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Washington Sketch
Same Committee, Same Combatants, Different Tune

 

By Dana Milbank

Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A10

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. is a conservative Republican from North Carolina who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. So it jarred all the more yesterday when Jones turned his fury on Richard N. Perle, the Pentagon adviser who provided the Bush administration with brainpower for the Iraq war.

Jones, who said he has signed more than 900 condolence letters to kin of fallen soldiers, pronounced himself "incensed" with Perle. "It is just amazing to me how we as a Congress were told we had to remove this man . . . but the reason we were given was not accurate," Jones told Perle at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Jones said the administration should "apologize for the misinformation that was given. To me there should be somebody who is large enough to say 'We've made a mistake.' I've not heard that yet."

Richard N. Perle did not offer any apologies.
Photo Credit: File Photo

As chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, Perle had gone before the same committee in 2002 and smugly portrayed retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who urged caution in Iraq, as "hopelessly confused" and spouting "fuzzy stuff" and "dumb cliches."

Thirty months and one war later, Perle and Clark returned to the committee yesterday. But this time lawmakers on both sides hectored Perle, while Clark didn't bother to suppress an "I told you so."

Perle wasn't about to provide the apology Jones sought. He disavowed any responsibility for his confident prewar assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, heaping the blame instead on "appalling incompetence" at the CIA. "There is reason to believe that we were sucked into an ill-conceived initial attack aimed at Saddam himself by double agents planted by the regime. And as we now know the estimate of Saddam's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction was substantially wrong."

Jones, nearly in tears as he held up Perle's testimony, glared at the witness. "I went to a Marine's funeral who left a wife and three children, twins he never saw, and I'll tell you, I apologize, Mr. Chairman, but I am just incensed with this statement."

Clark, an unsuccessful 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, could not resist piling on Perle. Intelligence estimates "are never accurate, they are never going to be accurate, and I think policymakers bear responsibility for what use they make of intelligence," the retired general lectured.

Sometimes life imitates art. Yesterday, it imitated an episode of "Crossfire." For more than three hours, Clark and Perle reprised their confrontation before the committee in September 2002. The two men entered in twin gray suits and red ties, and took adjacent chairs at the witness table. Clark scribbled in pencil, Perle with a fountain pen. Only Perle's reading material -- he put on the witness table a copy of "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" -- suggested he was not expecting what was to come.

Perle opened by acknowledging mistakes -- though not his own. "The occupation of Iraq did much to vitiate the goodwill we earned," he said, and, "The grand ambition of the Coalition Provisional Authority was profoundly mistaken."

The two belligerents then went after each other, taking the hearing out of the control of the lawmakers. Perle wondered "why in the world" Clark would talk to Syria. Clark said Perle should learn to "eat the elephant one bite at a time." "What are you talking about?" Perle demanded.

Finally, Rep. Victor F. Snyder (D-Ark.) tried to regain the floor. "It is illegal to fight dogs in Arkansas," he said. "I'm not going to get in the middle."

Democrats lobbed softballs to Clark and fired darts at Perle, who made little effort to ingratiate himself, calling one questioner "careless" and saying another cited "substantially incorrect accounts."

"You need a few more allies," observed Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

It was not always thus. At the September 2002 hearing, GOP lawmakers joined in Perle's dismissal of Clark's argument that "time is on our side" in Iraq and that force should be used only as a "last resort."

Perle said Clark was "wildly optimistic" and called it "one of the dumber cliches, frankly, to say that force must always be a last resort." While Clark fiddled, "Saddam Hussein is busy perfecting those weapons of mass destruction that he already has."

In retrospect, Clark's forecasts proved more accurate than Perle's, and even Republicans on the committee made little effort yesterday to defend Perle or to undermine Clark. The exception was Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who pressed Clark to acknowledge that the Iraq invasion should get some credit for signs of democracy in the region.

"We've got to do a lot less crowing about the sunrise," Clark rejoined.

When Hunter's GOP colleagues didn't join his line of questioning, he took another turn grilling Clark. The chairman likened President Bush's Middle East policies to those of President Ronald Reagan in Eastern Europe.

"Reagan never invaded Eastern Europe," Clark retorted.

In another try, Hunter said Clark was "overstating" the risk in challenging other countries in the Middle East. Clark smiled and showed his trump card -- reminding Hunter of their exchange at the 2002 hearing. "I kept saying time was on our side," Clark said. "I could never quite satisfy you."

As for who proved correct, the general said, "I'll let the record speak for itself."


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