White House adviser Richard Perle tells David Rose that France’s ‘cosy relationship’ with Saddam means it will veto a second UN resolution

A leading adviser to President Bush last night launched a savage attack on President Chirac’s diplomatic campaign to block war with Iraq, saying that it was merely the product of French commercial interests masquerading as a moral case for peace.

In an exclusive interview with The Observer, Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board and a central figure in the circle of hawks around Bush, went well beyond US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s recent criticism of ‘old Europe’, warning that war without the further approval of the UN Security Council was now imminent.

‘I’m rather pessimistic that we will get French support for a second resolution authorising war,’ Perle said. ‘I think they will exercise their veto, and in other ways obstruct unified action by the Security Council: they’re lobbying furiously now.’

Perle agreed that support for war in Britain and America would rise if there were a second resolution, and that the UN was ‘a symbol of international legitimacy’. But in words that will serve only to deepen the transatlantic rift over Iraq, he added: ‘These five countries, the permanent members of the Security Council, are not a judicial body. They’re not expected to make moral or legal judgments, but to advance the respective interests of their countries.

‘So if the French ambassador gets up and expresses the position of the government of France, what you are hearing is the moral authority of Jacques Chirac, whatever that may mean.

‘What you’re hearing is what the French President perceives to be in the interests of France. And the French President has found his own way of dealing with Saddam Hussein. It would be counter to French interests to destroy that cosy relationship, and replace it with a hostile one.

‘So how much legitimacy attaches to a French veto? At some point, people are going to have to start asking themselves that question.’

In Perle’s view, the French position against regime change in Iraq is fatally undermined by its multi-billion-dollar oil interests negotiated since the last Gulf war: ‘There’s certainly a large French commercial interest in Iraq, and there are contracts that a new government in Iraq may not choose to uphold, partly because they’re so unfavourable to the people of Iraq. Saddam has been prepared to do deals to keep himself in power at the expense of the people.

‘My understanding of the largest of these deals, which is the French Total-Fina-Elf contract to develop certain oil properties in Iraq, is that it is both very large and very unfavourable to the Iraqis.’

Perle added that he found the claim that America wished to topple Saddam for the sake of its own oil interests bizarre.

‘The US interest is to buy oil cheaply on the world market. And the best way to increase the supply of Iraqi oil, and so cut prices, would have been to abandon sanctions in 1991 and urge the expansion of Iraqi exploration and development.

‘When you consider that there is now a prospect that the oilfields may be destroyed by Saddam, if what we really wanted was more oil, not only should we not be supporting Saddam’s removal, we should be working with him.’

Perle denied claims widely reported on both sides of the Atlantic that the Bush administration intends to rule Iraq directly through a military governor for an extended period, and that it envisages no role for the Iraqi opposition. He was scathing about the ‘conventional wisdom’ among the foreign policy and intelligence establishment, which holds that the Iraqi opposition groups are hopelessly divided and the country far too fractious for meaningful democracy.

‘This is a trivial observation and a misleading one, both by CIA officials and MI6,’ Perle said. ‘They’re simply wrong about this. They don’t understand the opposition. They say they’re divided. Are they more divided than the Labour Party? I rather doubt it. Are they more divided than the Tories? I certainly doubt that.’

His own long-term dealings with Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, and key figures in the main Kurdish groups, had convinced him and other leading US policymakers that ‘Iraq is a very good candidate for democratic reform’.

‘It won’t be Westminster overnight, but the great democracies of the world didn’t achieve the full, rich structure of democratic governance overnight. The Iraqis have a decent chance of succeeding under the leadership that has developed in the diaspora caused by Saddam’s seizure of power.’

Reports claiming that a US military governor would keep most of Saddam’s Baath Party officials in place and run the country on existing administrative structures were inaccurate and absurd, Perle said. ‘The idea that the US would simply issue orders to the same mob that served under Saddam is ridiculous. This is not simply about switching one mafia family for another. American policy after Saddam’s removal will be to assist the Iraqis to move as quickly as physically and practically possible into positions of power.’

As Assistant Defence Secretary under President Ronald Reagan, Perle was one of the key architects of the 1980s aggressive policy towards the Soviet Union, which Reagan dubbed an ‘evil empire’ and did much to undermine. He said he found it dismaying that many in Europe now found it ‘politically incorrect’ to describe regimes such as Iraq and North Korea as evil now:

‘What we discovered from the victims of the Soviet empire, once they were free to speak, was that they agreed with us: evil was exactly the word they chose. I suspect that’s the word that would be chosen by most of those forced to live in North Korea under Kim Jong Il, under the Iranian mullahs and Saddam Hussein.’

This piece ran in the Observer in London on February 23, 2003