One of the leading neoconservative intellectuals of the last half century, Richard Perle was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy in the Reagan administration and Chairman of the Defense Policy Board under George W. Bush from 2001-2003. He was interviewed for Fathom by Alan Mendoza, the Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society.
Part 1: Early Influences
Alan Mendoza: Richard, you’ve been a pivotal figure in the US defence and foreign policy establishment for four decades now, but why don’t we start right at the very beginning before you arrived in Washington DC. I’m curious to know who were the early influencers on your thought?
Richard Perle: Well, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California I thought that I wanted an academic career, with a specialization in English Literature. The curriculum required you to take other subjects, so one day I wandered into a class on International Relations and ended up never looking back. The class was taken by a most marvellous teacher – Professor Ross Berkes – who would follow an argument not necessarily to the conclusion he wanted to reach, but to a logical conclusion. This methodology caused me to rethink everything I thought I knew as a young person observing the world.
AM: So that explains your desire to pursue a career in that field?
RP: Not entirely. At the same time I got to know a remarkable man named Albert Wohlstetter, who was a brilliant strategist working on questions of national security strategy. We became friends because I had been a classmate of his daughter. So between the professor at the University and Albert’s friends and associates, who were working in the same field, I became very interested in International Relations questions. I then went off to the equivalent of a junior year abroad to the LSE, where I had an extraordinary tutor in the form of Hedley Bull, who had written a seminal book on arms controls. So by time I was a graduate student I had made the transition from wanting to teach English, to wanting to teach international relations, but I was still thinking in terms of an academic career.
I was working on my doctoral thesis, when I got a phone call one day from Albert who enquired whether I would be interested in coming to Washington for a few days to conduct some interviews for a committee that he had set up together with Paul Nitze and Dean Acheson. Albert had asked another of his students join me, and this colleague turned out to be Paul Wolfowitz. So Paul and I came to Washington in the spring of 1969 for a week to do some interviews with Senators and Senate staffers on ballistic missile defence. I hit it off with one particular Senator, ‘Scoop’ Jackson, who candidly told me at the end of the week that I was never going to understand the subject until I had some practical experience. So I ended up joining his office for some work experience and was still there eleven years later when I finally left his staff.
AM: That is quite an internship! I am of course aware of the intense admiration and respect that ‘Scoop’ was held in by his staff, colleagues and friends, but could you put this into some context?
RP: Let’s put it this way – of all the important thinkers on international security matters I have had the privilege of knowing, the most significant influence on me was ‘Scoop’ Jackson and the 11 years I spent on his staff. I think the percentage of what I have learned over the years that I learned from Scoop is so high that it’s inestimable. He was an extraordinary man.
AM: And did ‘Scoop’s’ own beliefs end up transforming your own perspective on international relations theory and your own outlook?
RP: Prior to joining ‘Scoop’ I considered myself as falling into the Realist camp of international relations. I didn’t have any illusions about the functioning of the United Nations as a way of protecting us or our civilization. I think I understood the limitations of international law, in a world in which there is no enforcing authority and states do pretty much what they want. I believed in the importance of military capability, particularly in the world we were then living in, the Cold War world. And ‘Scoop’ was a Realist too, although it is popular nowadays to refer to people like ‘Scoop’ and myself as ideologues. This always struck me as odd because the people who called us ideologues – or the modern variant of neoconservative – were frequently people who believed that world government was around the corner and that if we only ever followed the prescriptions of international law, the world would be a safer and better place. In short, ideologues who had no notion of the real world. I think that continues pretty much to this day. And so in ‘Scoop’ I found someone who correctly understood the pivotal importance of the United States and its allies in the struggle to maintain Western civilisation in the face of the many threats it has faced, whether from the fascism and communism of his day, to Islamism today. And ‘Scoop’ also believed that in deciding how to deal with other countries, it was not only relevant but essential to look at how those countries dealt with their own citizens. And in fact you can pretty much tell by how nations treat their own citizens, whether they should be trusted and whether they pose a threat to you, or might in the future.
AM: Let’s take things to a practical level then. To look at the ‘Scoop’ years in this way, what did he open your eyes to? What were the possibilities that you saw through the way that he operated that you felt could be emulated in your own later career?
RP: ‘Scoop’ was almost unique among his colleagues. Today it would create absolute mutiny amongst his colleagues, but there were a few figures in the Senate in those days for whom matters of principal were sufficiently important that they would go to enormous lengths to act consistently with their own principals, and to herd colleagues in the same direction. At the same time, he was an artful politician with enormous influence in the Senate. That influence derived from his deep personal knowledge, and secondly his capacity to understand the interests of others beyond what he himself was pursuing and to form coalitions that captured enough of what individual senators had in common to make something happen. It’s an art. It requires someone who listens. It can’t be done by huge staffs as it has to be handled personally. So, I learned a lot about the mechanics of putting together a coalition and achieving a result.
AM: Do you have a specific example of where you were able to apply this knowledge?
RP: Many. But the most obvious is the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, where I wrote a piece of legislation that sought to pressure the Soviets into allowing people to leave the Soviet Union. It’s often wrongly described as an amendment that tied trade benefits for the Soviet Union to emigration for Jews. In fact, Jews are not mentioned anywhere in the Amendment and the Amendment was universal in its application, although in practice there was a strong Jewish movement for emigration. That was a two and a half year legislative battle and you learn a lot in the course of that, not least how to work with others of diverging views in pursuit of a common goal.
AM: Given how long that particular piece of legislation stood for, I think we can see the strength of that coalition you helped form. Was there any other secret to Scoop’s success? We have seen any number of smooth operators in the Senate over the years, but very few emerge with the reputation of a ‘Scoop’ Jackson.
RP: Yes, I think so. ‘Scoop’s’ activity was intensely intellectual in a way that most political activity on the Senate staff or even in the Executive is not nowadays. He was Chairman of a sub-committee of the Committee on Government Operations that looked at national security and international organisations. Despite the fact that it was a sub-committee to which legislation was never referred, ‘Scoop’ ended up using it to great effect for the purposes of education. We held hearing after hearing on subjects that were technically the responsibility of the Foreign Relations Committee. But because we had no power to legislate, Senator William Fulbright, who headed that committee, didn’t pay any attention to us even though he would have vehemently disagreed with our approach had he realised what we were up to. People like Bernard Lewis, James Schlesinger, Richard Pipes, Leonard Shapiro and Robert Conquest first testified in Washington at ‘Scoop’s’ sub-committee. With the simple purpose of educating people listening about ideas, the nature of the Soviet Union, the Middle East and how we can use military power. You don’t see much of this nowadays; it was a real public service. And so while people like Fulbright were on the floor of the Senate finding excuses for every Soviet misdemeanour, we were exposing people to the wisdom of some great thinkers in this area, and I like to think that over time that influence was real. Take someone like ‘Pat’ Moynihan. ‘Pat’ was an intellectual in his own right when he came to the Senate, but because he respected ‘Scoop’s’ process and rigorous approach, he never differed from ‘Scoop’ on foreign policy matters while ‘Scoop’ was alive. We all recognised that this was part of a larger struggle; the struggle to reform people about the nature of the Soviet Union, which everyone now thinks was commonly understood, but in fact it was deeply controversial at the time.
Part 2: From Henry Jackson to Ronald Reagan
AM: Having spent so long with ‘Scoop’ and in such a close association what accounted for your eventual departure from his office to join the Reagan administration?
RP: ‘Scoop’ was more than a boss and mentor – he was like a father. My own father had died two years after I began working for ‘Scoop’. But I wasn’t the only Henry Jackson adoptee. I mean everyone who worked for him became family. To this day, 30 years after his death, there is an annual gathering of ‘Scoop’s Troops’ in Washington DC and 200-300 people turn up, including many who went on to take some pretty important jobs like Elliott Abrams, Doug Feith and Tom Foley. And my own departure from his office showed the measure of the man. ‘Scoop’ himself suggested that I leave because he felt that I could go on to create some important initiatives in the policy world, but that it would be a mistake for me to spend too long on the Senate staff even though he himself would have benefited from my not leaving.
AM: Did he smooth the way for your entry into the administration? You were a Democrat after all.
RP: I still am! Reagan’s team reached out to me. In fact, there are stories and I believe they are true, that Reagan wanted ‘Scoop’ to come into the administration as Secretary of Defence or State, but Reagan had a kitchen cabinet and they were horrified at the prospect of a senior Democrat coming in, so he didn’t do that. In my case, I hadn’t intended to join, but friends of mine wound up going into various positions and so I was invited to the Pentagon to take a specific job, which I turned down. But the Pentagon leadership were very eager to have me come in so I said that if they could create a new position and give it specific responsibility and authority and make it a presidential appointment, I would accept. I never dreamed they would agree, but they did and that’s how I wound up as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Policy.
AM: Created for you, by you.
RP: It comprised my list of areas I was interested in and it excluded those I wasn’t interested in. So it was an ideal job.
AM: That is quite a start to an Administration career. Looking back on those years, how much were you able to drive the Administration agenda seeing as you set up the post, and what would you class as your major achievements over the six years you were there?
RP: Well it turned out that my general thinking was very close to Cap Weinberger’s, which was helpful seeing as I had some specialized knowledge that he didn’t have, for example in the arms control area. That was fortunate because I was a bit of a maverick in the Pentagon. I didn’t like the early morning meetings which Weinberger had every morning and which – after a temporary absence caused by a brush with Hepatitis occasioned by some raw seafood Colin Powell had turned down in Rome but which I ate – I permanently excused myself from. But Cap and I hit it off, and that provided me a launching pad for my own ideas.
AM: And if you could encapsulate that within the big picture of Reagan’s achievements, you would say that you were responsible for…?
RP: Well, the thing that I am proudest of is giving some support to Reagan’s vision that we could defeat the Soviet Union. Reagan rejected the assumption that the Soviets were there for ever and it was our responsibility to just get along with them. He considered the Soviet Union an evil empire that was vulnerable, and he was ready to fight it. And this distinguished him from his predecessors, all of whom to one degree or another had embraced ideas – sometimes called co-existence, sometimes called détente – which always had as a central theme that it was the principal objective of American foreign policy to find a way to get along with the Soviet Union. Reagan’s view was we don’t want to get along with them, we want to eliminate them. And he did. I believe that when people get past the understandable partisan reluctance to acknowledge Ronald Reagan’s contribution to the end of the Cold War in a few years’ time, I think it will be generally recognized that his policies and his strategy were effective in bringing down the Soviet Union. It wasn’t Gorbachev who wanted to bring down the Soviet Union. He didn’t; he wanted to protect it and preserve it. So that was the main contribution, changing dramatically American Cold War policy and within that there were lots of huge challenges: getting missiles deployed in Europe at a time when the NATO alliance was threatened by the possibility that it might fail to do that after having declared that it was essential; confronting Soviet proxies in Latin America and elsewhere; impeding the flow of advanced technology to the Soviets who were then reusing it for military purposes; helping the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to make the Soviet presence there untenable, and changing our attitude towards arms control from the kind of naïve view that agreements were always good, because they at least appeared to indicate cooperation, to recognizing that arms control is another dimension of the arms struggle and that the thing to focus on is whether an agreement advances our interests or not.
Part 3: On George W. Bush
AM: Can I jump in? Reagan wanted to defeat the Soviet Union in a way that previous Presidents had not, so the Administration’s ideology helped dictate how it reacted to and drove events. Perhaps you can see where I am going here? If we fast forward to your next time in office, we come to the George W. Bush administration. A lot has been made of the role of ideology within the Bush administration, the ideas of the President, or more to the point the fact that the President is often depicted as not having been ideological and was then in the grip of ideologically minded advisers, who swayed his views. How true was that?
RP: What people sometimes have in mind when they describe the Bush administration in that way is to picture a group of ideologues or neoconservatives whispering in Bush’s ear and advising him to make war in order to bring democracy to the world. That is complete rubbish from beginning to end. First of all, there were virtually no neoconservatives whispering in Bush’s ear. The people whispering in Bush’s ear were the Vice President who was a traditional conservative republican, Colin Powell, who was anything but a neoconservative, Don Rumsfeld who was in no sense a neoconservative, and Condi Rice, who not only was not a neoconservative but was not very hospitable towards neoconservatives intellectually. So it’s simply not true. You can find here and there in the administration people who would describe themselves as neoconservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz Deputy Secretary of Defence or Elliott Abrams, but I’m afraid that the truth is that neither Wolfowitz nor Elliott had a huge influence on the administration. Bush himself was by no means a neoconservative. Of course, there is a nastier version of this suggestion, which states that the neoconservatives were acting on behalf of the state of Israel. That is even more ludicrous than the milder form of the virus. First of all the policy that is referred to usually by people who take that position is the invasion of Iraq, to which the Israelis were opposed. I know they were opposed to it, because I discussed it with any number of Israelis on any number of occasions, and the last thing they wanted to do was attack Iraq. They were content with Saddam Hussein, who they considered to be caged or contained in the same way that the Bush administration and its predecessor described the Iraq situation right up until 9/11.
In fact, 9/11 is the explanation for the Bush administration’s foreign policy. It was an event of such proportions that it affected everything the administration did after that, and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the main concern on the part of the President and the Vice President – and in those days Cheney had a great deal of influence – was to stop the next attack. They were quite sure we were vulnerable to other attacks and were worried that the next attack, unlike 9/11, might involve weapons of mass destruction, nerve gas, biological instruments, even nuclear material. So the remaining 7½ of Bush’s 8 years in office were spent worrying about the next attack and attempting to protect the United States against that next attack.
AM: Was the fact that Bush’s foreign policy was reactive responsible for the lack of planning in some of the subsequent foreign policy operations that took place?
RP: Well it certainly was reactive; it’s not as if someone dusted off a long term plan. Indeed, any long term plan that looked like what we actually did would have been inexcusable, because had we had the time to think it through in a considered fashion, we wouldn’t have carried out what circumstance compelled us to. And yet, let’s not forget that the military aspect of Iraq went extraordinarily well; Baghdad fell in 22 days. What happened after that of course was a series of errors, one mistake after another. The main one – and the others are subsidiary to it – being the decision to act as an occupying power in Iraq. You can’t rewind history so I can’t prove that it could have evolved differently, but I would only observe that for 5 months after Baghdad fell, there was virtually no insurgency. All over Iraq people were pulling down statues of Saddam. We were largely accepted by the people who stood to lose the most when the regime collapsed, and we were largely regarded as having liberated the country. Even though many Iraqis believed we had done it for our own reasons and not to liberate them – and they had every reason to think that, because for all those years we had been quite content to leave Saddam in power, and that meant we didn’t have much moral authority – but even so the vast majority of them cheered when Saddam was driven out. I think we squandered an opportunity to help the Iraqis bring their own leaders, by an electoral process, into positions of authority. I thought then and I think now that we should have immediately set up a provisional or transitional Iraqi government, based on all elements of Iraqi society: Sunni, Shia, Kurds, North, South, and West. Had we done that, had we receded into a supporting role there while being physically present in Iraq with the agreement of an Iraqi administration, I think there is a reasonable chance that the insurgency might not have got off the ground.
AM: You made this argument strongly at the time? The edited view of history seems to suggest that there was little opposition to the eventual line taken.
RP: Yes I made it at the time, and I wasn’t alone; there were others. At the time I was Chairman of the Defence Policy Board – which is an organisation with little influence as it met only four times a year and didn’t have a staff – and people like Jim Woolsey, Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley and others very much agreed that we should turn things over right away to the Iraqis.
AM: But of course at the time, part of that turning over process would have required the grooming of new leaders. Ahmed Chalabi had been touted all over Washington DC at that time, as being the one man who could lead Iraq. Did you subscribe to that view?
RP: I was a big fan of Chalabi. He had run the Iraqi National Congress, which had managed to bring together all factions of Iraq, behind the common purpose of removing Saddam. Sadly we never gave them significant support, and we didn’t have in place ready at the moment that Saddam fell, a network that we knew well and were comfortable with. I would have been quite happy to see the Iraqi National Congress become the internal government of Iraq. They would have had to choose a leader from among their number. That might have been Chalabi, or it might not have been. It probably would have been, and that would have been my preference. But the idea that the debate in Washington was over installing Chalabi in the way we ended up installing Jerry Bremer is really quite wrong. That was no one’s concept. The problem was that the Department of State and the CIA were opposed to turning the government over to what they called the ‘externals’. Mainly because they didn’t like Chalabi. But they didn’t want to put it in that simple way so they said they didn’t like externals. Well sadly, the internal opponents of Saddam Hussein were dead. There were many millions who didn’t like Saddam but that was quite a different concept to an organised opposition to Saddam on the ground.
AM: So to draw this out, the main failure of Iraq was a failure to understand the reality of Iraq after years of oppression under Saddam?
RP: We did not understand Iraq. I’ll give you one small example. Geniuses in the administration decided that when we came into possession of a list of home telephone numbers of the Iraqi military leadership, that we should phone these people and tell them that if they came over to our side, they would be treated well. So a massive campaign was launched to do this. Arabic speakers were retained, and before the invasion these Generals started getting phone calls from people purporting to represent the liberators of the Iraq. And of course, without exception, the recipients of these calls all believed that this was Saddam Hussein trying to flush out disloyal Generals, so they all hung up the phone. They all said ‘I won’t have anything to do with this. I am loyal to Saddam Hussein’. Well the point of this is that you had to be completely ignorant about Iraq to think that a scheme like this could work.
AM: For better or worse, the Bush years have gone down, at least in contemporary history, as having been about wars. The War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, and the impact this had on relations with Europe, NATO and the wider world, with splits in the coalition of democratic states. Opponents of these policies never cease to claim that all of this could have been avoided. That this was a choice.
RP: I always thought it was a stupid cliché, that the decision to go into Iraq was a war of choice as opposed to a war of necessity. It was a war of choice, but the choice was Saddam’s and the same thing was true of Afghanistan. We offered the Afghans an opportunity to avoid any kind of conflict, by turning over bin Laden. When they didn’t turn over bin Laden the decision was made to go in. Remember that before we went into Afghanistan, the single largest source of economic assistance to the Taliban government in Afghanistan was the United States. So we weren’t looking for war with Afghanistan by any means. We went into Iraq in the belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which every western intelligence organisation believed, and that the alternative to going in was to hope that he didn’t find a way to either put weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists who would use them against us, or use them himself. And he had history of using them himself let’s not forget. So the equivalent of turning over bin Laden in the Iraq case to avoid invasion was to demonstrate that the stock piles of WMD that we knew he had possessed at one time no longer existed. There were ways to document that, because as Hans Blix put it, nerve gas is not marmalade, meaning you have UN records of accounts of what has been created from chemicals and component systems going into Iraq, and what has been destroyed. We knew some of his stocks had been destroyed, but there was a gap in our record systems, and so the logical conclusion that was drawn, even though it turned out to be wrong, was that the rest had been hidden. Of course Saddam did nothing to disabuse us, either publically or privately, of the belief that he had weapons of mass destruction even though he was invited to. And had he provided convincing evidence, we would have never invaded.
AM: I think that’s the key point that really deserves to be put front and centre of discussions about the build up to the war. That had Saddam provided evidence of his compliance there couldn’t possible have been a casus belli.
RP: Quite. There remain all kinds of conspiracy theories about Iraq, one of which is that the neoconservatives had always wanted to get rid of Saddam and 9/11 provided them an excuse. It’s certainly true that if you look at letters urging the administration to remove Saddam before 9/11, many of the signatories were neoconservatives. However they all said the same thing; that Saddam was a threat because of his past behaviour but that we should work with the opposition to Saddam Hussein to bring about regime change, not that we should invade. The decision to go to war came only after 9/11 and in the specific context of Saddam’s refusal to provide evidence that he had abandoned weapons of mass destruction.
Part 4: On Barack Obama
AM: Barack Obama campaigned on being the anti-Bush in foreign policy terms. Bearing in mind what you have said about the realities of the Bush years as opposed to the perception of them, do you think the Obama administration has drawn the wrong conclusions from that period of recent history for its own foreign policy prescriptions?
RP: I think the most important lesson from the Bush years has really not been learned. And that is if you don’t have a political strategy for dealing with your adversaries before you reach the option of last resort – the use of force – then your overall approach will end up being more costly and less effective. So we should have, but we still don’t, have a strategy for working with the potential opponents of unpleasant regimes. While some of what we can do in that regard must be clandestine in order to protect the dissidents involved, we shouldn’t be shy about saying we are prepared to work with those who want to achieve regime change in places that we regard as particularly menacing. The result of our not doing this, to take the most interesting case going forward, is likely to be that we will end up facing a nuclear Iran or an Iran on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, with only military means remaining to prevent this, because we haven’t even attempted to engineer a political regime change. This mistake isn’t unique to Obama or Bush, but to the Clinton years as well.
AM: But Obama is in charge right now and therefore has the capacity to read this interview and reverse course if he so wishes. What is stopping him?
RP: I think he is intensely ideological, and a very shrewd politician in the sense that he has gone to great lengths not to give voice to many of his convictions because he knows that they are outside the mainstream of American values. So for example, I think that he believes that the US has exerted too much power and too much influence in the world and that he is quite happy seeing the US play a more modest role, a shrinking role if you will. Whereas other presidents might have lamented the decline of American influence, I think Obama welcomes it.
AM: But if we look at the targets Obama set himself, he must objectively see that he has fallen short regardless of ideology. Outreach to the Muslim world, persuading Iran to negotiate an end to its nuclear program, resetting relations with Russia – all of these initiatives have failed so where does he go from here in the midst of turmoil of the Arab Spring, an Iran on the nuclear brink and a resurgently aggressive Russia under Putin. Where does Obama go from here?
RP: Well he doesn’t seem to be a man open to learning from lessons or undertaking mid-term corrections. He’s certainly not saying that maybe the reset with Russia was not effective, so we need to rethink our strategy towards Russia. He’s certainly not saying our policy toward Egypt is not working and there is a concern that an autocratic Islamist regime will replace a secular autocratic regime and we should be concerned about that. He’s taking an awfully long time to rethink the way we handle Syria, where as time has gone on the likelihood that the leadership of the opposition will be composed of people we want to be associated with has diminished dramatically. So I don’t see any serious rethinking. He hasn’t brought in any people with fresh ideas. He’s got a new Secretary of Defence who has no ideas at all. So I’m not optimistic about the second term. But I didn’t like Bush’s second term either. I thought that the administration deteriorated seriously during the second term. Bush never really understood how to be President in my view. He thought it was enough to give a speech and that action would follow. But if you don’t really control the institutions that underpin the government Presidential declarations are nothing more than declarations, because it takes tremendous effort, resources and coordination, to implement policy, particularly far reaching and new policies, and Bush paid almost no attention to underpin his approach in this way. He was surrounded by people who didn’t agree with him and felt perfectly free to pursue their view rather than his because he didn’t insist on his view prevailing. And it was not a successful Presidency as a result, especially in the second term.
AM: To draw an analogy from an earlier point you made about Reagan, this is therefore one area where Obama seemingly scores higher in your estimation than Bush, seeing as both Reagan and Obama understood how to handle executive authority, at least in terms of directing its application.
RP: Obama is far more effective as President than Bush was.
Part 5: On the Arab Spring
AM: Looking forwards, what should the Western policy community be looking to do, given the chaotic situation in the Middle East? We’ve got the Syria conflict. We’ve got the continued threat of a nuclear Iran looming over us. We’ve got the rise of Sunni extremism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists beyond them. How should we be dealing with this?
RP: Well, unfortunately we’re not starting from a clean slate. We’re not saying if we could change things in the Middle East, how would we go about changing it. If we’d asked that question twenty years ago, I think we might well have said that in the long term, the autocratic regimes we had gotten used to were vulnerable, and more importantly, to return to a theme from ‘Scoop’ Jackson, we shouldn’t countenance them. By the way, I think parenthetically it was one thing to have slept with the devil during the Cold War. We dealt with countries that we didn’t much like, because the exigencies of the Cold War forced us to choose between a lesser and a greater evil. The Cold War liberated us in many ways, because we no longer faced a threat of that magnitude and it should have freed us up to think about how the world would change and how it should change and design some strategies accordingly. So we should have been thinking about what happens in countries like Egypt or Iran or Libya, but we didn’t. Partly it’s the overwhelming power of the Westphalian concept; we just accept governments as they come to us, legitimate or illegitimate. But at any given moment, we should have been able to identify our friends who were living in opposition to autocratic regimes. If we don’t have a list of such friends, we are not doing our job, because it’s impossible to believe that there are not within these regimes decent people who would like to shake them off. One of our tasks should have be to find them and work with them, but we didn’t do that. So now in the Arab Spring, there’s the terrible prospect that regimes that were awful to their own people, but pretty harmless beyond that, are now going to become regimes that are awful to their own people, but dangerous beyond, and which share a common radical Islamist ideology that will lead them from bad to worse.
AM: Are you saying it’s too late to do anything about it?
RP: Well it’s certainly late. It’s never too late, but it’s always more costly to do it later rather than earlier. So now you have to reverse or find ways to mitigate the worst that’s happened. Like the emergence of a worsening regime in Egypt. Could we have shaped the emergence of an alternative to Mubarak if we’d been in there years earlier? I think we would have had a shot at it.
AM: Well, given that we’re not in that position, realistically what can we do today in your view?
RP: I think we have to do belatedly what we should have done before, and that is identify the people who we can work with and do what we can to help them acquire influence and power. There are some places where we can still do that, there are others where we should be doing it, even though it’s after an upheaval. We should have a pretty good idea now of who the secular western oriented leaders are in Egypt and what can be done to help them. The guiding principal should be to identify and help those people whose values are pretty much aligned with our own.
AM: You’ve brought us very nicely to a concluding point. It seems to me there was a time when you yourself and the administration you served in did understand this and wanted to identify people who could topple the enemy in the Cold War. In earlier cases after the Second World War, we actively intervened to influence situations to an extent almost unimaginable today, in terms of buying elections in Italy and helping turf out Communists in France, in the unquestionable belief that this had to happen. So ultimately my final question to you is how much of what’s happened in the Middle East is essentially about ‘us’, rather than about ‘them’? How much is our world today one of our making as a result of our own changing will and desire to shape the world versus the alternative of sitting back and letting events shape us?
RP: It’s very unpopular nowadays to say that we should be prepared to intervene and that there are a multiplicity of ways we’re capable of intervening in order to produce outcomes that are more to our liking. The intellectual community and the liberal community find this abhorrent. They often characterize it as imperialism, as if we have no right to defend ourselves or as if the right to defend ourselves is nothing more than the right to respond in exactly the same way we are struck and only after we are struck. I think a broadly based defence of countries, and more broadly of western civilization, has to contemplate the full range of interventions at which we are capable, the least desirable of which is a military force. But if we don’t consider seriously all interventions short of force, we will be left only with force or acquiescence, which is about where we are now in the case I cited earlier of Iran. We’ve lost all these years in which we could have pursued regime change in Iran and we may now be approaching the point where we either accept a nuclear Iran or have to use force to prevent it. That’s exactly the kind of situation that our long term policy should help us avoid.