Richard Perle looks to be a genius at breaking, or at least bending, the rules, but recently he found one to live by: If you have to resign in disgrace, it’s best to do so in the opening weeks of a war.
Perle, who stepped down late last month as chairman of the Defense Policy Board — an unpaid panel of strategists and pooh-bahs who advise the seemingly unadvisable Donald Rumsfeld — didn’t have to slink away under cover of darkness. Indeed, he didn’t even have to leave. Though he’s acknowledged representing a number of concerns with crucial business pending before the Defense Department, he continues to sit on the panel, having forfeited only his right to gavel it to order.
A senior figure among the neoconservative intellectuals and polemicists currently bidding to take over the world, and among the wheeler-dealers who exploit their government connections for big bucks, Perle personifies almost everything that’s wrong with Washington today. Somehow, he manages both to lack all conviction and yet to be filled with passionate intensity. Perle gives both cynicism and idealism a bad name.
But Perle’s had a run of bad press over the past few weeks. First, The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh reported that Perle’s far-flung business ventures had led him to lunch with Adnan Kashoggi, the notorious Saudi arms dealer implicated in the BCCI scandal. Then The New York Times reported that Perle was representing Global Crossing, yet another telecom phenom gone bankrupt, in its efforts to persuade the Defense Department to drop its objections to its proposed sale to a Hong Kong firm. If the DOD, the FBI and other bean-counting bureaucrats could be convinced that the sale did not compromise national security, Perle stood to pocket a nice $600,000, on top of his $125,000 retainer. The day after Perle stepped down, the Times followed with a further report that Perle also represented Bernard Schwartz’s Loral Space and Communications firm, which the DOD has been upset with ever since some confidential rocket technology turned up in a Chinese missile that Loral had helped the Chinese government assemble.
Global Crossing and Loral are no strangers to scandal — if anything, they’re equal-opportunity corrupters. During the ’90s, Republicans complained that Schwartz was buying influence through his mega-donations to the Democrats. In the boom years, Global Crossing stock was a coin of the realm in Democratic circles; party chair Terry McAuliffe got in cheap on the way up and cashed out big before the stock went way down.
The surprise here isn’t the bipartisan proclivities of the contractors; it’s the truly stunning geostrategic flexibility of Perle. In the tight little world of neocon defense analysts, a world that Perle as much as anyone created, the two great threats to the general good — that is, to American power and the Likud Party — have long been the Chinese military and the regimes of the Arab world. Given that, Perle’s client list, particularly if Hersh is right, reads almost like an existential hedge fund — “If everything I believe is wrong, here’s a way to cover my bets.”
Except, Perle is a creature not of doubt, but of almost unimaginable hubris. No one has sounded more alarms about Chinese power and been so well paid by firms charged with enhancing it. No one has been so dismissive of the alliances that contained and defeated Soviet communism. No one has been so certain that the U.S. could transform the entire Arab world through military force; no one has offered more assurances that the war in Iraq would be a walk in the park. “Support for Saddam, including within his military organization, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder,” Perle declared last summer. Iraq was just the beginning, Perle told The American Prospect’s Robert Dreyfuss this winter; to other regimes in the region, “we could deliver a two-word message: You’re next.” Read Perle and you meet the unmediated id of neoconservatism.
Perle disputed Hersh’s story, threatening to sue him and for good measure calling Hersh a “terrorist.” When further allegations followed, Perle authored a wondrous Wall Street Journal column explaining why so many parties with potential conflicts of interest end up helping shape policy in the current administration. “The people best able to help are professionally involved in the businesses for which the [government] official is responsible: health professionals or pharmaceutical company executives advising the Department of Health and Human Services, or energy company officials advising the Department of Energy.” This, I stress, he meant as a defense of Bush administration practice, not an attack on it.
Perle’s fingerprints are also all over the Pentagon’s designated government-in-waiting for postwar Iraq. He’s a longtime associate of Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Chalabi doesn’t have much support within the fissiparous Iraqi exile community, and is effectively unknown inside Iraq’s borders. In Perle and Defense Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, however, he has powerful supporters of his de facto campaign for post-Saddam Iraq’s presidency. Perle’s attraction to Chalabi is in part a function of Chalabi’s support for Israel. (Perle’s a backer of the right wing of the right-wing Likud Party, particularly close to Israeli Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu.) Indeed, Chalabi and the INC seem happy to toe the Bush line on almost any issue. For all we know, the first act of a Chalabi administration could be to support a tax cut on U.S. dividends.
It’s not at all clear by what democratic theory Perle and Wolfowitz claim the right to play a decisive role in Iraqi electoral politics. But then, it was never clear by what democratic theory Justices Rehnquist and Scalia claimed the right to proclaim a president of the United States.
It would take a lot more than the absence of a plausible theory to daunt Richard Perle, however. In his certitude that a unilateralist America should, must and, therefore, will prevail (a certitude that has plunked American soldiers into a far more hostile Iraq than Perle & Co. led them to expect), in his conviction that he can anoint the new leadership of Iraq, in his eagerness to represent high-paying clients who may be risks to American security, Richard Perle is the apotheosis of George W. Bush’s Washington. Conflicts of interest may trouble the schoolmarms, the rage of Iraqis may imperil the grunts, but Perle is made of sterner stuff: industrial-strength chutzpah, actually. Whaddya bet he gets his gavel back?