As Iraq slips further into chaos, the war's neoconservative boosters
have turned sharply on the Bush administration, charging that their
grand designs have been undermined by White House incompetence. In a
series of exclusive interviews, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman,
David Frum, and others play the blame game with shocking frankness.
Target No. 1: the president himself.
by David Rose VF.COM November 3, 2006
Richard Perle. /Photograph by Nigel Parry./
I remember sitting with Richard Perle in his suite at London's Grosvenor
House hotel and receiving a private lecture on the importance of
securing victory in Iraq. "Iraq is a very good candidate for democratic
reform," he said. "It won't be Westminster overnight, but the great
democracies of the world didn't achieve the full, rich structure of
democratic governance overnight. The Iraqis have a decent chance of
succeeding." Perle seemed to exude the scent of liberation, as well as a
whiff of gunpowder. It was February 2003, and Operation Iraqi Freedom,
the culmination of his long campaign on behalf of regime change in Iraq,
was less than a month away.
Three years later, Perle and I meet again at his home outside
Washington, D.C. It is October, the worst month for U.S. casualties in
Iraq in almost two years, and Republicans are bracing for losses in the
upcoming midterm elections. As he looks into my eyes, speaking slowly
and with obvious deliberation, Perle is unrecognizable as the confident
hawk who, as chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board Advisory
Committee, had invited the exiled Iraqi dissident Ahmad Chalabi to its
first meeting after 9/11. "The levels of brutality that we've seen are
truly horrifying, and I have to say, I underestimated the depravity,"
Perle says now, adding that total defeat—an American withdrawal that
leaves Iraq as an anarchic "failed state"—is not yet inevitable but is
becoming more likely. "And then," says Perle, "you'll get all the mayhem
that the world is capable of creating."
According to Perle, who left the Defense Policy Board in 2004, this
unfolding catastrophe has a central cause: devastating dysfunction
within the administration of President George W. Bush. Perle says, "The
decisions did not get made that should have been. They didn't get made
in a timely fashion, and the differences were argued out endlessly.… At
the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible.… I don't
think he realized the extent of the opposition within his own
administration, and the disloyalty."
George W. Bush. /Photograph by Annie Leibovitz./
Perle goes so far as to say that, if he had his time over, he would not
have advocated an invasion of Iraq: "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."
Having spoken with Perle, I wonder: What do the rest of the pro-war
neoconservatives think? If the much caricatured "Prince of Darkness" is
now plagued with doubt, how do his comrades-in-arms feel? I am
particularly interested in finding out because I interviewed many
neocons before the invasion and, like many people, found much to admire
in their vision of spreading democracy in the Middle East.
I expect to encounter disappointment. What I find instead is despair,
and fury at the incompetence of the Bush administration the
neoconservatives once saw as their brightest hope.
To David Frum, the former White House speechwriter who co-wrote Bush's
2002 State of the Union address that accused Iraq of being part of an
"axis of evil," it now looks as if defeat may be inescapable, because
"the insurgency has proven it can kill anyone who cooperates, and the
United States and its friends have failed to prove that it can protect
them." This situation, he says, must ultimately be blamed on "failure at
the center"—starting with President Bush.
Kenneth Adelman, a lifelong neocon activist and Pentagon insider who
served on the Defense Policy Board until 2005, wrote a famous op-ed
article in /The Washington Post/ in February 2002, arguing: "I believe
demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a
cakewalk." Now he says, "I just presumed that what I considered to be
the most competent national-security team since Truman was indeed going
to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams
in the post-war era. Not only did each of them, individually, have
enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional."
Dick Cheney. /Photograph by Annie Leibovitz./
Fearing that worse is still to come, Adelman believes that
neoconservatism itself—what he defines as "the idea of a tough foreign
policy on behalf of morality, the idea of using our power for moral good
in the world"—is dead, at least for a generation. After Iraq, he says,
"it's not going to sell." And if he, too, had his time over, Adelman
says, "I would write an article that would be skeptical over whether
there would be a performance that would be good enough to implement our
policy. The policy can be absolutely right, and noble, beneficial, but
if you can't execute it, it's useless, just useless. I guess that's what
I would have said: that Bush's arguments are absolutely right, but you
know what, you just have to put them in the drawer marked can't do. And
that's very different from let's go."
I spend the better part of two weeks in conversations with some of the
most respected voices among the neoconservative elite. What I discover
is that none of them is optimistic. All of them have regrets, not only
about what has happened but also, in many cases, about the roles they
played. Their dismay extends beyond the tactical issues of whether
America did right or wrong, to the underlying question of whether
exporting democracy is something America knows how to do.
I will present my findings in full in the January issue of /Vanity
Fair,/ which will reach newsstands in New York and L.A. on December 6
and nationally by December 12. In the meantime, here is a brief survey
of some of what I heard from the war's remorseful proponents.
*Richard Perle:* "In the administration that I served [Perle was an
assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan], there was a
one-sentence description of the decision-making process when consensus
could not be reached among disputatious departments: 'The president
makes the decision.' [Bush] did not make decisions, in part because the
machinery of government that he nominally ran was actually running him.
The National Security Council was not serving [Bush] properly. He
regarded [then National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice] as part of
Donald Rumsfeld. /Photograph by Annie Leibovitz./
*Michael Ledeen, American Enterprise Institute freedom scholar:* "Ask
yourself who the most powerful people in the White House are. They are
women who are in love with the president: Laura [Bush], Condi, Harriet
Miers, and Karen Hughes."
*Frank Gaffney, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan
and founder of the Center for Security Policy:* "[Bush] doesn't in fact
seem to be a man of principle who's steadfastly pursuing what he thinks
is the right course. He talks about it, but the policy doesn't track
with the rhetoric, and that's what creates the incoherence that causes
us problems around the world and at home. It also creates the sense that
you can take him on with impunity."
*Kenneth Adelman:* "The most dispiriting and awful moment of the whole
administration was the day that Bush gave the Presidential Medal of
Freedom to [former C.I.A. director] George Tenet, General Tommy Franks,
and [Coalition Provisional Authority chief] Jerry [Paul] Bremer—three of
the most incompetent people who've ever served in such key spots. And
they get the highest civilian honor a president can bestow on anyone!
That was the day I checked out of this administration. It was then I
thought, There's no seriousness here, these are not serious people. If
he had been serious, the president would have realized that those three
are each directly responsible for the disaster of Iraq."
*David Frum:* "I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could
persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel
himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big
shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just
did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."
Condoleezza Rice. /Photograph by Annie Leibovitz./
*Michael Rubin, former Pentagon Office of Special Plans and Coalition
Provisional Authority staffer:* "Where I most blame George Bush is that
through his rhetoric people trusted him, people believed him. Reformists
came out of the woodwork and exposed themselves." By failing to match
his rhetoric with action, Rubin adds, Bush has betrayed Iraqi reformers
in a way that is "not much different from what his father did on
February 15, 1991, when he called the Iraqi people to rise up, and then
had second thoughts and didn't do anything once they did."
*Richard Perle:* "Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear
on this: They were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice
in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after
the downfall of the regime in Baghdad. I'm getting damn tired of being
described as an architect of the war. I was in favor of bringing down
Saddam. Nobody said, 'Go design the campaign to do that.' I had no
responsibility for that."
*Kenneth Adelman:* "The problem here is not a selling job. The problem
is a performance job.… Rumsfeld has said that the war could never be
lost in Iraq, it could only be lost in Washington. I don't think that's
true at all. We're losing in Iraq.… I've worked with [Rumsfeld] three
times in my life. I've been to each of his houses, in Chicago, Taos,
Santa Fe, Santo Domingo, and Las Vegas. I'm very, very fond of him, but
I'm crushed by his performance. Did he change, or were we wrong in the
past? Or is it that he was never really challenged before? I don't know.
He certainly fooled me."
*Eliot Cohen, director of the strategic-studies program at the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and member of the
Defense Policy Board:* "I wouldn't be surprised if what we end up
drifting toward is some sort of withdrawal on some sort of timetable and
leaving the place in a pretty ghastly mess.… I do think it's going to
end up encouraging various strands of Islamism, both Shia and Sunni, and
probably will bring de-stabilization of some regimes of a more
traditional kind, which already have their problems.… The best news is
that the United States remains a healthy, vibrant, vigorous society. So
in a real pinch, we can still pull ourselves together. Unfortunately, it
will probably take another big hit. And a very different quality of
leadership. Maybe we'll get it."
*David Rose* is a /Vanity Fair/ contributing editor.