The Bush administration is beginning to appease rather than confront America's enemies, a former chairman of the Defense Policy Board and leading neoconservative thinker said yesterday, describing the president as "a failure" who is proving powerless to impose his views on his administration.
Richard Perle offered a withering assessment of the president's impotence at a meeting of the Hudson Institute in New York, saying American foreign policy is being applied by an out-of-control State Department.
Although Mr. Perle said he no longer has access to the president, he said his conversations with those close to the White House led him to a pessimistic view of how foreign policy is currently conducted, with a profound disconnect between President Bush's wishes and how the administration carries out policies in his name.
"We have already seen a change in policy towards Iran," he said. "It is now firmly back in the hands of the Department of State."
Mr. Perle's assessment is recognized by an expert on defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas Donnelly, who said Mr. Bush is routinely frustrated by "establishment" thinking within Washington and that the failure to respond to the president's more radical thinking has harmed American policy in Iraq.
But the characterization of a divided administration frustrating the president's wishes is inaccurate, according the director of the foreign policy program at the New America Foundation, Steven Clemons, who said he thinks Mr. Bush is allowing Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice to play good cop, bad cop with the Iranians.
Mr. Perle said the president has failed to control his administration from the start and that bad appointments have ensured that he is isolated from the rest of the government, aside from close allies such as Ms. Rice and Mr. Cheney.
The president's failure to get his own way stems from his general inexperience in foreign affairs and his ignorance of the way Washington works, Mr. Perle suggested. "He came ill-equipped for the job and has failed to master it," he said. "I do not meet the president, but from the people I meet who are close to him and from his speeches, I believe the gap between the president and his administration is without precedent."
"He was only in office a short time when 9/11 took place. … This president appointed people he hardly knew. He didn't know Colin Powell," Mr. Perle added. "He delegated a great deal. He thought he would give general direction and that the machinery would do what he wanted done. But the machinery wouldn't do what he wanted done."
Mr. Donnelly said it is likely that Mr. Bush's first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and even Ms. Rice have deliberately interpreted policy against the president's wishes. "There is certainly a huge difference between the president's strategy toward Iraq and the Middle East and the policy as exacted by the Defense Department — not only Defense, but the State Department and the intelligence agencies," he said.
Mr. Clemons, however, said the apparent contradictions among the president, the vice president, and secretary of state reflect a change in the president's thinking. "George Bush keeps his cards close to his chest. He is, however, allowing Condi Rice more leeway. We know that Bush got fully on board with Rice in changing policy about talking with Iran," he said.
The State Department is "institutionally disposed to settle problems through compromise, to settle rather than to fight," Mr. Perle said. This is dangerous because many enemies of America remain who are prepared to continue fighting when offered a settlement. "You cannot settle with Al Qaeda. You cannot settle with Islamist extremists. Those who suggest we can do great damage," he said.
Mr. Bush displayed weakness in the face of Syria and failed to convincingly condemn the visit of the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to Damascus "because he had authorized some Republicans to talk to Assad," he said.
Mr. Perle said the current policy toward Iraq has no more than nine months to run: It either will have achieved success by then or will have to be abandoned. "That is why I find it strange that the Democrats should take short-term political advantage. They have only to wait," he said.
The U.S. Army "is not terribly well equipped" to fight the insurgency in Iraq, he said, and the Defense Department is still planning an army to fight a Russian advance in Central Europe. "We sent over the only Army we had," he said. He added that he thinks the coalition should have handed the country over to the Iraqis in October 2003, when the insurgency began.
Nor did Mr. Perle offer any optimism that the current surge policy, which he said he believed was correct in conception, would succeed. "People have retreated behind the Iranian border, out of harm's way, biding their time," he said.