Joseph Wilson's new book covers his 23-year diplomatic career. This section deals with the run-up to the first Gulf War, when he was the acting ambassador to Iraq, and the last American official to meet with Saddam Hussein before the war began. In this excerpt, he makes absolutely clear to the Iraqi leadership -- by donning a hangman's noose at a press briefing -- that the regime will have to execute him before he permits them to take hostage any more of the Americans in the country. Read an excerpt from "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity," below:
Chapter Seven: A Noose for a Necktie
At the ambassador’s residence in Baghdad, about a ten-minute drive from the embassy compound, a loose structure and organization emerged from within the community of forty American men now ensconced there. We called them our guests, to distinguish them from the hostages Saddam was holding and from our Kuwait diplomatic colleagues. Since these men were not diplomats, they were subject to being seized by the Iraqis and so for the most part were restricted to the residence except when traveling to the embassy in a diplomatic vehicle. The guests designated liaison officers with the embassy and with the ever-inquisitive press. They assigned tasks to each other to ensure that the facilities were properly maintained, and worked well together to keep spirits up through planned activities at the residence, such as movie nights and periodic barbeques to which embassy staff was invited.
I encouraged them to be as self-sufficient as possible, though we remained attentive to potential problems. As could be expected, there were some medical issues, particularly since a large segment of this population was older. A couple of men were taking antidepressant medication, and when it ran out, we were faced with some problems. But in general, morale and behavior were very good.
With every new arrival of the press, whose ranks turned over about every ten days, we would receive videotapes of movies and football games that were immediately sent to the residence. We also benefited from a steady supply of cigars. In fact, before Dan Rather left, he came to see me and asked what shortages we might be experiencing as a consequence of the sanctions. I polled our embassy officials and learned that the only thing we thought we might run out of was cigars. Every new group of journalists from then until my departure in January brought a box of cigars to us. I had never smoked such quality, then or since.
Inevitably, some of our guests went stir-crazy and were imprudent. Some left the compound and were picked up by the Iraqis; others plotted their escape across the desert into Jordan. I tried to discourage such dangerous actions, but I could not and would not stand in the way of those who were determined to try to escape. We arranged for our embassy in Jordan to send us maps of the border region and some compasses to help those determined to leave to find their way. We also stationed an embassy team on the Jordanian side of the border, with the permission of the Jordanian government, to receive them if they managed to make their way across the lightly guarded frontier.
One particular band of escapees bribed taxi drivers to drive them to within several miles of the border and then struck out on foot across the desert in the middle of the night. To our delight, we learned the next day that they had executed their plan perfectly and made it out. Over the next several weeks, a couple of other groups also escaped in the same way.
The sixty-three of our diplomatic colleagues from Kuwait, who were reassigned by the State Department to “temporary duty” (tdy) in Baghdad for the duration of their enforced stay, lived at the Marine House and in other embassy houses and apartments on the same side of the river as the embassy. The tdy’ers benefited from their status as diplomats and could move freely about the city, though they still could not leave the country.
My own schedule remained chaotic. I continued to reside in my own home, twenty minutes across the river from the embassy compound and ten from the ambassador’s residence. I stayed there expressly so that there would be one officer on the same side of the river as the government ministries in case the bridges across the river were closed for whatever reason. For the few hours a day when I was not at work or at meetings, it was important to me to be in familiar surroundings with my music, my books, and my artwork.
I used the ambassador’s fully armored car, even when the air conditioning failed, which it did often, and the hermetically sealed interior became as hot as the desert outside. My driver was an intensely loyal and brave Egyptian named Said, who remained with me day and night, refusing to be relieved so long as I was awake. He moved in with me and slept little more than I did over the next five months. Day or night, the car was ready for whatever foray I might have to make. We always traveled with the American flag flying from the bumper. It was one way of showing that we were not afraid. In fact, I knew that if something was going to happen to me, it would be only on the orders of the government and that I would not be in any position to resist or even defend myself. Throughout the crisis, ordinary Iraqis remained friendly and hospitable, often waving as my car passed.
Three shifts a day manned the task force at the State Department in Washington, D.C., rotating at eight in the morning, four in the afternoon, and midnight Washington time—or three in the afternoon, eleven at night, and seven in the morning Baghdad time. The senior officer of each shift of the task force expected to be briefed by me when he came on, meaning that most days I was in my office at the embassy by 6:30 a.m. and did not leave for home until after 11:30 at night. After the morning briefing with Washington, the embassy military attaché would brief me on American troop movements into the Gulf and the state of military planning. This was followed by a general staff meeting in Baghdad, at which we reviewed the status of all of our programs and prepared for the daily off-the-record press briefing.
One particularly memorable staff meeting was interrupted almost as soon as we assembled when I was called out to speak with the task force. When I picked up the phone, the voice on the other end said flatly, “The balloon is going up.” I replied to the voice that he was going to have to be more explicit, so he added, “The Iraqis have launched a missile, and, according to our estimates, it will land in either Tel Aviv or Haifa. If that happens, we will launch a counterattack and hit Iraq with everything we have.”
I returned to the meeting and informed the participants. After a moment of stunned silence, we shifted focus to immediate security concerns and began to plan to move everybody to the ambassador’s compound, well away from the embassy, which would be manned with only a skeleton crew in the event the Iraqis decided to retaliate against us. We sent one officer up to the roof to check wind direction, because we feared that an air attack would target suspected chemical and biological weapons sites, unleashing deadly winds that could drift toward us. We did not have gas masks or protective suits, so there was little we could have done anyway, but we were more than a bit curious.
Just as we were about to break up to take the actions we had outlined, I was called to the phone again. This time the voice told me, “False alarm. The missile landed well within Iraqi territory. It was just a test to calibrate their navigational system.” I conveyed the reprieve to a very relieved team, who had been described by somebody arriving late to the meeting as the most ashen-faced group of people he had ever seen. I later joked that the lesson of that morning was to always bring a second pair of underwear to the office, just in case.
At 9:30 a.m. most mornings, the embassy press attaché, Steve Thibault, would usher the international press into the office for a half hour of questions. We tried to be as candid as possible, although the briefings were off the record, as Steve reminded the press every morning when he went over the ground rules. We tried to develop a theme every day and encouraged reporting on issues that were actually worrying us. We were not above putting our best interpretation on a story, and we rarely missed an opportunity to stick it to the Iraqis or embarrass them if we could.
One of these briefings took place on September 20, 1990. The Iraqis had circulated a diplomatic note to all embassies directing them to register citizens in their care with the appropriate authorities. Capital punishment was threatened for those who failed to comply, the implication being that even diplomatic personnel could be subject to this decree. However, registration could be accomplished only by personal appearance at the appropriate office, and our experience had been that Americans appearing were taken hostage. It was clearly a way for the Iraqis to replenish their stock of hostages. The choice, theoretically, was either to turn over Americans or to defy the note and risk execution.
I thought this was a tailor-made opportunity to confront the authorities over their increasingly draconian measures. I decided to give copies of the note to the press attending the briefing that morning, and then, to underscore the threat of execution, I asked the Marine security guard to fashion a hangman’s noose for me to wear. I wanted to make the point that faced with the choice of sacrificing Americans under my protection or suffering capital punishment, my response to Saddam was “if he wants to execute me for keeping Americans from being taken hostage, I will bring my own fucking rope,” as I told the reporters that morning.
Like all of our press briefings, this one was off the record, so news of my less-than-fashionable necktie wasn’t intended to be made public. Unfortunately, either Thibault neglected to set the ground rules that morning, or else one of the journalists decided that the story was just too good to pass up and violated the agreement. By noon, the story had been so distorted in the retelling that French news announced that the Iraqis intended to hang the American chargé d’affaires by sundown.
Not surprisingly, the Iraqis were furious, and Tariq Aziz convoked a meeting of the entire diplomatic corps for that evening. Even though most of the hundred or so heads of embassies attended the meeting, it was essentially a showdown between Aziz and me. With what I’d done now widely known, I wasn’t going to back down, so I played my hand as aggressively as I could. We sat at opposite ends of a long table. Tariq lit a cigar. I did as well. He asserted that the diplomatic note was not intended to require compliance by embassies. I jumped in and asked, “Then why was it sent as a diplomatic note?” Such notes generally set forth government procedures on various issues and required compliance from the diplomatic corps.
Tariq said that the Iraqis had no intention of executing diplomats. I responded, “Then why did they refer to capital punishment in the note?” The meeting broke up inconclusively. Tariq had tried to embarrass me in front of my diplomatic colleagues, but I was having none of it. My charges were my fellow citizens, not other diplomats. The next day, we received another diplomatic note from the Iraqi foreign ministry, withdrawing the previous note. Once again, we had stood up to the Iraqis and forced them to back down from a malicious demand.
The morning press briefing would often break up with several of the journalists staying behind to ask one last question, or if they were newly arrived, to get one of my business cards. One day I asked a journalist why he needed yet another card since his news organization must have had at least ten in their offices. He replied without hesitation that the press betting was that I was not going to survive, and he thought the card might prove valuable someday. I handed him a card, after autographing it for him.
After the press cleared out, we would work on our daily tasks, from planning evacuation flights to scheduling meetings with foreign ministry officials or other diplomats. I regularly sought out my foreign counterparts to keep them up to date on what we were doing and also to exchange information. One of my most amusing exchanges was with the Austrian ambassador. One morning, he asked if he could drop by and see me. I offered that since he was an ambassador and I a mere chargé, I would be pleased to call on him. But it was important to him that he call on me, and so he showed up within a few minutes.
A historian by training, he referred to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous meeting with Hitler—also an Austrian by birth—at Munich in September 1938, and urged as strongly as possible that we remain tough and not yield to appeasement tendencies being expressed in other capitals. I was gratified by his comments, since we had been subjected to a number of slights from some of our Western colleagues for our hard-line position, and I conveyed his sentiments to Washington. Several years later, he told me that when he had been introduced to President Bush after the end of the Gulf War, the president commented to him how much he had appreciated his remarks as relayed by me.
The British ambassador, Harold “Hooky” Walker, in particular, was critical of our aggressive approach. Our strained relations stemmed from our embassy decision early on to offer Americans safe haven to keep them out of Saddam’s clutches. British citizens were subject to the same threats as Americans, and when they saw what we had done, they demanded that their ambassador offer the same support. Unfortunately, the British embassy did not have the resources that we did, so when they finally invited their citizens to stay on their embassy compound, they had to turn to us for refrigerators, stoves, and other equipment to help furnish their improvised quarters.
In dealing with the Iraqis, the British always believed they had the best approach, favoring a more traditional quiet diplomacy. At one point, Hooky snobbishly remarked to me that we reminded him of a bunch of cowboys sitting on the stoop of our ranch house with our rifles across our chests, waiting for the Indians to come over the horizon and attack us. Since a similar image of the Alamo had occurred to me more than once, I thanked him for the compliment. His deputy was more philosophical about our plight. In one of our exchanges, he noted, “When in our careers will we ever again be reasonably well paid to be as obnoxious as we like?” He was right; we were not going to achieve results by acting as if this was a popularity contest. I was convinced then and am convinced now that we would never have succeeded in saving Americans if we had relied on traditional diplomacy. Saddam respected only strength. Diplomatic niceties were viewed by him as signs of weakness to be pocketed, with the supplicant then walked all over. A serial violator of international law and treaties could not be coddled.
After briefing the task force coordinator who came on duty in Washington at 8:00 a.m., or 3:00 p.m. Baghdad time, I would go home for lunch and a brief rest. On most afternoons, around five o’clock, I would attend a daily meeting of the European Union ambassadors as an observer. I would share what we were doing and invite them to support us. Since their rules required not just consultation with their own governments but also a consensus within the community, they were ill equipped to act in a timely matter. Sometimes they would follow our lead ten days later, but we could not count on their solidarity with us.
Some European ambassadors could be infuriating. In early October, the German ambassador to Iraq hosted a reception to celebrate the momentous occasion of Germany’s reunification at the end of the Cold War. Attending the event was the erstwhile East German colleague, who’d served as ambassador to Kuwait. The East German joked with me that he was no doubt the only diplomat in the history of our profession to lose not just the country to which he had been accredited, Kuwait, but also the country from which he had been sent, East Germany. His gallows humor in the face of not just a difficult present but also an uncertain future upon his return to a newly united Germany, was impressive. After all, however well he may have performed in Kuwait, the only thing that was guaranteed when he arrived back in his country was that he would be out of a job.
The reception was extremely well attended by Iraqi officials, and they hung on every word the representative of the reunified Germany had to say. The German ambassador, a sometimes difficult colleague, offered a longwinded toast extolling the virtues of national unity after forty-five years of separation. I thought as I listened that however splendidly the speech might play in Berlin, it was totally inappropriate in the context of the current crisis. Here Iraq claimed it was uniting with Kuwait to correct a historic error, that is, the separation of the two countries earlier in the century. I do not know if our host had any idea what effect his comments might have on the Iraqis, but the effect was so predictable that he certainly should have known better. Within hours the Iraqis were citing German unification as the precedent and justification for their own actions in Kuwait.
On another occasion, the same German ambassador invited his fellow ambassadors from Britain, France, and Japan, plus myself, to meet with him. He proudly announced that he had just arranged with the Iraqis to provide safe passage for all of our respective citizens still in Kuwait. I asked him if the safe passage was out of Iraq and to safety, and he responded that it was only to Baghdad, after which they would be taken into custody by the Iraqis and dispersed to the “strategic sites.” I gritted my teeth and coldly thanked him for his efforts, saying I would relay his offer to Washington. I was pretty damn sure, though, that there was no way President Bush was going to take any action that would add to the number of Americans being held in Iraq by Saddam. I was right. Secretary Baker sent our ambassador to Germany, the venerable Vernon Walters, to meet with the German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, to register our disdain for the plan, which soon was abandoned.
At seven every evening, I met with the Turkish, French, British, and Soviet deputy chiefs of mission. They were my closest colleagues and the persons best informed and most directly involved in the situation. Our meetings were informal and candid exchanges among friends. Though our approaches were dictated by our governments, we also understood that each of us was playing a different role in this drama. Ours was to be the most belligerent, the Soviets’ to be the most accommodating, the French to be both. The Turks were soft in rhetoric but firmly behind the American position.
It was the one opportunity of the day to relax with friends, among whom I had worked over the past two years. We would trade information and views and bring each other up to date on what our respective governments were thinking and doing, all informally over pasta and cold beer. These became cherished interludes, which frequently became quite personal as we talked about the impact of the crisis on our families and friends at home. I would mention the infrequent conversations I had with my twins, Joe and Sabrina, now twelve. They were of an age where it was awkward to talk with Dad so far away. Our phone calls were punctuated by long silences and careful avoidance of their worries about my safety, though Susan relayed how scared they were for me. They understood I was in a dangerous predicament.
I would return to the embassy every night for one last briefing with the Washington task force at eleven o’clock before finally going home for the night. Once home, I would unwind with a steady diet of movies, football tapes, and the British program Yes, Minister, the story of a hapless politician hopelessly outmaneuvered by his clever professional staff. My taste in movies during these months tended toward gratuitous violence—I probably watched Die Hard a dozen times. I could relate to its hero, trying to avoid getting killed while being responsible for saving people. The bruising contact in the football games reflected what I often wanted to do to certain Iraqis. Yes, Minister was a hysterical look at governmental bureaucracy; for all the support we received from Washington, sometimes we felt like we were dealing with similar bumbling ourselves as the static organization back home tried to cope with a fast-moving situation. This made the British comedy all the more enjoyable and funny during my off hours.
At one in the morning, I usually tuned in to the bbc World Service on radio, which every night offered superb analyses of the situation from some of the world’s leading experts on the Middle East. Finally, at one-thirty I would hit the sack.
I could never sleep the entire night, or what was left of it, however, consumed as I was with figuring out how to outfox the Iraqis. We had made progress on the margins—some of our most vulnerable hostages had been released—but every time we thought we had discovered a loophole in the hostage policy, Saddam would cinch it closed. I would get out of bed at least once during the night and pace the floors of my house, wondering what else we might do to achieve some leverage in a situation where the adversary had all the guns and all the power. I had never paced like this before. It was a new phenomenon, but one that I learned I shared with others who under pressure found it a helpful way to gather one’s thoughts. At 6:00 a.m., the cycle would begin anew.
In early November, in bed for a couple of days with a cold and flu, I opened Henry Kissinger’s book, The White House Years, the memoir of his years as national security adviser in the Nixon administration. In it, he recounted meeting Anwar Sadat in 1973 and coming away from the meeting convinced that there would be no new Middle East war, only to have hostilities break out a mere matter of weeks later in what the Israeli’s called the Yom Kippur War. I remember thinking that if Kissinger could be fooled, surely I could be, too. It was reassuring to know that better minds than mine had been confounded by their Arab interlocutors.
As we approached Thanksgiving, my embassy colleagues and I decided that the holiday provided us with a perfect backdrop for reminding Americans that there were still hostages in Iraq and that the embassy was working around the clock to obtain their release. I pitched a proposal to Washington that included an early morning visit to the Iraqi foreign ministry with diplomatic notes prepared by Emil and our ad hoc consular section, demanding the release on health grounds of each of the hostages—a separate note for each of the almost 120 hostages. This would be followed by a press conference in which I would, for once, answer questions on the record. Later, I would give the press an opportunity to film the preparations for the Thanksgiving meal at my house. The spokesman for our American guests would also speak with the journalists that afternoon.
The proposal was met with a curious silence from Washington, even after two follow-up calls. I finally pressed the task force chief for an answer. “Nobody is going to tell you not to do it,” he said, “but with the president traveling to Saudi Arabia to have Thanksgiving with the troops, the White House press office is concerned that you might step on the president’s story. That said, if you insist, feel free to go ahead. Just so you are aware of the concerns here.” The message was clear: proceed at your own risk. I thought about it for a while and asked myself, even if I were to step on the president’s message, something I could not imagine happening—after all, he was the president and I was just Joe Wilson—what could Washington do to show its displeasure? Send me to Baghdad? On the other hand, the hostage message needed to be hammered home, and what better time to do it? I decided to take my chances.
The program went as scripted, including camera shots of turkey being served and our American guests’ spokesman, Roland Bergheer, delivering a stirringly patriotic statement about how the liberation of Kuwait was more important than the lives of the Americans stuck in Iraq. Later, as I was tucking into my own holiday dinner with a few friends, very satisfied with the way the day had gone, the doorbell rang. It was cnn correspondent Richard Roth at the door with his camera crew and the news that the Iraqis had brought some American hostages to Baghdad for a government-provided Thanksgiving dinner, complete with cnn cameras to record it. The dinner had taken place less than a mile from my house. Did I have a reaction? Roth asked.
You bet, I said, and launched into a rant about the barbaric and sadistic nature of a regime that would parade hostages before the cameras as a propaganda tool while denying them access to their country’s embassy or consular officials. Roth thanked me and went on his way. A couple of days after this, a cable arrived “from President Bush to chargé d’affaires Joe Wilson.” He wrote: “I recently saw you on cnn saying what you thought of Saddam’s latest attempt to derive political gain out of understandable concern here for the hostages. I could not have said it better. It is relatively easy to speak out from the safety and comfort of Washington; what you are doing day in and day out under the most trying conditions is truly inspiring. Keep fighting the good fight; you and your stalwart colleagues are always in our thoughts and prayers.”
When I called Richard Haass, the senior director at the National Security Council, to thank him for drafting such a nice message, he told me that the president had drafted it himself. All of us at the embassy were gratified, all the more in knowing that at least the president was not concerned that we might have distracted people from his message. I had a copy of the cable made and sent over to Richard Roth with the personal note that he was at least as responsible as I was, since he had provided the means through which I had delivered the message. I understand he still has the cable in his office. I do too.
A week after Thanksgiving, on November 27, the Senate Armed Services Committee convened to debate a resolution to give the president the authority he needed to wage war to liberate Kuwait. The most notable of the witnesses, from our perspective in Baghdad, was retired Admiral William J. Crowe, President Bush’s former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He testified on November 28 that “we should give sanctions a fair chance before we discard them . . . If, in fact, the sanctions will work in twelve to eighteen months instead of six months, a trade-off of avoiding war, with its attendant sacrifices and uncertainties, would in my estimation be more than worth it.”
The reaction in Baghdad was electric. Here was one of President Bush’s former senior military officers breaking with his commander in chief. The Iraqis immediately began to voice doubt that the American military would allow the president to make war.
On substance, Crowe was flat wrong. We had sent an analysis of the effects of sanctions to Washington several weeks earlier. We had concluded that the sanctions were having a deleterious effect on Saddam’s war machine, but that they would not in and of themselves drive him out of Kuwait, not in a decade or even longer. While we had seen ample evidence of the lack of spare parts, fuel additives, and spare tires for military equipment, it was clear that the sanctions would affect the economy and infrastructure only gradually and incrementally. The Iraqi economy, we argued, was not a fragile house of cards that would just collapse from one day to the next. On the contrary, it would grind down over time.
One year, the people might be driving Chevrolets, several years later Volkswagens, later still riding donkeys or bicycles. It would be a decade at least, we estimated, before the Iraqi infrastructure would be so run-down that Saddam might have to face the decision to withdraw from Kuwait in order to get out from under the sanctions. By that time, he would have looted the Kuwait treasury, found ways around the sanctions, and repopulated Kuwait with Iraqis so as to rig any vote on the future of the country. Sanctions would make the war easier, we believed, but not unnecessary, as long as our goal was to liberate Kuwait.
As the congressional debate in Washington opened, we had made considerable progress on securing the release of the remaining American hostages. The increasing pressure of war had made the Iraqis more amenable to some arrangement to release them, perhaps in exchange for American concessions. But we were not in the concession business. We argued instead that unless the Iraqis wanted war over the mistreatment of American citizens, they ought to see it in their interest to release all Americans in their custody. When Admiral Crowe made his ill-considered statement, Iraqi willingness to discuss the issue with us abruptly ceased for several days: the Iraqis had concluded that they might just as well hold out a bit longer to see if they could extract a better deal for the hostages.
I had remained in regular contact with my friends Al Gore and Tom Foley, now Speaker of the House, since the invasion. Gore had been the first person outside the State Department to be in touch with me. Though he had been in the midst of his Senate reelection campaign, he took time out of his schedule to reach out to me and offer his support. It was a gesture I have never forgotten. He also asked me to keep him informed about the situation as it evolved. I telephoned him, and later Foley, regularly throughout the crisis, from an open line in my office, hopeful that Iraqi intelligence was listening in on my tough talk with two of my country’s elected leaders. I wanted Saddam to know that the United States was deadly serious about the liberation of Kuwait and was willing to use force if necessary.
During the Senate debate on whether to authorize the president to use force, I phoned Gore’s office, but he was on the Senate floor. I offered to call back, but his aide insisted on patching me through to the Senate Democrats’ cloakroom. The senator came off the floor and questioned me intensely for twenty minutes about whether sanctions alone could get Saddam out of Kuwait. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the very day of the vote on the war resolution, and Gore would be one of the few Democrats to vote with President Bush. It pained me during the 2000 presidential election campaign to see former Senator Alan Simpson accuse Al of being “Prime Time Al” because of the timing of the speech announcing his support of the president. This was the same Alan Simpson who had been practically on bended knee before Saddam in April 1990, reassuring the Iraqi dictator that he had a press problem and not a policy problem. It was an outrage that a decade later he had the nerve to be critical of the one senator who had really taken the time to listen to an analysis from the field and factor that in to his decision on what most senators agreed was one of the most momentous votes of their careers.
Our efforts on behalf of the hostages, as useless as they seemed right after the Crowe testimony, did not flag. In addition to daily notes to the foreign ministry on behalf of specific cases, and quiet meetings with Hamdun to see what we might do on behalf of some of the sicker hostages, I also worked with some thoughtful members of the international press. My goal was to bring some focus to bear on the argument that holding on to the hostages was not in Saddam’s interest, unless he wanted to go to war over that issue rather than over his continued occupation of Kuwait.
I met over lunch one day with an Arab journalist who had considerable influence in the region. To her I reiterated that President Bush had clearly already concluded that, given the size of the war being contemplated, the loss of a couple of hundred American civilians was acceptable, even if lamentable. Saddam was therefore deluding himself if he thought he could prevent war by keeping hostages. And the other side of the coin was that Saddam needed to understand that should something happen to the hostages, either accidentally or as a consequence of mistreatment, American anger might be such that the president would be forced to go to war to avenge that mistreatment. It was important that the region’s leaders comprehend what the consequences might be if something went wrong with the hostages. If Saddam did not want to risk war over hostages, he should just let them go. They were not an asset to him, but rather a grave liability.
In late November, about ten days after that lunch, we received a copy of the minutes from a meeting between our ambassador to Algeria, Chris Ross, and Algerian Foreign Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, in which the minister expressed his concern that Saddam did not understand the risk he ran by continuing to hold the hostages. His analysis was precisely the one I had shared with the Arab journalist. I was certain that my contact had been speaking to other Arab leaders, and I saw that the thesis was gaining some traction. It would soon get back to Saddam from Arab interlocutors.
It did not matter how many times I told the Iraqis the risks they ran—they expected me to say it. But when a fellow Arab said the same thing, it would have far greater impact.
We did not have to wait long, only until King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat traveled to Baghdad in early December to meet with Saddam. According to a report we received from our ambassador in Amman, Roger Harrison, Hussein raised the issue of the hostages with Saddam and laid out the same case against continuing to hold them. The Arab journalist with whom I’d lunched was also a personal friend of King Hussein and had obviously shared our discussion with him.
That meeting with the king and Arafat was the real clincher. Saddam, who had just invited the wives of the hostages to return to Baghdad to see their husbands, announced on December 6 that Iraq’s defenses were now strong enough to withstand an American offensive, so the hostages could now go home. We were elated and went back into the charter aircraft business. In addition to evacuating the remaining hostages, we ended up flying their wives out for the second time at government expense, even though they had come back to Baghdad over our strong objections.
On December 13, I was able to go out to the airport and greet Ambassador Nat Howell and his remaining troops as they transited Baghdad on the last charter we flew from Kuwait. They would be home for Christmas, as would the tdy’ers who had been stranded with us since August and who had performed such valuable service. They had comported themselves in the finest traditions of our foreign service, with dignity and tenacity in the face of considerable hardship. They made all of us in the embassy proud. The few of us who remained in Baghdad would miss them, but we were delighted that the number of Americans in danger had dropped from close to two hundred to fewer than ten.
While the hostage issue and the safe evacuation of all Americans had been the primary responsibility of our embassy, we also regularly provided to Washington our analysis of the situation in Baghdad. This included recommendations on what we might do further to pressure Saddam to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait, although at the same time we remained steadfast in our view that only the credible threat of force could possibly convince Saddam to retreat. We reported on everything from the impact of sanctions, to the Iraqi reaction to the buildup of American forces in the Gulf, as well as the reaction in Baghdad to the inflammatory rhetoric coming out of Washington. After the departure of the hostages, the guests, and even our tdy’ers from Kuwait, we were down to six Americans—all with but one goal, which was to ensure that both sides understood the gravity of the situation and would avoid needlessly going to war if possible. I did believe, however, that there were some “fig leaves” that we could offer Saddam that would not compromise our hard-line and fully justified position but that might allow him a face-saving way to withdraw. My thinking involved four such fig leaves that could be subtly suggested to him. If he chose to grab one, so much the better; if not, we had lost nothing.
The four ideas were: survival of his army if it departed Kuwait peacefully; a reduction of the heated rhetoric, including the references to Saddam as a Hitler-like figure; a commitment to work with Iraq and Kuwait on the legitimate issues of concern to Saddam; and finally, a rededication to working toward a lasting solution to the Arab/Israeli peace process—not because Saddam had tried to link the two but because it was the right thing to do.
Saddam’s effort to claim he had invaded Kuwait in order to liberate Palestine had been one of the most cynical of all of his ploys, but that did not mean that we should ignore one of the major irritants in the region.
I was not the only one thinking along these lines, and was gratified to read that in a number of television appearances during the month of December, senior administration officials let drop remarks that hinted at each of the four fig leaves. As soon as I would receive the transcript of such an interview that an administration official had given to American media, I would scour it for useful statements and pass them on to Nizar Hamdun to share with the rest of his government. The Iraqi embassy in Washington had long since ceased to be a credible conduit of information from Washington to Baghdad, so we had become the sole source of official information from Washington for the Iraqis.
As much as I continued to hope for a peaceful solution, however, it was clear to me that we were on a collision course for war.
However rational the August 2 invasion might have been from the Iraqi perspective, Saddam had miscalculated every step of the way since November 8, when President Bush had announced that he was sending the U.S. Army’s Seventh Corps from Germany to the Gulf to prepare to roll back the invasion. The Seventh Corps was a big, heavy military machine made to roll over an enemy. The president would not commit the corps unless he was serious. Moreover, what Saddam failed to understand was that we would not have moved forces from the European theater if we were not comfortable that the Soviets would not meddle in Europe in our absence. Saddam always assumed that the Soviets would save him; he was wrong on that, as on so many other things. Despite two visits to Baghdad by Yevgeny Primakov, then the Soviet envoy, selected to mediate because of his longstanding personal relationship with Saddam, it was clear that Moscow understood that its long-term interests lay with the United States, not with Iraq.
Shortly after the invasion, I had suggested to Washington that we should try to find ways to drive a wedge between Saddam and his military command by convincing the latter that if a war were to take place, it would not be set-piece trench warfare—as the Iran–Iraq war had been—but a fast-moving conflict with all the awesome firepower that the United States could bring to bear. I proposed a video be made showing what we could do from land, sea, and air; everything from cruise missiles hitting sites hundreds of miles apart to tanks rolling over sand dunes while their turrets turned to hit targets that could not even be seen.
I wanted the Iraqi high command to lie awake at night knowing that their troops were going to be utterly decimated. Our Special Operations Commanding General Wayne Downing liked the idea and produced the video, a copy of which he later gave me. Unfortunately, as he later told me, the State Department held up the distribution until December because of concerns that it was too “bellicose.” I couldn’t believe it. We had close to 500,000 troops in the Gulf primed and ready to attack, and we were squeamish about a video designed to give Saddam’s high command second thoughts. By the time it was finally distributed, it was too late to do any good. The stage was set.
Throughout the month of December, I also worked on the proposal put forth by President Bush that we “go the extra mile for peace” by holding meetings between Secretary of State James Baker and Tariq Aziz in Washington and in Baghdad. The Iraqis again miscalculated, taking what was essentially an ultimatum as an invitation to debate. By the time we arrived at agreement, the two meetings in the respective capitals had been collapsed into one in Geneva, scheduled for early January 1991.
By the middle of December, the beating of the war drums in Washington actually left the Iraqis thinking that we really were not going to attack. One well-informed journalist for the London Sunday Times reported to me: “The Iraqis have concluded that you are bluffing. If you were serious, you wouldn’t keep beating your chests. You would let your actions speak for you.”
I took that to heart and relayed her thoughts to Washington, recommending that we tone down our threats. I remember the cable as being appropriately polite; but Larry Grahl, who hand-carried my message to Secretary Baker, later told me, “I thought you had lost your mind, telling the president and the secretary in effect to shut up.” Then, a couple of days later, when he realized the U.S. government had gone silent, “I concluded you were brilliant,” Grahl said. It was, of course, the British journalist who had had the brilliant idea, but soon the benefit was nullified, as every pundit and member of Congress had jumped on the chattering bandwagon, and silence was not maintained.
At the embassy, it was not clear if Washington was going to withdraw the six of us before the war, or even if the Iraqis would allow us to leave if we tried. That was fine with me. I had every intention of remaining as long as necessary to provide diplomatic support, whatever the circumstances that unfolded. I received a message from Washington advising that there would be military means at the ready—to extract us—in the event Saddam tried to prevent us from departing, when and if a decision on our removal was made. We would drive into the desert to the east of Baghdad, near the Iranian border, where a helicopter and a contingent of Special Operations forces would be standing by to whisk us to safety. My reply was that close to a hundred other diplomatic missions were depending on us to tell them when the time had come to leave. I was not going to betray their confidence by sneaking out under the cover of darkness without letting them know, unless personally ordered to do so by the president. That reaction ended the discussion and, I understand, the serious planning. I wanted to leave by the front door or not leave at all.
The Baker–Aziz meeting finally took place in Geneva on January 9, 1991. Secretary Baker later told me that he asked Aziz four times for assurances that Iraq would permit the remaining American diplomats to leave if the U.S. decided to suspend our diplomatic representation. Each time Aziz demurred, saying only that he had to refer the question to “higher authority.” “When I left that meeting, I did not know if we were going to get you out or not,” Baker said.
On January 9, I received a call from Nizar Hamdun confirming that “higher authority” had agreed not to prevent our departure if we decided to go. When I informed Washington, I was instructed to buy economy-class tickets to Amman for the remaining six of us and told that we should make our way home from there as best we could. Since the Jordanians had announced that in the event of the outbreak of hostilities they would close their airport, and since there were already more than three hundred Americans waiting for flights in Amman, this struck me as a particularly unhelpful idea. Did the State Department intend for us to be stuck in Jordan throughout the war? I countered with the suggestion that we should charter the lone Iraqi Air 747, fly to Amman and pick up as many of the three hundred Americans stranded there as possible, then fly everybody to Germany to meet commercial flights back to the States. The department relented, and we compromised on chartering the smaller Iraqi Air 727 to fly directly to Germany, bypassing Amman but at least moving us completely out of the region.
Our indefatigable general services officer, Jeanette Pena, who had been the embassy’s logistical genius from the beginning, organized the final charter flight for January 12. We invited the American press to join us, noting that when we left, there would be no embassy to turn to for support. Only two journalists took us up on the offer, both of whom had been caught behind the lines when the American embassy was evacuated in Saigon in 1974 and who had no intention of reliving the experience. I also informed all the remaining diplomatic missions in Baghdad of our decision and offered seats on our plane, on a space-available basis, to those who wanted to leave with us.
On the afternoon of January 11, I delivered to Nizar the diplomatic note that suspended our diplomatic relations and turned over our mission to the Polish embassy, which would act as our protecting power. Tariq Aziz declined to receive me, perhaps still sore at being called a liar. Nizar and I had a brief and melancholy exchange in his private office, with cnn on the television behind us, the first time I had been in that office and seen cnn since August. Looking at the screen, it was apparent to us both that there was no longer any way to avoid war. I told him I took no joy in having to close the embassy but that I hoped the time might come when I could return to be part of an effort to rebuild our relations.
On January 12, I lowered the flag over the embassy, folded it, and tucked it under my arm before driving to the airport. I also said farewell to the Iraqi staff we were leaving behind. It was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. They had been unfailingly loyal to us, even as they came under tremendous pressure from the authorities, and from their own families, to quit their jobs. Now I had to leave them to fend for themselves. The last hugs all around left me flat and emotionally drained, wondering what would become of these brave and decent souls.
Getting on the airplane, I was elated that our ordeal was finally over, and buoyed by the gratitude of the diplomats from other nations who had taken us up on our offer of seats on the flight. And yet, I was saddened that our efforts had ended as they did, without Saddam’s peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait. I had done everything in my power to avoid war, and Saddam could never claim that he did not understand the consequences of continuing to occupy his neighbor after the January 15, 1991, deadline established by the U.N. But that did little to ease the deep foreboding I felt on the eve of the coming war.
After a night in Frankfurt, we arrived in Washington late in the evening of January 13, a Sunday night, to a warm reception from families and colleagues. The shock of being in Washington and no longer in the pressure cooker of Baghdad, as well as the jet lag, kept me awake most of the night. Early on the morning of the fourteenth, not knowing what to do with myself, I strolled from my Dupont Circle apartment down to the State Department twenty minutes away, thinking that I would have a leisurely morning, chatting with colleagues and thanking the task force for all the hard work they had done.
When I arrived at the office of Iraqi Affairs at the opening of the business day, I was surprised to learn that the White House had already telephoned with an invitation to a one o’clock meeting with President Bush. Assistant Secretary John Kelly took Jeanette and me to the White House, where we were met by the chief of protocol, Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed, who escorted us in to meet the president of the United States.
As the door to the Oval Office from the Roosevelt Room opened, President Bush was standing there to greet me. He shook my hand warmly, and I said to him, “We never personally spoke during my time in Baghdad, but I felt from the very beginning that we were on the same wavelength.” He replied, “You’re absolutely right,” and turned to introduce me to the others in the office, his war cabinet: Vice President Quayle, Secretary of State Baker, National Security Adviser Scowcroft, cia Director Webster, Chief of Staff Sununu, and several staff people.
I have no memory of the president’s introduction, but John Kelly told me later that he said, “Gentlemen, let me introduce you to true American heroes.”
We then shook hands all around. The press came in, took a lot of pictures, and left. After they were ushered out, the door was closed and the briefing began. Peppered first with questions from the president, then the others, I responded as well as I could. I described the fear and the fatalism in the streets and markets in Baghdad and the continuing hostility of the regime. For the first fifteen minutes of the meeting, I was devoid of any emotional feeling whatsoever, utterly unconscious of the trappings of power in the Oval Office and the level of the group I was addressing. A mixture of jet lag, culture shock, and sheer exhaustion had overwhelmed my nervous system.
Finally, I took a second to look around the room and woke up. After all, Jim Baker was sitting beside me on the sofa; the president was seated in a chair to my right, in front of the fireplace. Across the room, sitting next to the desk, was Brent Scowcroft taking notes on a legal-size yellow pad. It looked to me like he was writing down everything I said. My first conscious thought, since the moment I had been introduced to President Bush, occurred when I looked at Scowcroft and his legal pad.
“Who would have ever thought,” I said to myself, “that this ex-hippie-surfer from California would someday find himself in the Oval Office with the president of the United States and his war cabinet, with the president’s national security adviser, a retired three-star general, serving as note taker?” Then I got nervous, and it was suddenly crystal-clear to me just where I was and whom I was with.
Just as the butterflies in my stomach started to take over, my fearless colleague Jeanette took over and carried the ball for us both. She described to our attentive audience what it was like to live in prewar Baghdad, with an openly hostile regime monitoring every move and putting obstacles in the way of everything she needed to do to keep the embassy functioning. She was affable, articulate, and funny as she offered vignettes from our daily lives. All too soon, Secretary Baker looked at his watch, the signal that the meeting was over.
Walking out of the Oval Office, the president’s personal aide took me aside to invite me to the White House living quarters to meet Mrs. Bush. I was delighted. We walked over to the residence, and she came outside in a wheelchair with one leg propped up—she had recently been in a sledding accident. She reached up and gave me a warm hug. To be hugged by Barbara Bush is an experience not to be missed, and I was savoring it when a shadow hovered over us. Still in her embrace, I looked around to find the president right behind me. He had caught me hugging his wife.
For the next fifteen minutes, the three of us talked about Baghdad, its citizens, and the emotions they would be feeling on the eve of war. The president asked all the questions one would hope to hear from one’s leader. He expressed real concern and compassion. It was clear to me that he truly felt the weight of the decisions he had been obliged to take.
Thirty-six hours later, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm. I watched cnn nonstop for the next several days, my stomach turning with the images of bombs exploding in Baghdad and the Iraqi antiaircraft batteries firing aimlessly in the air. I felt no joy in the fact that we had to go to war to achieve our objectives. However justified—and in my judgment Desert Storm was fully justified—the consequences of military assault on the people of Iraq could not be ignored. War is the bluntest of all weapons in our national security repertoire. The decision to use it is an awesome one. President Bush understood that, as did his senior advisers. So did I.
Excerpted from "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity," by Joseph Wilson. Carroll & Graf. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints