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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Perle's Passion Is Served

The unflinching hawk with a flair for gourmet cooking is known for dishing up blunt talk on Iraq that has often become U.S. policy.

October 15, 2002|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A huge video screen hung from the ceiling, behind the ornate mahogany desks and oil portraits of elders that give the House International Relations Committee room an air of history.

Peering down from the screen, three times the size of anyone else in the room, was the committee's next witness, live from the U.S. Embassy in London. Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), no small figure himself, looked up at the screen and observed, "Richard Perle is hovering over us."

When he was assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, adversaries called him the Prince of Darkness for his fierce resistance to arms control treaties with the Soviets. Today, Perle is often described as the Bush administration's leading hawk on Iraq. As chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a panel of leading Republican foreign policy thinkers who advise the secretary of Defense, his sway inside government circles is considerable. He speaks to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld regularly. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz is a friend.

But it is his role outside the government -- from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute -- that affords Perle the luxury of moral outrage. While liberals look for accommodation with European allies before taking action against Iraq, Perle offers that it would be nice if antiwar German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder would resign.

When some military experts urge time for weapon inspections to work, Perle charges appeasement, invoking the specter of Britain's Neville Chamberlain underestimating the menace of Adolf Hitler.

Few of Perle's ideological allies go so far in their outspokenness. But Perle's pronouncements on Iraq have made him a hot media draw -- the Arabic news network Al Jazeera calls regularly, as do newspapers from Tokyo to Toronto and every alphabet news channel on the satellite spectrum. Like a test marketer for the most doctrinaire ideas, Perle keeps lobbing his verbal arrows into media cyberspace. Some in the administration think his outbursts are a distraction. But many of his pronouncements on Iraq have echoed in subsequent Bush administration positions. For weeks, Perle has been arguing that eliminating Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction is "indistinguishable" from ending Saddam Hussein's rule. He has been warning Iraqi generals that they could face war crime trials if they carry out Hussein's orders to use biological or chemical weapons. President Bush made use of both points in his nationwide address last week.

Perle's influence is indirect. He does not talk to White House speech writers.

The last time he briefed Bush one-on-one was during the campaign, when he lobbied for NATO enlargement. For critics of administration policy, however, Perle's influence is unnerving.

"Rumsfeld, [Vice President Dick] Cheney, Wolfowitz -- these are new conservatives, hawks, rational hard-liners," said one Arab diplomat who asked not to be quoted by name. "Then you have Perle, who is blindly obsessive. It's almost neo-imperialistic."

Perle's view of foreign policy is contained in an ideological odyssey from a culture of liberalism in Southern California to one of conservatism in Washington. His course was steered by two mentors -- one an erudite academic, the other a Democratic senator -- who drew a generation of conservatives to the belief that great powers survive only if they exercise military might.

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Culinary Fantasy

Beyond the policy debate, Perle is an original -- a conservative agitator with a passion for the good life, a member of the Washington establishment who defies the town's workaholic habits, a weapon strategist who at the height of the Cold War fantasized about opening a souffle restaurant.

There is no question that Perle, 61, now enjoys his role as the enfant terrible of the neoconservatives, defined by their hawkish views on foreign policy and their free-market ideas on economic issues. Bemused by Hyde's comment that he is hovering over the debate on Iraq, Perle says later, "I should have thrown thunderbolts too."

But he is careful not to overstate his role. "I've been in Washington for many years, and you end up knowing pretty much everyone," he said over a lunch of sashimi (gourmet tastes have added pounds and put him on a low-carbohydrate diet), at a favorite Japanese restaurant. "So if you have an idea, you can get it out much more quickly. That's what it means to have influence in Washington. In the end, it's the quality of the idea that matters, not that it came from me."

The contest for ideas has defined Richard N. Perle almost from the beginning, or at least as far back as Hollywood High School, circa 1959.

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Perle was not a child of privilege. After World War II, his father moved the family from New York to Los Angeles, where he worked in the wholesale drapery business.

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