Review: Prince of Darkness: Richard Perle
By James Traub
Friday, December 14, 2007
Prince of Darkness: Richard Perle The Kingdom, the Power, and the End of Empire in America. By Alan Weisman. Illustrated. 291 pages. $24.95. Union Square Press.
Neoconservative foreign policy - which is to say bellicose nationalism crossed with an idealistic faith in America's capacity to transform the world for the better - is dead. Iraq was its Frankenstein's monster, and the beast has turned on its creator. Our central task today is to devise a new way of thinking about the post-9/11 world. In the meantime, we can learn something of how we reached this pass by reflecting on the doctors who carried out the experiment.
Despite its thunderous subtitle - "The Kingdom, the Power, and the End of Empire in America" - Alan Weisman's "Prince of Darkness: Richard Perle" has little to say about the way forward. A former producer at "60 Minutes," Weisman has assembled a book-length version of the kind of diligent, unimaginative profile that constitutes the show's stock in trade. He has, however, effectively humanized a figure at the heart of the neoconservative enterprise who is usually rendered in cartoon terms, showing how Perle's personal gifts contributed to his impressive success.
Perle is 66, and before he was a "neocon" he was a "hard-liner" - an enemy of détente who considered the Soviet Union an evil empire long before Ronald Reagan used the term. Like his peer Paul Wolfo-witz, Perle was tutored by Albert Wohlstetter, the nuclear strategist, and promoted into the world of policy by Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson. Weisman, no ideologue himself, gives Perle his due. We learn that Perle had the attributes of a world-class Congressional staff member: steel-trap mind, mastery of procedure, tactical ruthlessness and - a rare bonus - the social graces of a bon vivant. In his 11 years with Jackson, Perle waged a behind-the-scenes war with the archrealist Henry Kissinger and helped deep-six Jimmy Carter's arms-control agenda.
A charming and gregarious figure like Perle exercised influence from many different vantage points. Weisman documents how he became godfather and mentor to a younger generation of conservatives, among them Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, Michael Ledeen and Frank Gaffney. All of them worked for Jackson, as did others Perle brought into the Reagan administration, where he served as under secretary of defense and where he fought the State Department as ceaselessly as he did the Russians. He increasingly came to view much of the national security apparatus, including the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, as agents of appeasement.
The cold war was matrix and metaphor for Perle and his crowd, as Munich or Saigon were for others. The moral of the story for them was: Confrontation works. With the cold war won, the hard-liners, eternally vigilant, distrusted the bipartisan sigh of relief at the supposed end of history. To them, 9/11 proved they had been right all along. And the convergence of this apocalyptic event with the apocalyptic mentality of the Bush administration produced the calamity with which we now live.
Perle was making too much money as a consultant to take a job with the new administration. (Weisman details some of the shadier transactions.) While he was thus spared the obloquy Wolfowitz and others suffered when everything went south, Perle occupied the center of a great web of polemicists and policy makers. Indeed, in his role as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a group of outside advisers to the secretary of defense, Perle blurred the distinction between "inside" and "outside." He used the planning board to advance the cause of Ahmad Chalabi, the shadowy banker and would-be insurgent. And inside the Defense Department, Perle's protégé and former business partner Douglas Feith convened a group of supposed experts - mostly ideologues also associated with Perle - to vindicate the dubious intelligence forwarded by Chalabi and others.
For Perle, and for the movement that had been gathering force since the early days in Scoop Jackson's office, the war was a defining moment. Now that things haven't worked out as planned, several of the neocons have admitted to second thoughts. Not Perle: he blames disloyalty and ineptitude at high levels of the Bush administration - that is, the State Department and the C.I.A. - and insists that we should have turned "over the keys" to Chalabi. He is unrepentant to the last.
Weisman glosses over "An End to Evil," the book Perle wrote in 2003 with David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, but it includes what is surely one of the most terrifying sentences written in recent years: "There is no middle way for Americans: it is either victory or holocaust." Yes, holocaust. And in the face of extinction, only a Democrat or a diplomat or a member of the liberal media would trifle over civil liberties or the use of torture. Perle and Frum warn against an unreasonable fear of McCarthyism at home. And abroad, they call for the violent overthrow of regimes in Syria and Iran, a blockade of North Korea and the destabilization of Saudi Arabia (and maybe France, too). All is pure dichotomy: the malevolent Other and the noble Us. "A world at peace," Perle and Frum magnificently conclude, "will be brought into being by American armed might and defended by American might, too." History rebukes such stupendous pretensions. We have been made rueful.
At least, some of us have.