Memo To: Howard Dean and Wesley Clark
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Lots of smoke, fire only maybe
On the assumption that one of you will be the Democratic nominee for President this year, I thought you might find it useful to get my informed perspective on what former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill is saying about President Bush planning to go to war with Iraq from Day One of his administration in January 2001. The one time I met with O'Neill was two months later, in his Treasury office, with his deputy Ken Dam and his chief of staff, Tim Adams, present. Most of the 40 minutes were spent talking about the economy. I did happen to mention that I had met with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney in the first days of January, during the transition, telling him that I had only decided to vote for George W. Bush when he, Cheney, was put on the ticket. My concern, I told O'Neill just as I had explained to Cheney, was the influence of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz on Mr. Bush, as I knew they wanted to go to war with Iraq. I said I trusted Cheney would restrain them, just as he had joined with Colin Powell in 1991 when Perle and Wolfowitz wanted then-President Bush to "go on to Baghdad" to take out Saddam Hussein when that act would have undermined the broad coalition that supported the Gulf War and largely financed it. At the Treasury meeting, to my surprise, Ken Dam piped up: "Perle and Wolfowitz and Doug Feith," to which O'Neill nodded, which instantly informed me that they were not hawks. Feith, a sidekick and business partner of Perle's going back years, had just been named Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, an appointment that further alarmed the Arab/Muslim community.
Now I am not going to argue that O'Neill is absolutely correct in his insistence that President Bush had it in his mind on Day One that there would be a war with Iraq as soon as his National Security team could provide a rationale. President Bush now says 'taint so, that his administration from Day One was committed to "regime change" in Baghdad, but that was the policy they inherited from the Clinton administration. And "regime change" did not necessarily involve war. It could have involved some operation to have Saddam Hussein disposed of by an assassin, an idea openly suggested at one point by Thomas L. Friedman, the foreign-policy columnist of the New York Times. It's my belief, for what it's worth, that Perle and Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and the hawk team from top to bottom was more committed to the war idea than Mr. Bush, but that 9-11 did give them the rationale they needed to raise his level of commitment.
The President is not nor ever will be a geopolitical strategist who might be enthralled with the concepts of an American Empire along the lines developed by the neo-cons in their Project for a New American Century. So they played on the simpler openings they saw in him, first persuading him that Saddam was a modern Hitler who committed genocide, which he did not, and second reminding him that Saddam had tried to assassinate his father in 1993, a propaganda story cooked up by Perle and another of his sidekicks, Jim Woolsey, who was then Clinton's CIA director. It never happened, but even Senator John Kerry, one of your fellow contenders, last Sunday told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that one reason for being glad that Saddam is under lock and key is that he once tried to assassinate former President Bush.
If you are going to be President, you have to be able to sort out fact from disinformation. What I suggest, in connection with the idea that this administration inherited its plans and its intelligence on Iraq from the Clinton administration, is to have a chat with Joseph Nye. When you are in New Hampshire, he's close by, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Nye was an assistant secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and might have been Secretary in a Gore administration. When he left the Pentagon for his Harvard assignment, he was named chairman of the Defense Policy Board, the outside advisory group that counsels the Defense chief. At the time he chaired the board, two of its members were Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. That's right folks. Even as Perle and Wolfie were sitting around the campfire at Crawford with Texas Governor George W. Bush and Condie Rice in 1999-2000, getting Mr. Bush ready for his run, they were working on the Defense Policy Board, cooking up ideas on how to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
See what I mean? President Bush may say he "inherited" the plan for regime change from the Clinton administration, but if you talk to Mr. Nye, you may find that there was much less inheritance than meets the eye. Yes, President Clinton dropped some bombs on Iraq when it seemed convenient to show leadership as his impeachment loomed. But it is inconceivable that we would now be mired in Iraq if Al Gore had been elected. As soon as the Supreme Court declared Mr. Bush the winner, Mr. Nye resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, succeeded by Richard Perle (who was forced to resign only when it was discovered that he was using his insider info to make megabucks on consulting contracts). Perle is still on the board, and I do assume if either of you make it to the Oval Office, you will find a way to have that status changed.
PS For a little background reading, I recommend this 2002 New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann, who is now chairman of the Journalism School at Columbia University. He gets into the Nye-Perle-Wolfie nexus.