Richard Perle is the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Department of Defense advisory panel made up of leading figures in national security and defense; he is also a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. In the Reagan Administration he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy. Perle is not a member of the Bush Administration, but his role as senior civilian adviser to the Pentagon has been said to give his remarks a “quasi-official character.” Last October, Mr. Perle was quoted as saying, “Can you imagine sending the Chicago police in to take Al Capone’s weapons away and leaving him there? Can anyone imagine that if the weapons of mass destruction were disgorged tomorrow, we could be confident with Saddam in place and we wouldn’t face the same problem again?”
On Feb. 13, Mr. Perle joined Dieter Dettke, executive director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and Tory MP Michael Howard in a debate at the City University of New York Graduate Center on the issue “USA vs. Europe: Who’s Right About the War on Terror?”
Dear Mr. Perle:
I am writing to thank you for your remarks last Thursday in Manhattan at the debate hosted by the Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation. I found your analysis both sober and devastating, and find hope in realizing that America has men in positions of power who think as you do.
Why, then, such opposition in the streets? I fear that if this weekend’s protesters had heard you speak, they still would not have changed their views. Week after week they utter the same exploded rationalizations for inaction: There is no evidence that we face a genuine threat, they say–and will continue to say, no matter how much evidence we find. We must continue inspections, they argue, no matter how ineffective they prove. War is not the answer, they repeat, regardless of the fact that they have no realistic answer of their own to offer.
No matter how persuasive a case one makes, they will not be persuaded. What, then, is their motivation? And even if they are dishonest, what can they possibly hope to gain by such evasions?
I am sure you have devoted a lot of thought to this question, since such people are opponents of the policies you advocate. I hope, however, you will permit me to offer some thoughts on the matter.
Our basic ideas of cause-and-effect, when it comes to society and politics, are intimately related to the ethical principles we hold. A rational concept of justice follows from one’s view of what courses of action will lead to long-term success. Few people, if anyone, deliberately believe in a justice that fails to prevail in the long run.
But the antiwar movement is full of people with an idea of justice at odds with the actual requirements of life and successful action. For one reason or another they are unwilling to examine and reject that idea; indeed, hardly anyone rises to challenge it, since it is widely regarded as self-evident.
Since they will not abandon “justice,” they instead make it the basis for their view of what will lead to success: War must be counterproductive, because it is wrong. “Violence begets violence”–it has to. Inspections will work, because they’re right.
So what is their idea of justice, and from where do they get it?
Consider the motives of the people protesting in the streets. The vast majority are surely followers–they accept the slogans and platitudes of those they have accepted as moral authorities. Their primary desire is to be accepted; they ask no questions that might threaten their fitting in.
Others fear the idea that the most powerful nation on earth would justify its actions in terms of right and wrong. Who is America to impose its notions of what’s right? They insist instead on the diluted moral responsibility of an international consensus via the UN. It makes no difference to them that this effectively puts American policy at the mercy of a handful of nations; what matters to them is that we not go around imposing our judgments on the world.
The leaders of the protests go further. They refuse to accept the justice of any self-interested action. They would support a humanitarian mission to stop genocide in Rwanda, but not a war to uphold American interests. This is why they accuse the Bush Administration of waging a “war for oil”–they recognize that this war is to be fought to uphold American interests, and they seek to discredit that motive.
These motives are all actually just different forms of the same thing, the refusal to assert one’s own independent judgment of one’s interests as a moral right. Upholding one’s own judgment is the fundamental act of self assertion; it is the act by which one brings a self into existence. Yet this is a responsibility they seek to evade; the ethical code of self-sacrifice serves as their rationalization for this abdication.
This is why the antiwar movement affiliates itself with so many other leftist causes. Their common denominator is the view that justice means self-sacrifice, that acting from self-interest is unjust.
Take support for the United Nations as a case in point. America is supposedly hypocritical for bringing its case to the UN but threatening to act on its own if it doesn’t get its way. America is a “bully” because it insists on asserting its own interests regardless of what the UN decides. To those with such views, UN membership involves the sacrifice of national interests for the greater good.
How could it be otherwise? The UN accepts as bona fide members both free nations and dictatorships, both aggressors and peaceful countries. If all such nations’ claims are treated as equally legitimate, then the UN cannot exist without sacrificing some of these competing claims to others.
The American founders held a fundamentally different view. For them the only way to reach a valid concept of the general interest was to identify what is common to the properly conceived interests of everyone. Only on this basis can one uphold the idea that government exists to serve the interests of its members, not to sacrifice them. And when government fails in that purpose, as the founders put it, the people have the right to alter or abolish it. Our position at the UN is not hypocrisy; it is the result of a coherent conception of the role and nature of such an organization.
But to the antiwar movement, our role is to obey. As Conrad Black put it in his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, “The propagators of this view have incited the inference that the United States, having sustained an immense military capability, must put it at the disposal of countries that do not wish America well, may not or do not share its values, and that affect neutrality between a wronged America, a Gulf War coalition betrayed, and affronted international law on one side, and the evil of Saddam Hussein on the other. … And while one country has that power, many of those which do not have it, are spuriously misusing the United Nations to try to collegialize the power of the United States.”
Mr. Black says that “there is not one sane person in the United States who would subscribe to any such concept.” But such people exist, and what moves them is not insanity. It is altruism: America is powerful, hence our interests are irrelevant; it is our duty to sacrifice them in the service of the powerless.
Altruism underlies their opposition to Israel as well. Israel was supported by the left until the 1967 war–because it was weak, the underdog, the haven of the oppressed. But then it became powerful, and ever since leftists have regarded Israel’s assertion of its interests as oppression.
Far too many Americans take altruism seriously. At the debate Thursday night, Michael Howard asked the audience to imagine a situation in which a world leader addressed his people after millions had died in an attack, saying: “I knew our enemy had weapons of mass destruction; I knew they were likely to use them. And I could have done something to prevent this attack before it happened. But international law prohibited me from doing so.” Mr. Howard surely thought this reductio ad absurdum was decisive. So why did people keep clapping for the position of the German Social Democrats as represented by Mr. Dettke?
Self-sacrificial respect for international law is precisely what the antiwar movement expects; to them it’s the only moral policy, and even if they deemed it practical to act otherwise they would still regard doing so as wrong.
I asked at the beginning of this letter what the antiwar movement can hope to gain by its evasions. What they hope to gain is power, power to enact their moral viewpoint. They want to see the most powerful country on Earth renounce its interests and bow its head in obedience–and they don’t care how many people might have to die as a result. You might think it farfetched that they are so indifferent to human life, but we’ve seen this before. Nazism and Communism are both based on the glorification of self-sacrifice for the collective; how many died in Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. to enforce obedience to those ideologies?
I do not believe that most opponents of the war will ever change their minds, but we can render them powerless by identifying and repudiating their code, and unapologetically asserting our right to act unilaterally in our own interest. Someone asked only just the other day, “If the UN can’t restrain Iraq, what makes it think it can restrain the US?”
We have been the ones to make it think so. We are the ones who have been pleading with the UN to sanction our cause, as if it were up to them to permit us to act. Our allegiance to the UN allows it to blackmail us into submission by means of our own desire to be virtuous. We are the ones who have made ourselves powerless.
The mistake of the Bush Administration, and particularly of General Powell, has been to cave in to the irrational code of self-sacrifice instead of repudiating it. The result has only been larger protests and more resistance–why not? If we’ll act with or without the UN, the French and Germans may as well call our bluff. Meanwhile they don’t need to worry about the consequences of inaction, since they’ve relegated that responsibility to America.
On September 11, 2001, if George Bush had decided to declare war on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan at the same time, the public would have supported him. There would have been protests, but nothing like the ones we saw last weekend. That, I think, is a decisive demonstration of the power of principles and the disastrous result of compromise with the irrational.
Editor’s Note: For an excellent criticism of Neoconservatives, like Perle, see Soft-Line Ideologues Revisited: Foreign-Policy Soft-Liners are Pragmatists