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Neo Culpa: Neoconservatives Say Iraq War Undermined by White House Incompetence

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Vanity Fair is reporting a number of prominent neoconservatives who advocated for the invasion of Iraq are now criticizing President Bush’s handling of the war. The list includes former Pentagon advisers Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman; former Presidential speechwriter David Frum; and Michael Rubin, a former senior official in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans. We speak with David Rose, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. [includes rush transcript]

As millions of Americans head to the polls today, the war in Iraq is looming large. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey, thirty one percent of Americans rank Iraq as the election’s top issue. That’s just one point shy of matching the total who answered health care, immigration and terrorism — combined. Fifty-three percent of Americans also say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting.

Well, a new article in Vanity Fair is reporting a number of prominent neoconservatives who backed the invasion of Iraq are now criticizing President Bush’s handling of the war. The list includes former Pentagon advisers Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman; former Presidential speechwriter David Frum; and Michael Rubin, a former senior official in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans. Richard Perle admitted that huge mistakes were made in Iraq. Perle has criticized Vanity Fair because he claims he was promised his remarks would not be published until after the mid-term election. The article is called “Neo Culpa.” It’s written by Vanity Fair Contributing Editor David Rose.

  • David Rose, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He joins us from Oxford, England.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The article is called “Neo Culpa.” It’s written by Vanity Fair contributing editor David Rose, who joins us now from Oxford, England, in studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, David.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, tell us who you talked to and what they said.

DAVID ROSE: Well, you’ve already given some of the list: Richard Perle; Kenneth Adelman; David Frum; Michael Rubin; also Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy — that’s a think tank with very close ties to the high levels of the Pentagon; with Eliot Cohen from the School of Advanced International Studies; really the sort of flower of the neo-con intellectual elite in Washington, D.C.

And what a number of these individuals are now saying is that the war in Iraq has gone so badly, the situation now appears to be so intractable and the likelihood of actually winning this war now so slim, that had they — if they had their time over, they would not now be arguing in favor of military intervention in Iraq, even if they continue to believe, as indeed Richard Perle says he does, that Saddam Hussein did possess stocks of weapons of mass destruction, or at least the capability to create such stocks, and connections with terrorism. Richard Perle told me that if he had his time over, he would now say that that security threat to the interest of the United States should be dealt with by some other means.

And Kenneth Adelman, who, of course, wrote the famous Washington Post Op-Ed about a year before the war, which said that Iraq would be a cakewalk, goes even further. He says that he has been simply crushed by the incompetence of the administration, and particularly by his old friend Donald Rumsfeld, and that if he had his time over, instead of writing that Iraq would be a cakewalk, he would say that while a policy of trying to change the regime there was correct, the execution has been so incompetent that the idea should be put, as he put it, in a drawer marked “don’t do, too difficult,” rather than “let’s go.” Well, this clearly does represent a fairly substantial shift in the positions of these individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t Kenneth Adelman use the term for the Bush administration of “dysfunctional,” “deadly”?

DAVID ROSE: Yes, indeed. In fact, quite a number of them have used that word “dysfunctional,” not only Kenneth Adelman, but also Richard Perle, Michael Rubin and David Frum. And what they’re particularly referring to is the inability of the administration to make decisions. Of course, they advocated a particular set of policies: a swift handover to an Iraqi government. They also wanted a large number, several thousand Iraqis, to be trained to go in with the coalition forces as auxiliaries.

And I do think there is a very respectable case to be made for both those two positions. If there had been thousands of Iraqi troops with the American-British mobile forces, clearly there would have been interpreters for units, a much better chance of getting local intelligence. And had there been a provisional government quickly, then the war might have been seen as something more akin to a liberation, as they wanted, as opposed to an occupation.

But what they’re really getting at here is that when they advocated that position, as did their colleagues in the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, and the CIA and the State Department argued strongly against such positions, the administration just couldn’t make up its mind. So, as we were sending many thousands of soldiers into harm’s way in Iraq, the administration hadn’t decided what it was going to do next. And as they put it, the process of interagency decision-making, the place where these kinds of disputes should be hammered out, that is the National Security Council, at that time, of course, chaired by Condoleezza Rice, it was dysfunctional and disorganized. Indeed, Michael Rubin says it was one of the worst national security councils in American history. This is a staggering indictment.

But, of course, they also go on to say that while the NSC was dysfunctional, ultimately the buck does stop at the President. It is the President’s job to make these decisions. And they say something, which is perhaps even more damning. While President Bush had this rhetoric, what he called his “freedom agenda” of imposing democracy, of bringing democracy to Iraq, and appearing in his rhetoric to agree with what these neo-cons were saying, actually he just didn’t seem to grasp how you had to put that into effect.

And so, coming from people who took those positions, who didn’t just advocate the invasion in 2003, but in many cases, particularly Richard Perle’s, had been arguing in favor of regime change going way back into the Clinton administration, really almost since Desert Storm in 1991, I mean, this is a tremendous indictment of President Bush. And indeed, I put it to Richard Perle in precisely those terms. I said, “This is an extraordinary indictment of the President.” And he just said to me, “Yes, it is.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Rose, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His latest article is entitled “Neo Culpa.” Tell us about Michael Ledeen. We see him on television all the time, the American Enterprise Institute Freedom Scholar.

DAVID ROSE: Well, actually, Michael Ledeen is slightly different from the rest of the people I interviewed, because actually if you look back at his record, Michael Ledeen did not strongly advocate regime change through military force in Iraq. He really was more concerned with Iran and remains so. He has consistently argued in favor of trying to change the Iranian regime, not through military force, but by supporting pro-democracy forces.

However, he served on Reagan’s National Security Council and saw close-up how decisions were made at that time, and he is absolutely damning about the way things have gone on under this administration. He says that back in the day, when he was on the NSC, it, as he put it, defined the disagreement for the President. If there were competing views held by different government agencies, then the NSC would refine those disagreements so that the President would then know what exactly the points of disagreement were, and he would take a decision, and he would do so in a timely fashion.

Well, quite the reverse has happened, says Mr. Ledeen, under this administration, and he’s had close contact, he tells me, particularly with Stephen Hadley, who was the Deputy National Security Advisor, while Condoleezza Rice was the National Security Advisor. Now, of course, he is the National Security Advisor himself. He says, “What you’re doing is nuts! You’re trying to find common ground, when often there is no common ground, and you’re sending people away for months and months to write new memos, to come up with new attempts to reach agreement. This isn’t what the NSC is supposed to do.” And so, he is another of these guys who uses this word “dysfunctional” to describe the basic processes of decision-making inside the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rose is contributing editor at Vanity Fair. We’re going to play a clip, going back in time to January 2004 to a conversation that we had with Paul Krugman, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist, and Richard Perle, the man the Washington Post calls the “intellectual guru of the hard-line neoconservative movement in foreign policy,” one of the fiercest critics against one of his fiercest critics, Paul Krugman. At the time, Richard Perle had just come out with a new book with David Frum called An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. And I asked Richard Perle about his book.

RICHARD PERLE: You have read our book. I haven’t read his. We’re not recommending what he suggests. We’re not recommending going after every nasty dictatorship in the world. We’re not recommending reinstating the draft or increasing the size of the army. What we are recommending is a sustained and concerted effort to isolate a relatively small number of terrorists and the states that support them, before they can do even more damage than they did on September 11th, and I don’t understand —

PAUL KRUGMAN: Well, let me ask —- we’re told that the book includes advocacy of regime change in Iran, that it calls for a blockade of North Korea, but the book hasn’t been available. Mine’s been out for a while, but -—

RICHARD PERLE: Well, hundreds of thousands of copies are out there. It calls for a blockade of North Korea, if we are unsuccessful in stopping their production of nuclear weapons. The alternative is to leave them free to ship those weapons around the world, and I imagine that you wouldn’t prefer that.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Let’s just go back here. I mean, the point is, you know, stage one, the pilot project was Iraq. There were many warnings from the professional military that the initial battles would be easy, but that the occupation was going to severely strain our military forces. And so, it has turned out. Now, have we learned nothing —

RICHARD PERLE: 100,000 —- we’re going down to 100,000 troops in Iraq out of a uniformed military in excess of a million. I don’t believe that -—

PAUL KRUGMAN: You know better than that, right? You know that every professional military person is talking about the extreme strain, that we have 40,000 soldiers who are on stop-loss, who have not been given the freedom to leave when they normally would be able to. This is — you know, but let’s not minimize this. If you want to say this war was worth doing, fine, but to pretend that it was a low-cost venture, that’s silly.

RICHARD PERLE: No, no. I didn’t say it was a low-cost venture. I thought it was an essential venture, and I think we are emerging from it with an Iraq that has a future. Iraq had no future before this war. But I don’t appreciate the incorrect characterizations of what we say. On regime change in Iran, that has nothing to do with the United States Army or our military forces. We are proposing that we give support to the millions of Iranians who don’t want to have every aspect of their lives dictated to by a handful of mullahs, who you may have noticed in the last 24 hours have been blocking any possibility of reform in that country through the electoral process. Should we not be identifying with people who want to liberate their country in this case?

PAUL KRUGMAN: Well, big difference between — I mean, I look forward to reading the book, but let me just come back to this. An awful lot of this discussion seems to be predicated on the notion that the United States has a level of power that it doesn’t.

RICHARD PERLE: Well, I don’t know what you mean when you say “a lot of this discussion.” We are very concrete and very specific about what we ought to do, and not everything that we advocate as a last step is or should be thought of as a first step. So, for example, with respect to North Korea, we encourage the effort —

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of a debate between Paul Krugman of the New York Times and Richard Perle. Our guest in the Oxford studio in England is David Rose, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His latest article is entitled “Neo Culpa.” David Rose, Richard Perle, though he doesn’t deny what he said to you — talking about the situation now in Iraq, as a result of Bush administration’s mishandling, is a major problem — he’s very angry that you have published this before the midterm election, says he was lied to. Your response.

DAVID ROSE: Well, I regret he says that. The truth is, I told him and the other people I interviewed that the article would be published, as indeed it will be, in the January issue of Vanity Fair, which, of course, comes out, I think, on December the 6th. What I didn’t realize is that there is now the capability at Vanity Fair to publish things more quickly, and I turned in my piece at the end of last week, on Thursday.

The editors read it and decided that it contained material that was so important that, although it wouldn’t be available in print for another few weeks, they should put it out on the internet in a shortened abridged form. And I think they believed — they’ve stated this very firmly — that it was in the public interest for the American people to know what, at least the gist of what, was in those interviews. And so, that’s the decision they took.

Well, I certainly didn’t give any undertakings to anybody that the article or part of the article would be published after the midterm or only after the midterm elections. It’s fair to say that I believed at that stage that it would be, but the question of the elections themselves just didn’t come up.

I must say I have been surprised at the strength of the reaction that some of these individuals have had. They have stood very firmly behind the cause of establishing democracy in Iraq and elsewhere, but from their reaction to the fact that the magazine did put out these excerpts from the article early, before the midterm elections, they seem to be saying that democracy in America is somehow less important, that it’s okay for them to express their views when it’s too late to affect the result at the ballot but not okay to let voters actually those views in their minds when they vote today. And I do find that disappointing.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rose, you wrote an earlier piece, and we had you on at the time, the question of, did Speaker Hastert accept Turkish bribes to deny Armenian Genocide and approve weapons sales. You wrote a piece for Vanity Fair. Today, Americans are making a decision, basically, about whether Dennis Hastert will run the Congress. They will decide the balance of the House of Representatives, and if Democrats win, he will no longer be Speaker of the House. Any further thoughts on that issue and a summary of the investigation that you did earlier?

DAVID ROSE: Well, that, of course, was an article published last year about the case of Sibel Edmonds, who was a translator who worked for the FBI after 9/11, who listened to wiretap recordings made of a number of individuals, wiretaps of various targets who were working in the Turkish embassy and elsewhere that the FBI thought might be a threat to national security or involved in criminal activity. Now, what the article reported was that one of the investigations that she was asked to work on involved recordings made of individuals who claimed that they had bribed Speaker Hastert, with both covert campaign donations and using other methods to transfer money, in favor for his withdrawing the Armenian Genocide resolution, which at that stage was about to pass through the House. It had passed through two preliminary stages.

Now, I think the extraordinary thing about that story is that it has not ever been contested that there was an FBI investigation, which did pick up allegations made by these Turkish targets, targets who, you know, were judged to be security risks by the FBI making these allegations about Speaker Hastert. I have never claimed that those allegations had substance, that they were true, because I simply cannot say. It’s impossible to prove it one way or the other. But it is clear that there were recordings made by the FBI in which individuals claimed to have given illegal payments to the Speaker in return for political favors. And I was always slightly surprised and, indeed, again disappointed that the rest of the American media didn’t pick up on that and didn’t perhaps try to take it further, because it does seem to me to be an important issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Rose, you wrote the book, Guantanamo: America’s War on Human Rights. Do you think, since you’ve written that book, that this has become an issue that has been taken up anymore and has affected not only international perception of the United States, but Americans’ perceptions of themselves?

DAVID ROSE: Well, that book was published about two years ago, and there’s no doubt at all that the whole issue of Guantanamo, torture, interrogation methods, and so forth, has become a subject of wider public debate in the United States. And as that has happened, I think it’s also fair to say that the U.S. has garnered additional international opprobrium as a result of what has emerged.

I have to say what has amazed me more than anything is the Military Commissions Act, which passed through the Congress just recently. It was signed into law by President Bush last month. Although at the time the rear guard action fought by senators such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham was trumpeted as a victory for the Geneva Conventions, it’s extremely clear that that act is nothing of the kind.

What the military Commissions Act does is enshrines into law all the most abusive practices perpetrated by the United States since 9/11: detention, in many cases, for many years at a time without trial; recourse to highly coercive and abusive methods of interrogation, which in any other state would be called torture, pure and simple; and finally, a trials process at those military commissions, due to be held at Guantanamo, which does not conform to any recognized standard of due process, either as set out by the United States Constitution or as recognized in other mature democracies.

I hope that the Congress, if it does change hands today, will revisit the Military Commissions Act, and I further hope that the Supreme Court will eventually strike down its more obnoxious positions, because I find that that act is one of the most baleful events in the recent history, a long and baleful history since 9/11 in which the U.S. has really, I think, made some very grave missteps in its abuse of human rights in fighting the war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, David Rose, is there much attention being paid in Britain to the American elections today?

DAVID ROSE: Enormous attention. It’s leading the news, has been very prominent on the news, really, for weeks now. And clearly people see that these are the most important midterm elections for many years. Arguably, they’re more important than those midterms in 1994, which saw that Newt Gingrich revolution, because actually the lesson of those midterms was that it didn’t last very long. I think people in Britain, especially those who follow American events more closely, can see that a huge amount may flow from these elections, perhaps a reassessment of critical aspects of America’s foreign policy, and also major decisions that may affect the tenor of life in America itself for many years to come and, of course, I’m thinking here particularly about the appointment of federal judges and perhaps Supreme Court justices. I think it’s fair to say that there is more attention focused on these midterms in Britain, and indeed the rest of Europe, than on any for a good many years.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rose, I want to thank you very much for being with us, contributing editor at Vanity Fair — his latest article is entitled “Neo Culpa” — speaking to us from Oxford University in Britain.

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