Predictably, the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is being marked with zeal by national media and Washington punditry. Is Iraq better today, five year’s after the U.S. intervention? Will the next president be able to extract the country from the mess? What are the lessons learned? On these and dozens of other questions, critics and unrepentant hardliners are spilling countless pages of ink, but few with the same chutzpah as some neoconservative ideologues who played a central role in orchestrating the policy initiatives and advocacy campaigns that helped lead the country into the war in the first place.
A good example of the diverging opinions on display this week—as well as of the remarkably widespread attention being given to neoconservative views in established media—is the New York Times’ influential “Outlook” section, which on Sunday published the views of “nine experts on military and foreign affairs,” who were asked “to comment on the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wished they had considered in the prewar debate.” Of the nine experts, two were serving in the military at the time of the invasion, two were war skeptics (including Anthony Cordesman, who memorably called the notion that the Iraq War would democratize the Middle East “neo-crazy”), and five were public boosters of the war. The war boosters were former presidential envoy to post-invasion Iraq L. Paul Bremer III; Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution; and Frederick Kagan, Danielle Pletka, and Richard Perle, three fellows from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a prominent neoconservative institution whose writers served as a vanguard in the effort to push the United States to invade Iraq after the 9/11 terrorists attacks.
Of these three AEI contributors, Perle is most intimately associated with the war; he championed the decision to invade Iraq from his perch as chairman of Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board during the first years of the George W. Bush presidency. Kagan and Pletka, however, have also played important roles. Kagan, who became formally affiliated with AEI well after the occupation began and whose brother Robert cofounded the Project for the New American Century, coauthored an influential AEI policy document in late 2006 that laid out the argument for what would later be termed by the Bush administration as the “surge” in Iraq. Pletka helped oversee creation of an AEI-led study group called the Iraq Planning Group, one objective of which was to counteract the influence of the James Baker-led Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan, administration-appointed panel that argued for increasing diplomatic exchanges with Syria and Iran in an to resolve the problems in Iraq, among other things.
In their “Outlook” contributions, of the three AEI fellows only Pletka admits she may have been mistaken in a key assumption—that “all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well”—an assumption, incidentally, that was in any event unlikely central to her support for the war. But confirming Jacob Heilbrunn’s thesis that neoconservatives always believe “they were right,” Perle’s contribution is, predictably, pure chutzpah, a rewriting of history that defies virtually everything that is known about the decisions on Iraq and the way they were taken in the early days of the occupation.
For those who aren’t fully acquainted with the meaning of chutzpah, it is a Yiddish word that is often loosely translated as “audacity.” Legend has it, however, the word was first used to describe the impudence of a man who kills his father and mother and then throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he’s an orphan. It is this later meaning that comes closest to encapsulating Perle’s attitudes toward a war he once so vigorously championed.
Perle lays the primary blame for the failure of the occupation neither on Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, nor on anyone in the Pentagon—not on Donald Rumsfeld, not on Paul Wolfowitz, and definitely not on his protege, Douglas Feith, who owed his job as undersecretary for policy to Perle’s personal intervention with Rumsfeld. Rather, the occupation failed, according to Perle, as a result of the decisions of senior officials like Secretary of State Colin Powell, then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and intelligence director George Tenet. According to virtually every other account, these officials were consistently ignored or marginalized both in the run-up to the war and in the occupation’s early days.
Perle writes that Rice, Powell, and Tenet “reversed” a plan to “turn Iraq over to Iraqis to begin the daunting process of nation building” and, remarkably, goes on to partially excuse Bremer himself, insisting that he “did his best to make a foolish policy work.” Bremer, however, has written and testified several times that his orders for policy shifts came directly through the Pentagon command—from Rumsfeld down through Feith.
And, of course, one of the occupation’s most controversial and destructive policies—de-Baathification—was virtually hatched at AEI, where it was championed most strongly by Perle’s own AEI associates, including Pletka, Michael Rubin, and Reuel Marc Gerecht.
In fairness to Perle, he has long maintained that the occupation would have gone perfectly well had Washington first created a government-in-exile under the leadership of his friend, Ahmad Chalabi, and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which in Perle’s fantastic view would then have taken over the country after U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad. And, indeed, it was Wolfowitz, apparently with Cheney’s okay (thus circumventing Powell, Rice, Tenet, and Bush himself), who gave the go ahead for Chalabi and some 700 of his “Free Iraqi Forces” to be flown into the country in the early days of the invasion, presumably to take on precisely that role. “I was astonished (and dismayed) that we did not turn to well-established and broadly representative opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime to assume the responsibilities of an interim government while preparing for elections,” writes Perle, in an apparent reference to the INC and Chalabi. (As documented by reporters on the ground—though ignored by Perle—Chalabi’s “Free Iraqi Forces,” which he promised would restore order to a chaotic Baghdad in mid-April, quickly lost whatever discipline they had after grabbing and securing various prime parcels of real estate that could be useful to Chalabi’s political and financial ambitions.)
The notion that Chalabi, whose party famously failed to win a single seat in Iraq’s last elections, was either “well-established” or “broadly representative” appears utterly ludicrous in retrospect. And the fact that Perle’s friend may have been more than inclined to help Iran assert its post-war interests in Iraq—or may even have been an agent of Iran—seems still never to have penetrated his otherwise vivid imagination. Yet, according to Aram Rosten, Chalabi’s biographer, Chalabi’s main Iranian interlocutor just before and after the invasion was a top Quds Force general who in January was named by the Treasury Department as one of four individuals subject to U.S. financial sanctions for his role in “threatening peace and stability in Iraq.”
In any event, one has to ask why the Times (which, after admitting that its pre-war coverage of Iraqi WMD was misleading and journalistically irresponsible, then added a pro-war propagandist like William Kristol to its stable of regular columnists) would not only offer a disproportionate amount of space to people whose judgment with respect to Iraq and Iraqis has proved so disastrously wrong, and specifically in Perle’s specific case, to offer it to someone with such a long-standing and proven record of contempt for the historical record. I guess it shows that chutzpah has its rewards.