POLITICS

Richard Perle Really Doesn't Care What Jeb Bush Thinks Of The Iraq War Vote Today

05/15/2015 02:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

Richard Perle thinks your question about the Iraq War is trivial.

The former Defense Department adviser, who was one of the key figures crafting the policy for invasion in 2003, isn't interested in what what politicians today would do if they could go back in time and vote on the authorization. Far more important, he says, is what they would have done in that specific moment, with that specific intelligence, in that political climate.

"I would not attach a lot of weight to anybody’s answer to this question, particularly to a candidate's answer," Perle told The Huffington Post in an interview. "You give the answer that you think is going to offend the fewest number of people whose votes you want and please the largest number of people whose votes you want, and you’ve got to do it in a sentence or two. I think the conventional wisdom is that Iraq was a mistake. So the easiest answer is going to be: I wouldn’t have done it."

Perle resists giving answers of convenience. As Republican presidential candidates and likely candidates this week have criticized the decision to authorize the war, most recently former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- who took several days and several attempts to get there -- Perle declines the offer of a mulligan.

"I think it was the right call," he said. "But we’ve just had, what, a 20 minute conversation? What do you say to the poor guy, especially when they get 10 or a dozen Republicans up there on the platform? You don’t even have two minutes to answer the question."

This is not to excuse the Republican presidential field, though one gets the sense that Perle thinks they don't actually believe what they are saying when they look back dismissively at the lead-up to the war. His point is that presidential campaigns don't lend themselves to nuanced discussions. Perle's not unapologetic about Iraq. Like those Republican candidates, he recognizes mistakes were made. But if he regrets anything, it's decisions made post-invasion, rather than the choice to invade itself.

The case Perle makes is one that, up until this week, was the standard fallback for pro-war lawmakers. The intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs was "not entirely but substantially wrong," he concedes. Responsibility for that lies with the intelligence community, he says, which "fell into a trap of their own making" -- relying on bad sources and assumptions that proved sickeningly false. Hussein, meanwhile, didn't help matters by refusing to give a more transparent accounting of his weapons inventory. War crept closer and closer as he resisted until, eventually, it was all but inevitable.

"At some point you have to make a decision," Perle said. "The decision was a tentative one. It was not to invade. It was to be prepared. And then when Saddam failed to provide the information, you could have asked yourself: 'Well, do you want to stand down? He hasn’t given us the information. It is not 100 percent. Do we want to stand down?' And I think the answer at that time clearly was 'No, we don’t want to stand down.' The evidence is strong enough and the cost of standing down would be not delaying for a week or two, but essentially abandoning the capacity."

"We were, in part, pushed by our own momentum," he said.

Up to this point, Perle believes, every decision was defensible. And so, when someone asks him whether he would do it all over again -- knowing what he knows now or working off contemporaneous information -- he says that he would. It was when American officials decided not to prop up an interim government in Iraq and leave, and when they compounded that error by dramatically purging the Ba'ath Party and military, that things went haywire.

"I was thinking this was a very bad development," Perle said of the decision to stay in power. The looting in Iraq, apparent just weeks after the invasion, wasn't addressed by Iraqis themselves. "A substantial number" of office-holders and military officials were suddenly "reduced to penury." America became an occupier, not a liberator. And so on.

"The military operation was a brilliant success. It was over in 21 days. Twenty-one days. The disaster followed," he said.

What's convenient about this vision of an Iraq-War-that-could-have-been, what allows Perle to feel less regret than others, is that there is no way to know if it is true. Would an interim government have worked or would it have been dismissed as an illegitimate proxy for American interests? Perle admits his idea would have been difficult to pull off. "But what are your options in that situation?" he asks. "If people resent a foreign power anointing an interim government how much more do they resent a foreign power declaring itself to be in charge?"

To get to the point where that question even needs to be answered, however, requires glossing over a number of questionable decisions and motives. In Perle's telling, the invasion of Iraq was a good faith effort, based on premises that only proved to be faulty after the fact. But troves of reporting, documents and firsthand accounts suggest something far different. The Center for Public Integrity, for example, pulled together a lengthy database of demonstrable lies that were involved in the selling of the war, as did Mother Jones.

The politicians in charge at the time, the evidence lays out, had their sights set on toppling Hussein and went about building the case to do so, trumping up intelligence that they internally recognized was shaky and downplaying the problems that other experts thought they'd confront upon invasion.

"'Politicians' is a pretty broad category," Perle said, when asked if they got out over their proverbial skis. "Some undoubtedly did, and others didn’t."

He doesn't concede that motives were improper in 2002. Instead, he looks at the decision to invade like a decision to purchase insurance. Countries, like people, must plan for worst-case scenarios. Getting rid of Hussein was like taking out a flood policy for your home.

"The point I’ve tried hard to make, and obviously is not widely accepted, is the idea of managing risk," said Perle.

It just so happens that, in this case, the home was in a place where it doesn't rain and the insurance policy had a deceptive, and very costly, adjustable rate.

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