowcroft, who fired the most recent volley when he argued on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page that the U.S. war on terrorism should remain just that—a counterterrorism effort. An attack on Iraq “would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken,” Scowcroft wrote. Fellow Bush I administration member Lawrence Eagleburger piled on during this past week’s Fox News Sunday, calling Perle and Wolfowitz “devious” for their efforts to persuade the president to go to war with Iraq. (To which longtime Perle friend Michael Ledeen responded in an interview, “I think for Larry Eagleburger to use the word ‘devious’ about other people is rather like the Ayatollah Khomeini calling someone an extremist.”)
It’s a strange fight—Scowcroft, a two-time national security adviser, waging an all-out war against a man who’s never had an A-list Washington job. But never bet against an entrenched Washington bureaucrat, even one who’s only recently come out of retirement. Perle gets points for consistency and for prescience—in a 1985 memo to Weinberger he noted, “There is a body of evidence indicating that Iraq continues to actively pursue an interest in nuclear weapons.” Since Sept. 11, Perle’s talking points have never wavered: Sept. 11 has “nothing to do” with the reasons why the United States should attack Saddam, so the limited evidence provided by the administration to demonstrate Saddam’s links with al-Qaida is irrelevant. “What’s relevant here is that he hates the United States,” he told the American Spectator last fall. “He has weapons of mass destruction. He has used them against his own people and would not hesitate to use them against us.”
But Perle has also consistently fallen prey to the delusion that if only Saddam Hussein can be removed from Iraq, the seas will turn to chocolate, candy will rain down from the sky, and the international community will sing as America buys the world a Coke in celebration. It’s the kind of simplistic, doe-eyed fantasizing that liberals sometimes bring to domestic issues. Visions of sugarplums aren’t enough to justify a dangerous and deadly pre-emptive war.
“Trust me,” Perle said when The Nation’s David Corn asked for evidence that Saddam poses an immediate threat to the United States. As an old Cold Warrior, Perle should know better. Trust, but verify.