Richard Perle's Apologia

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The Wall Street Journal

Richard Perle's Apologia

Maybe next time the neocons will win.

Governing was always difficult for conservatives, but as they return to the opposition, they are rediscovering their skill at blame evasion.

After all, this is a movement that is most comfortable imagining itself as an outsider. This is a movement that whirls through the pages of recent history taking credit for everything good and feeding the grisly bits to its chosen scapegoats.

Take, for example, "Ambushed on the Potomac," a look back at the George W. Bush administration by Richard Perle that appears in the current issue of The National Interest.
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Mr. Perle is one of the best-known neoconservative foreign-policy intellectuals in Washington. He was an assistant secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan and the chairman of the Defense Policy Board in the early years of the Bush administration.

Unfortunately, a neoconservative foreign-policy guru is not exactly a respected calling these days. As early and influential cheerleaders for the Iraq war, neocons occupy a level on par with investment bankers and eviction specialists.

But in a remarkable bit of blame evasion, Mr. Perle steps forward to tell us why neocons like him can in no way be held responsible for the Bush administration's failures. In fact, they had nothing to do with it. He, he writes, has "been widely but wrongly depicted as deeply involved in the making of administration policy."

And neither were any of his ideas compromised in Iraq. "But about the many mistakes made in Iraq, one thing is certain: they had nothing to do with ideology," Mr. Perle writes. "They did not draw inspiration from or reflect neoconservative ideas and they were not the product of philosophical or ideological influences outside the government."

That's a sweeping denial. But one wonders how any human act can be completely free of "philosophical or ideological influence," and, moreover, how Mr. Perle can possibly know that neoconservative ideas inspired nobody and nothing. After all, he himself has generated countless pages of foreign-policy advice over the years, including a 2003 book about the war on terrorism for which "rabid" would be too weak a description.

The answer is simple. It is because all the talk about neoconservatism and its influence in the Bush administration amounts to little more than conspiracy theory. According to Mr. Perle, this conspiracy theory has been echoed by everyone from the New York Times to Lyndon LaRouche to David Duke. And so comes Richard Perle to tell us, as a note in the National Interest's table of contents puts it, "why 50 million conspiracy theorists have it wrong."

At a discussion of the article televised by C-Span last Thursday, Mr. Perle went even farther, facing down a room full of critics and telling them at one point that "there is no such thing as a neoconservative foreign policy." (Thus setting up the Washington Post's headline, "Prince of Darkness Denies Own Existence.")

But still there must be a fall guy for the disaster, and Mr. Perle settles on an old favorite -- the enemy within.

The problem was not that Mr. Bush was insufficiently conservative but rather that the president's views didn't really matter. According to Mr. Perle's National Interest article, federal agencies make policy without regard for what their bosses tell them. "[T]he foreign and security policies declared by the president in speeches, in public and private meetings, in backgrounders and memoranda often had little or no effect on the activities of the sprawling bureaucracies charged with carrying out the president's policies," Mr. Perle pronounces. "They didn't need his directives: they had their own."

At the CIA, for example, few shared Mr. Bush's ideas, Mr. Perle suggests, and therefore the agency simply sandbagged its commander in chief. It "made egregious intelligence errors and then applied its skill at tweaking and leaking to undermine the president who acted on its advice."

Mr. Perle's theory of the "hijacking of foreign policy" can explain events here and there, of course, but it runs counter to some of the most infamous episodes in the selling of the Iraq war. The CIA's most notorious error -- its assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- was made not because the agency wanted to undermine Mr. Bush, but because, according to author Tim Weiner, it "desperately sought the White House's attention and approval." And the most famous leak in the war's aftermath seems to have been designed to discredit not the administration but one of its critics, the husband of a CIA officer.

Give Mr. Perle points for chutzpah, anyway. Conservatism didn't fail, he insists. It was ambushed and blunted by the one institution Americans may hate even more than Wall Street -- the bureaucracy. Even when it appeared to be in power, conservatism was actually where it always is, on the outside, raging righteously not only against terrorism but against the faceless machinery of Washington.

Next time, maybe, they'll get to win.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). His other books include The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler.

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