Confronting the Ghosts of a War Not Past

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A sign marking the number of US soldiers who have been killed or wounded during the war in Iraq is seen at Arlington West on Santa Monica Beach, California, 25 November 2007.
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As Iraq continues to unravel, the United States has been forced to once more confront the ghosts of a war not-quite-past.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq ultimately killed more than 4,000 members of the U.S. armed services and cost taxpayers $2.2 trillion. That's notwithstanding the lives lost and damage done to Iraq and its people.

America's fingerprints are everywhere, and the U.S. is again facing questions about its responsibility to a country it invaded in 2003. But does the blame game help? What role, if any, should America take now?

As the United States deliberates, militants continue to gain momentum, garnering their latest stronghold in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar. Their victories place a sense of urgency on the U.S. to decide whether or not it will clean up what it started more than a decade ago.

Richard Perle was there from the start. After serving as assistant secretary of defense to President Reagan and was chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a group that closely advised the Pentagon, from 2001 to 2003, and a close advisor to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Perle backed intervention in Iraq the first time around, and he joins The Takeaway to reflect on what he might change about the way things were done then and how are they are being handled now.

"I believe the elimination of Saddam Hussein, and a more murderous tyrant would be difficult to find, was in itself a very beneficial thing," says Perle. "I'm afraid we didn't handle the post-Saddam situation very well, but certainly eliminating him was a good thing for all mankind."

Perle says that after the September 11th attacks he supported U.S. action to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein because he, like many other Americans, believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a claim that would later prove to be false. However, Perle says that he felt an American occupation of the country was the wrong decision.

"I thought and believed the administration agreed with this—that immediately after we should turn Iraq over to an interim government to prepare for elections," he says. "We didn't do that, we became an occupying power, and I think that was a tragic mistake."

The American occupation of Iraq created a hostile political climate, and despite Perle's warnings, it was supported by President Bush, former Sec. Rumsfeld, and General Tommy Franks, the former Commander of the U.S. Central Command.

"The insurgency was able to grow and expand," says Perle. "That's where the trouble really began."

Perle says that the Bush Administration originally planned to turned things over to the Iraqis—something that he had argued for—but as history shows, things did not go that way.

"I argued for turning things over to the Iraqis immediately, but mine was only one voice and not a very influential one since I didn't hold a government position," says Perle. 

When Ambassador Paul Bremer was sent to Baghdad, he reported back that he felt that the Iraqis were not ready to assume responsibility.

"Unfortunately, the rest of the administration acquiesced in that judgment, so we found ourselves running a violent occupation," says Perle. 

What would have happened if the nation was turned over to Iraqi leaders after Saddam Hussein was ousted? Perle says it's possible an insurgency would have developed anyway, but that reality is one the world will never see. 

"We do know what did happened, and what did happen was we became an occupying power," he says. "Nobody likes occupying powers, so we found ourselves facing a very insistent insurgency, elements of which have returned to create the current crisis."

Historically, some occupations have worked—like Germany or Japan after WWII. In those instances, however, Perle says that the government was dealing with "defeated armies," unlike in Iraq.

"In the case of Iraq, the army disappeared," he says. "It wasn't so much defeated as it left the battlefield. Of course you have in Iraq sectarian divisions of a kind that did not exist in either Germany or Japan, and these sectarian divisions lie at the heart of the inability of that country to pull itself together."

So if the U.S. never went into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein—preventing the deaths of thousands of American troops and countless Iraqis—would America and Iraq be better off today?

"I think that's an absurd question," says Perle. "You're asking for a judgement a decade after decisions were made in order to accomplish a specific purpose, which was managing the risk associated with Saddam Hussein in power with, as we believed at the time, chemical and biological weapons. No one can tell you what Saddam might have done had he remained in power. I think there's every reason to expect that he would've rebuilt his arsenal...I just don't think it's productive to look at it in that way."