Interview: Richard Perle

Al Jazeera's Riz Khan show discusses Iraq with the former senior US official.

    The US-led Iraq invasion remains controversial as its fifth anniversary nears [GALLO/GETTY]

    As part of Al Jazeera's coverage of the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq,
    Anand Naidoo, filling in for Riz Khan on the Riz Khan show, talks with former US assistant secretary of defence Richard Perle, now resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

    Al Jazeera: Five years on, how do you see Iraq?

    Perle: Well I think it's improving since the change in policy that's often referred to as the "surge", which is more than just sending a few thousand additional troops. It's a whole change in the approach to the situation and one that ppears to be working reasonably well.

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    It's been a very difficult five years, obviously, and the insurgency that was not anticipated, as it in fact developed has claimed a great deal of lives, innocent lives mostly. People have been killed in order to try to terrorise them and to drive the US out.

    After all of that, it's five years later and Saddam Hussein is no longer ruling that country brutally and sadistically as he once did and the Iraqi people have shown extraordinary courage in standing up and expressing themselves at the ballot box and, frankly, in putting up with the tremendously difficult situation they face and I think they're now coming out of it.

    When you say the surge … a lot of the reduction of the level of violence can be attributed to the fact that a lot of the Sunni militias are now on the side of the US – these so-called awakening councils, that's one thing, the other is that Muqtada al-Sadr is still holding to a ceasefire so that's contributed quite a bit to that.

    I certainly agree with that, the change in the attitude of the traditional Sunni leadership has been crucial to this. As for Muqtada al-Sadr, he's certainly capable of igniting violence and seems to have specialised in doing this.

    [interr] I want to ask you about that because that is very tenuous isn't it, he could change his mind tomorrow?

    I'm not sure he has the capacities today that he had before and I think one of the reasons for his ceasefire is that if there were no ceasefire he would be hard put to demonstrate the capabilities he had a year ago.

    I think he's declined significantly and that's a good thing because he was certainly not contributing to the reconstruction and the peaceful democratic development of Iraq.

    What about the political changes that the US wanted in Iraq? The government in Iraq, the political institutions in Iraq have not lived up to that have they?

    I think they're coming along, I wish there were an easy quick way to bring about democratic reform but after three decades of Saddam Hussein I wouldn't fault the distance that the Iraqis have come.

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    Against that background they have made significant progress and at the end of the day when they do achieve a decent representative government, a humane government, it may not look exactly like our concept but that's alright.

    They're Iraqis, they have to choose their own approach to governance I just hope that it's decent and humane.

    It may not be alright for Iraqis on the ground, I mean there's a deep level of hostility between Sunnis and Shia which actually didn't really exist at that level under Saddam Hussein, it does exist now.

    Well, under Saddam Hussein of course the Shia were brutally repressed and had really no opportunity to express themselves, a lot of what we've seen I think is payback for that period when the Shia were so seriously oppressed and some of the violence from the Sunni side has come from Sunnis, who actually enjoyed being in the position of the oppressor and are very unhappy with what has now happened, because Iraq now more or less begun to reflect the destruction of population as it is a majority Shia country.

    So there is a long way to go in a real reconciliation but I believe it's possible.

    Your views on the war, on the decision to invade Iraq appear to be somewhat ambivalent … initially were a strong supporter and yet I'm reading from an article in Vanity Fair [magazine] in which you said: "I think if I had been Delphic [prophetic] 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' … could we have managed that threat by means other than a direct military intervention? Well, maybe we could have."

    And then very recently, just a few days ago, this is what you said to the UK's Daily Telegraph only a few days ago: "I believe the right decision was made. Baghdad fell in 21 days with few casualties on either side. Twenty-five million Iraqis had been liberated and Saddam's menace eliminated. There would be no weapons of mass murder to share with terrorists."

    So you've changed your mind several times.

    Well, of course, the remark from Vanity Fair was made last November at what may have been the darkest moment, when I believe the US was pursuing a wrong and fatal strategy.

    Happily that changed and we're now pursuing a strategy that I believe has a reasonable chance of success.

    I did not anticipate how badly the administration would mess things up, frankly. I believed that after Saddam Hussein was removed we would turn things over to the Iraqis and the Iraqis would begin the process of developing their own institutions, preparing for elections, managing the country, with the US at their side to be helpful.

    I never anticipated that we would send someone from Washington, in fact some thousands of people from Washington, to try to administer [and] govern Iraq.

    We didn't know how to do that - it was a foolish venture and we never should have done it. And so I was deeply disappointed in that and when I said "if I had been Delphic" what I had in mind was if I had understood how badly the follow up to Saddam's removal was going to be handled.

    When you say a reasonable chance of success, even now, how do you measure that, I mean at what point could you say for instance that US troops could return to the US?

    Well I don't measure success by the return of US troops …

    Well that's just one measure …

    But a lot of people do. We still had troops in Germany a long time after World War II.

    But they’re not playing the same role …

    But they're not playing the same role and so I think that's very important. If American troops were still essential to maintaining security five years from now that would not be very successful.

    So the handover has to take place, but I believe there is a role for the US in an improving situation which is a very different to the role that we played before the surge and the role we've played since the surge.

    When you look at … the last five years, and you ask yourself why did the US go to the war, were there any specific aims in mind and have these aims been achieved?

    There were very clear aims in mind. One has to go back, psychologically, to September 11, 2001. The administration looks around and says: "My God, what might happen next?" And the fear that seized senior officials of the administration from the president on down was the possibility of another attack, this time with chemical or biological weapons or even nuclear weapons with nuclear materials.

    Perle says the US administration feared
    another 9/11 style attack

    And the administration asked itself: Could this happen and, if so, who is capable of doing it?

    And they made up a list, and Saddam Hussein was on that list because he was believed to possess stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and he was known for sure to have created them in the past and actually to have used them.

    So the US went in to Iraq to eliminate that threat, not to build democracy, not to steal Iraq's oil, not for broad geopolitical reasons but because the importance of dealing with that threat became a near obsession of the administration after 9-11.

    If those aims have been met, is the US - or the security of the US - is it more secure today than it was, say, before the invasion?

    Well I think we are more secure then we were the invasion and we're certainly more secure than we were in 9/11.

    Before 9/11, we were as vulnerable as we were found to be on 9/11 and if [Osama] Bin Laden had waited until he got the biological weapons he was looking for, God knows how many would have died in New York City or in some other attack.

    So we've now come to terms with the seriousness not only of Bin Laden, but people around the world - happily not in huge numbers but in significant numbers - who want to destroy Americans and America and will commit suicide in the process of doing it and will inflict as much damage as they can.

    So are we safer now? We certainly are, we understand the threat we face and we didn't understand that before.

    This episode of Riz Khan aired on Tuesday, March 18, 2008
    You can watch Riz live at 1900GMT, with repeats at 0030GMT, 0500GMT, and 1000GMT.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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