The Great Iraq Debate

The other night in New York, the Council on Foreign Relations hosted a fascinating debate between the always interesting Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who now serves as an adviser to the administration on the Defense Science Policy Board, and Leon Fuerth, whose career in foreign affairs has taken him from Capitol Hill advising Democrats to the office of the vice president, where he was Al Gore’s national security adviser.

The subject of the debate was Iraq, and what the Bush administration’s plans and attitude toward it ought to be.

In the spirit of Kausfiles’ “Series Skipper,” which as a public service boils down the information in long newspaper series, I will attempt to capture the more than hour-long debate. (I was not there but listened to reports from friends who were, and later read the transcript.)

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Mr. Fuerth began with a striking directness. American policy toward Iraq begins here: “We need to get rid of Saddam Hussein.” But we need to get rid of him on our schedule—“at a time that we have prepared under conditions that we have set in motion.” Mr. Fuerth opposed “pivoting out of Afghanistan and moving on to the attack in Iraq.”

The current crisis, he continued, began with an attack by a terrorist network, not a state. What happened in New York and Washington was an international event, plotted in Germany, financed by money from around the globe, executed by operatives trained in the U.S. This is a global network. It didn’t come out of Baghdad or Tehran. We must focus our time and resources on preventing terror networks from using weapons of mass destruction against us. They had attacked us before—our embassies in Africa, the USS Cole. Because it is a global network, the fight against it must be global.

At the same time we cannot ignore Saddam. We should see to it that he is forced to spend time and effort “defending himself” from internal challenges that the U.S. can help set in motion. Perhaps the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress could become a force; perhaps internal opposition will rise. A return to “draconian weapons-inspection rules” under U.N. auspices is also needed.

Also, America must “prepare a homeland defense against the moment when we take on” a nation-state such as Iraq. This job will not be finished in six weeks or six months.

But yes, he said, ultimately we’ll have to reckon with Saddam. “A moment does have to be picked. Right now, exactly now, coming out of Afghanistan, is not the right moment.” Now is the time to focus on the global terror network.

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Now Mr. Perle spoke, with the bluntness and occasional sarcasm that characterize his rhetorical style.

“We cannot wait,” he said. Saddam is “attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.” He may have them in a year or two. He does already, as we know, have chemical and biological weapons and has already, alone among nations, used chemical weapons against civilians, Mr. Perle said.

Saddam’s hatred for the U.S. is murderous. “He is a threat to us,” argued Mr. Perle. He is a tyrant whose loathing is “undisguised.” He is “in contact with networks of terror.” He is in a position to use weapons of mass destruction against us “delivered anonymously.”

We cannot wait and hope he’ll do nothing, Mr. Perle said. As we wait, we risk giving Saddam time to distribute his biological weapons to al Qaeda.

As for the Iraqi National Congress, the Clinton administration in eight years and the Bush administration in one year have done nothing to make them ready to help on the ground in Iraq. They are not ready and indeed will not be ready to rise against Saddam until America moves on Saddam, Mr. Perle said. “At that point we will set in motion what it takes to make them ready.” Only then, once we move, will they be “our allies on the ground.”

Mr. Perle concludes: We waited too long to deal with Osama, and he struck. We must not repeat this mistake with Saddam.

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Mr. Fuerth answers. Yes, he agrees that Saddam is “malevolent and dangerous.” But why then march on Iraq and not Iran, which is also dangerous? Mr. Perle speaks of the risk of waiting, says Mr. Fuerth. But what about the risk of “premature action”?

The INC is not at this time a fighting force, it is fractious and untrained.

Intriguingly, Mr. Fuerth seemed to imply that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have to be “overruled” by President Bush if he ordered a fast military action out of Afghanistan and into Iraq.

Mr. Perle replies. If Mr. Fuerth thinks Iran is as big a threat as Iraq, why doesn’t he recommend action against Iran? “I don’t think he’s prepared to take any action against any state,” Mr. Perle says. Which, he implies, is the real reason Mr. Fuerth puts emphasis on moving against a nonstate entity, the international terror network.

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Mr. Perle says it is good that Leon Fuerth agrees we must win the war against terror. But we must “take that war to the states that harbor and support terrorists.” Once those states know they will have no peace until they throw the terrorists out, the terrorists will be thrown out, be exposed, and we will get them. If we “shy away” from taking on “the states that support them” the terrorists will continue to find and enjoy state sanctuary from countries such as Iraq. Which is to say, they will continue as a real threat.

As for homeland defense, Mr. Perle’s definition of it was limited, and his attitude fatalistic. “An open society” such as ours has “poor prospects in making this country impermeable,” Mr. Perle says. Now the most ringing and direct Perleism: “We have to take the war to them because of our inability to prevent them from bringing it to us.”

Mr. Perle said he is not advocating making a move a month from now, or two months from now. But we must make the decision to move, and choose strategy and tactics now. Mr. Fuerth, he said, doesn’t want to take the risks. But the greater risk is doing nothing and leaving Saddam more time to plan, gain strength, take the initiative.

Moderator Les Gelb asked the question of the hour. If Saddam believes the U.S. is coming after him—and with the administration’s “axis of evil” rhetoric and the strong poll numbers supporting the president, Saddam might certainly likely conclude the U.S. is coming—then why shouldn’t Saddam come after us now?

Mr. Perle’s reply was both low-key and chilling. “He may.” Saddam may indeed “act pre-emptively.” But we cannot let that fear stop us. Indeed, it should stiffen our resolve: Saddam has got to go.

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In the question-and-answer session that followed, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg asked what we knew, essentially, about Saddam’s sanity. “It seems to me an important question in this debate is the extent to which Saddam is rational,” he said. Will Saddam refrain from attacking us in a way that would cause us to remove him from power?

Mr. Perle replied. “I tried to suggest earlier, and let me make it more precise, Saddam has available to him the option of empowering anonymous terrorists to do great damage in this country. There’s a great deal of evidence that suggests he would be immensely pleased if damage were in fact done. So working deterrents against an anonymous threat is extraordinarily difficult. Suppose a significant quantity, a few pounds, of anthrax were released over this city from a tall building. Suppose we suspected that Saddam was behind it, and suppose the terrorists who did it committed suicide in the course of it. Could we then act, and how?

“We might have the option of a brutal attack against civilians in Baghdad,” Mr. Perle said, but that “hardly seems to me an appropriate or an effective way of protecting the United States. Which is why I think it’s essential that we get ahead of the problem, since he has the capacity to do something like that, and conventional deterrents cannot be made effective.”

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So, that’s the Series Skipper version.

Some thoughts. One does get a sense of what a Gore administration foreign policy might have been from Mr. Fuerth, who himself might have become an NSC advisor for President Gore. One senses that policy would be marked by talking, hoping, waiting and worrying. There’s a lot to worry about so that’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either. From Mr. Perle, on the other hand, we get a sense of impatience: move, and now! But he did not communicate an impression that he is thinking of the civilian cost that might be incurred by the operatives of an invaded and enraged Saddam.

It is interesting, the tradition whereby the very best, most imaginative and textured discussions and delvings into world politics have come not, as a rule, from the elected officials of the world’s democracies but from, if you will, the hired hands of diplomacy—those who do not run for office but help those who do. Part of the reason is obvious—elected officials have real reason to avoid dramatic thoughts colorfully put. And part is less obvious. The hired hands are almost always cleverer, and often deeper, than their principals. St. Thomas More was, in all ways but power, the superior of Henry VIII, and George Kennan—who among other things developed the policy of containment—is a cleverer man than most of the presidents he served. This isn’t surprising, but it’s always interesting.

As for the debate itself, Mr. Fuerth did not elaborate on exactly what he meant by “homeland security,” and Mr. Perle chose to define it for him, and narrowly. Homeland security, he suggested, is the daily effort of our government to keep terrorists off our planes, away from our nuclear plants, out of our country. With our famously porous borders and our famous personal openness, this is indeed difficult. A determined bad guy has many points of entry.

But I thought that when Mr. Fuerth referred to homeland security he was speaking not only of law enforcement. I thought he was also referring to what I think of homeland defense, which includes the putting in place of systems whereby American citizens are made safer when an attack has come. This would include but not be limited to increased efforts to produce various vaccines and medicines, the return of some kind of fallout shelters with independent ventilation systems, etc., and increased production and availability of nuclear-biological-chemical suits and masks. Whatever will make our citizens a little safer, or a little safer a little longer, is a good thing. If it means taking some time to help people survive a dirty bomb or the unleashing of smallpox, and the time can be taken, why not take it?

That is my first point. My second is more frivolous but I’ve been meaning to mention this for a while, and actually it’s not frivolous. Since we have entered the age of weapons of mass destruction, since we are immersed in the fact of them and will no doubt be shaped in part by their existence, we need a way of speaking of them with a phrase that is easier to say and easier to grasp than “weapons of mass destruction” or WMDs. Ideas for a new name for WMDs are welcome, and will be forwarded to the administration.

Third, and as important as the first point: The Perle-Fuerth debate, for all its disagreement, underscored what most observers have sensed the past few months but few have clearly said. The debate reflected a most extraordinary change in our foreign policy. Only a year ago the idea that left, right and center in America would be saying “Saddam must go” would be too farfetched. The idea that a year ago we would be engaged in a war in Afghanistan with left, right and center behind it would be similarly unthinkable. The idea that all would back hunting down and killing the head of a terror network—again unthinkable. The idea that the only real question on moving on Iraq is how and when—unthinkable.

How did this all happen? It happened after we all woke up happily on Sept. 10, 2001, and went to bed happily that night. And then, a few hours into the next morning, the world changed forever. Talk about the law of unintended consequences. The man who planned and created the terrible deed that day signed his own death warrant, signed the death warrant of his movement, may well have signed Saddam’s, and left an America stronger and more united than it had been in a very long time.

This is fortunate indeed. May our good fortune continue.