RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Richard Perle's voice seemed to be everywhere - in op-eds, in interviews, warning of the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein and urging that the dictator be deposed. Those who argued for more time to let U.N. weapons inspectors finish their work he accused of appeasement.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Perle was close to then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and in March of 2003 - 10 years ago - he was chairman of the Pentagon's advisory committee, the Defense Policy Board.
MONTAGNE: Perle was a leading hawk among the most outspoken and influential champions of going to war in Iraq. All this week, we're marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion. We reached Perle at his home outside Washington, D.C. Richard Perle, thank you for joining us.
RICHARD PERLE: It's a pleasure.
MONTAGNE: It seems like you were stunningly sure of yourself and what you knew. And just let me read you one line from an interview you did with PBS's Frontline just weeks after September 11th, saying that the only questions were, was Saddam, quote, "in possession of weapons of mass destruction and does he pose a threat to the U.S.?" We now know that he didn't have weapons of mass destruction. What did you know at that point that made you so sure?
PERLE: Well, we had intelligence assessments from the CIA, from the Defense Intelligence Agency, from the State Department, from German intelligence, French intelligence, British intelligence, and they were all in agreement that Saddam possessed at least chemical and biological weapons and there was debate about what remnant existed of his one-time nuclear program.
MONTAGNE: But at the same time, the connection to the terrorist attacks on September 11th and al-Qaida, how to make that connection?
PERLE: Well, it isn't a connection in the sense that I think you've asked the question. Let me put it this way. When you wake up on September 11 and discover that you were vulnerable in a way that you never understood before and you ask yourself what could happen next? You do the obvious thing, or at least the administration did the obvious thing.
It made a list of potential threats, and on that list, the single most important potential threat was another attack with a weapon of mass destruction. So then you make a list of who has weapons of mass destruction and who might be motivated either to attack or enable someone else to attack the United States, and Iraq was clearly on that list. It's easy a decade later to say, well, it turned out that this fact or that presumption was wrong and we all now acknowledge that there was a great deal that was wrong in the assessments made then.
But at the time, you have to deal with the information that's available to you and you have to do what you believe is necessary to protect against that most horrendous of possibilities which was an attack involving hundreds of thousands of fatalities because chemical agents or biological agents were employed.
MONTAGNE: Although, as it turned out, Saddam Hussein was hiding something and that was that he did not have these weapons because he was less concerned with the U.S. invading than he was concerned with his enemies in the neighborhood, like Iran, knowing he was bereft of the ability to really fight with them. Did that ever cross anyone's mind?
PERLE: Well, I can only tell you about my mind and I'm sorry to say I didn't achieve that insight. But you're quite right. It is certainly a plausible explanation for why Saddam deliberately led us to believe he had and was concealing weapons of mass destruction. It's a terrible irony because if he thought that lie was protective, it turned out to be highly destructive.
MONTAGNE: What would you say was the biggest blunder that the U.S. made in prosecuting this war?
PERLE: Oh, I think the biggest blunder was getting into an occupation after Saddam was driven out. The plan, as I understood it, was that we would turn things over immediately to Iraqis, to stand up an interim government. Instead, we blundered into an occupation in which we became the object of all the frustrations, understandable frustrations in the aftermath of an upheaval like the removal of a regime that had been around for 30 years.
So that was the seminal mistake. I don't think we will ever know how the subsequent conflict would have evolved if Iraqis had been in charge.
MONTAGNE: Richard Perle, let me ask you to speculate on the Arab Spring. Had there never been an invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, do you think Iraq would have been part of the Arab Spring, that Saddam Hussein would have been overthrown by his own people?
PERLE: Well, I'd like to think that the insurrection against the dictators of the Arab world would have included an insurrection against Saddam, but if I can just say this. We have been seriously remiss in not working with the opponents of these dictatorial regimes quietly at the earliest opportunity. So we now see the consequences in Syria, for example, where we still can't figure out who we should be working with and we're fearful of working with the opposition because we don't know it well enough. There's no excuse for that.
MONTAGNE: In a sense, this gets us back, though, to the question of Iraq, which is one thing that would have happened had Iraq joined the Arab Spring, was regardless of how it went, having Iraqis rise up against their own dictator would have meant that they owned it.
PERLE: That's sort of what I'm saying to you. We were in a position to remove Saddam and we did it. We did it in three weeks. Now, you can say we left it broken. I think we left it open for opportunity and then we closed our own opening by moving into an occupation.
MONTAGNE: Just one final question. There's no question you were a great proponent of going into Iraq and getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Ten years later, nearly 5,000 Americans troops dead, thousands more with wounds, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead or wounded; when you think about this, was it worth it?
PERLE: I've got to say I think that is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can't a decade later go back and say, well, we shouldn't have done that.
MONTAGNE: Richard Perle, thank you very much.
PERLE: Sure. All the best.
MONTAGNE: Richard Perle was chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board from 2001 to 2003 right up until the invasion of Iraq. He is currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.