Joseph Wilson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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One of the most fascinating parts of your book, The Politics of Truth, is the account of your work as deputy head of mission in the Iraq embassy in the prelude to the  Iraq war. Let's talk a little about that, because after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, once it became clear that there was going to be war, there was a long period where you had to assume the role of manager, chief representative of the U.S. on the ground. Tell us a little about that. Was it qualitatively different than everything that had preceded in your career?
Well, as I like to say, we were trained for that crisis through the fifteen years of the previous experience that I had had. I arrived in Baghdad in 1988; I was deputy chief of mission. I had not served in the Arab world before, but I knew how to manage embassies. We were planning on making Baghdad a fairly significant embassy in the aftermath of the Iran - Iraq War, consistent with our presence in other countries in the Arab world, and consistent with the complexity of the problems that we had, the issues that we faced with the Iraqis -- human rights, positions towards the Middle East peace process, the cease-fire in the Iran - Iraq War, etc.
At the time of the invasion of Kuwait, in August of 1990, the ambassador, April Glaspie, was out of the country, leaving me in charge. I had experience being in charge of embassies in Africa, as I had already been deputy chief of mission at two African posts prior to that. So when the invasion of Kuwait took place, I was in charge of the embassy.
As it turned out, we were responsible for the care of American citizens in hiding in Kuwait, about 2,000 of them. We found it hard to ensure the freeing up of our embassy staff in Kuwait, and there were about 110 who were besieged by Iraqi troops for a period of three months. We had about 150 Americans who had been taken hostage by Saddam Hussein and his thugs, the so-called "human shields," and we had about another 70 employees of Bechtel, including many from the Bay area, whom we offered sanctuary in our diplomatic quarters.
As a consequence, we were responsible for the care and feeding and welfare of them, including helping them escape. For those who decided they could stay there no longer, we attempted to give them as much support as we could in their efforts to flee the country.
I get the sense that your background as a builder helped you in having a sense of how to coordinate and act and do. Is that a fair assessment? Not just related to the Iraqi embassy, but all the experience that had preceded your stay there.
Actually, the better experience was having had all this experience in Africa, because Iraqi diplomacy, much like African diplomacy, was personality driven. European diplomacy is largely bureaucratic exchanges. My bureaucrat goes to see your bureaucrat, but it's essentially the institutions that frame the question and frame the answer. Whereas in Africa and in Iraq itself, you could actually shape the answers by the way that you pursued the diplomacy. So those were really good experiences for me, and I contrasted them with my diplomatic colleagues who had been largely trained in a European environment.
I was greatly assisted by the people who came up from Kuwait and formed part of the nucleus of my embassy. We were able to take a bunch of dispirited evacuees from the Kuwait embassy and turn them into a real functioning embassy in Baghdad. Most of that credit goes to my deputy, and I try to make that point in the book. He's now our deputy in Rome, Italy: Emil Skodon. He was just a wonderful diplomat. His ability to set up systems and structures freed me to do the actual diplomacy. I was Mr. Outside, and to a large extent he was Mr. Inside.
You sensed that it was important for you at the embassy level to define what needed to be done, as opposed to waiting for Washington to signal you.
We did. Yes, from the very beginning, we understood that if we were going to manage our destiny we were going to have to be proactive. I tell the story about having aggressively pursued actions on the assumption that they were what Washington would have asked me to do, had I consulted with Washington, and then submitting the results to them. In one case, in the very first National Security Council meeting in Washington, as chaired by then-President Bush (George Herbert Walker Bush), he was brainstorming with his senior National Security staff and somebody reached over to him, and said, "If you take a look at this executive summary, you'll see that what you're suggesting, Joe Wilson did two days ago." That instilled in the White House a considerable amount of confidence in what we were doing out in the field. At subsequent National Security Council meetings, I'm told by people who were there, whenever somebody would come up with an idea, the president would say, "Well, what does Joe Wilson think about that?"
In your book, you discuss two very important meetings, and I would like to talk to you about those. One is the meeting of Ambassador Glaspie with Saddam Hussein, and the history books have not been clear yet about whether she gave him the wrong signal before the invasion that led him to think that he would get away with it, and that we would acquiesce in the invasion. You're providing new information here, things that you have learned since that day from people on the Iraq side who were present. Tell us about that.
The first draft of the history of that meeting has not been very kind to April Glaspie, and has, in fact, suggested that perhaps by the way that she phrased her talking points, she may have inadvertently given Saddam Hussein a green light, or at least not a red light, for invading Kuwait -- either encouraging or at least not discouraging it.
Well, having spoken to one of the people who was at the meeting from the Iraqi side in New York last year, about two months before he passed away, I asked that very question, because I was not at the meeting. I know what April told me when she came out of the meeting, and I know how the cables she wrote read. He said, "No, absolutely not" -- that in fact, in that meeting what she said was exactly what the Iraqis expected her to say. It was a longstanding policy of the United States and of other global powers or regional powers that we do not take positions on the merits of a particular legal case between two Arab countries, other than to encourage them in the strongest possible terms to mediate their differences either through an internal court of justice or international mediation or bilateral diplomacy.
What did surprise this interlocutor, Nizar Hamdun, who had served as ambassador to Washington and as ambassador to the United Nations, as well as undersecretary for foreign affairs in Iraq, what had surprised him was the tenor of the letter subsequently sent to Saddam Hussein by then-President Bush.
Before the invasion?
Before the invasion -- which he found to be overly conciliatory. Now, in reporting that, I did not intend to be critical of what the administration did; it is simply a matter of putting it down for history's sake. At that time, we were being advised by neighboring countries not to do anything provocative, anything that Saddam might take as an excuse to invade Kuwait. So we were walking on eggshells.
I can understand in retrospect, as I understood at the time, the need to be conciliatory; but it was important to put down for the history books how this was perceived from the Iraqi perspective.
After the invasion, you're now the acting ambassador; you have a meeting with Saddam Hussein at which the atmospherics become very important. Your mind was running like a computer to think through the kinds of situations you wouldn't be placed in. Talk a little about that, because it's a whole other dimension of your job.
Right. I had met Saddam about four times prior to that, but always accompanying other people, whether it was a U.S. senator or U.S. official. This was the first time I had been the principal in the meeting, and had a very real speaking role in it. I had noticed that Saddam does certain things to try and set the stage to be the person in charge, to be intimidating, and to create the image for his own people of "Saddam, the potentate." One of the things he does is he puts you in a position that when you shake hands with him, you end up bowing to him. He did that by holding his hand low, and forcing you to look down to find the hand before you shook it, and so you'd end up being caught on camera doing that.
The other thing that he did was, of course, he wore his gun to the meeting, even though I was just a diplomat and wasn't wearing any gun myself. People joke about it -- the symbol of manhood for Saddam Hussein was always having his pistol. About halfway through the meeting he went for the gun, and I thought, "Hmm, was it something I said?" But, in fact, it was that the holster was causing his back to hurt, so he wanted to take that belt off once the cameras were out of the way.
Saddam at that time wore the mantle of power loosely about his shoulders, but there was no doubt who was in charge. Every time he would look over along the wall where his minions were seated, you would see them nervously straighten up, not unlike antelope at the watering hole when the lion on the other side looks up and is real stiff.
We were somewhat surprised by his move against Kuwait, even though the embassy knew and was reporting all of the constraints that were on him in terms of reeling still from the Iran - Iraq War, the enormous debt he had, the breakdown in negotiations with the Kuwaitis over access to a port there.
Right. There were a number of issues: One, the Iraqis wanted all the debt forgiven and additional credits to be advanced. The argument that they made was that they had spilled the blood of their sons to defend the Arab world against the Persian hoards. Two, they wanted Kuwait to stop slant-drilling -- drilling Iraqi oil underneath disputed territory. Three, they wanted to be able to secure their access to the Persian Gulf by controlling islands which were technically in Kuwait, but which were uninhabited, and they wanted to make a land swap, which the Kuwaitis didn't want to do. So all that played into it, and then there were some border disputes along the border between the two countries.
Saddam himself had told April Glaspie, and told President Mubarak (he took a phone call from him while April Glaspie was sitting in the meeting); he said to both of them, "I assure you that I am not going to invade Kuwait as long as there is a negotiating process ongoing."
We saw the troops massing. We watched it all. There was some question in Washington as to whether or not he was bluffing. There were two or three in the analytical community who predicted that he was going to invade; they have been dining out on the correctness of that prediction ever since. The rest of the analytical community, by and large, was conflicted. They looked at a number of indicators to assess whether what the military was doing was defensive or offensive in nature. It wasn't until about eighteen hours before the invasion that the fourth of those five indicators went positive.
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