News: The Plame Game

Former ambassador says people aren't the only casualty in Iraq war

Graham Lienhart

Congress never authorized the invasion of Iraq former Ambassador Joseph Wilson said during a speech at Xavier University Dec. 5.

No doubt you've heard of the Iraq war and a little controversy about weapons of mass destruction. A key figure in that controversy spoke Dec. 5 at Xavier University and said Americans must stand up and speak the truth when it's not popular to.

"Because that's what makes our democracy vibrant — going into the public square and fighting it out," said Joseph Wilson, a 23-year U.S. diplomat, now retired. "Your civic duty requires you be vigilant."

Wilson is famous for doing just that when he wrote an editorial in The New York Times in July 2003 challenging 16 words in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union Speech. Bush had said former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Africa.

Wilson, who spoke to a capacity crowd of 400 at the Schiff Family Conference Center, also contrasted the Gulf and Iraq wars while emphasizing his non-partisan career record. Still, he had several sharp barbs for his detractors, the Bush administration and Fox News. (See a further interview with Wilson by Ben Kaufman, page 20.)

After writing his famous editorial, Wilson cancelled all his media appearances except for The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

"I'm a firm believer, if you're going to watch fake news, there's no reason to watch Fox," he said.

Wilson also said he was happy to be in the district of U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Milford), the Republican now known for labeling U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam War veteran, a coward.

"I served in a number of places Jean Schmidt probably couldn't find on a map," Wilson said.

'Adventures gone awry'
The first Bush administration handled the Gulf War immensely better than President George W. Bush has handled the Iraq War, Wilson said.

Wilson spent 23 years in the Foreign Service, including tours in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. From 1988 to 1991 he was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.

Wilson met with Hussein four days after the dictator invaded Kuwait. Hussein offered to be a policeman for America in the Middle East and to provide the United States with a steady supply of oil in exchange for letting him occupy Kuwait, Wilson said. The first Bush administration, of course, wanted nothing of it.

But that administration didn't remove Hussein from power because it realized how difficult it would be to end involvement in Iraq, Wilson said. They were also reluctant because they were afraid Hussein would use every weapon available if he felt his regime was threatened.

It's important to remember how the United States participated in the Gulf War, Wilson said. Forty-two armies fought together, and the entire war cost about $100 billion, of which the United States spent several billion. The United States also backed dozens of United Nations resolutions leading to the war.

The Iraq War has already cost multiple times that amount, and the coalition involved is far smaller.

Today Bush and his supporters talk as if Congress gave Bush authorization to begin a war in Iraq, Wilson said.

"They did not," he said. "They voted to give the president of the United States a certain amount of authority."

Congress authorized Bush to go to the United Nations and ask for thorough inspections of Hussein's weapons. In contrast to the Gulf War, Bush didn't allow the U.N. resolutions and inspections to run their course.

"We could not take yes for an answer," Wilson said.

After 9/11, the whole world sympathized with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in part because it was a state run by terrorists, according to Wilson.

"Even in the Muslim world, they understood what we were doing and why we were doing it," he said.

Today, because of the Iraq War, global opinion of the United States has plummeted. The country used to set an example for international cooperation and used to mediate international disputes. Political solutions are the best way to prevent future civil wars, Wilson said.

Now we can't do that work, he said.

"We have no credibility as a mediator," Wilson said.

Iran, for one, has increased its influence in the Middle East by calling attention to U.S. mistakes, Wilson said.

The United States did some good work in Somalia before 18 soldiers died on the day dramatized in the book Black Hawk Down, Wilson said. But that incident sapped American political will to carry out humanitarian missions.

We have an obligation to fight genocide, but in 1994 at least 800,000 Rwandans died, Wilson said. The U.S. spent $500 million in Rwanda, but only to purify water and bury the dead.

"Had we been able to summon the political will, there would have been fewer dead and our money would have been put to better use," Wilson said. "That is one of the costs of military adventures gone awry."

Not scared by Scooter
Wilson said he was perfectly happy working in the private sector and on his golf handicap after retiring in 1998. But he, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker and others involved with the Gulf War were disturbed about how the current President Bush was determined to remove Hussein.

Bush asked for a national debate, Wilson said.

"I took him at his word," Wilson said. "I thought that perhaps I could bring something to the debate."

Wilson, Baker, Scowcroft and others spoke out behind the scenes for months to no effect before Wilson wrote his New York Times editorial ( The editorial — "What I Didn't Find in Africa" — detailed his mission to Niger investigating possible uranium sales to Iraq. Wilson found no such evidence, but Bush's State of the Union address still cited potential uranium sales from Africa to Iraq as a reason to go to war.

A week after Wilson's editorial, columnist Robert Novak identified Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative. It's illegal to publicly identify covert CIA operatives.

In late October a federal grand jury indicted Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's then-chief of staff, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The indictment says Libby told federal investigators that reporters first identified Plame to him but that in reality Libby revealed Plame's identity to reporters such as Novak. Libby denies the charges.

Karl Rove, Bush's key adviser, is still under investigation in the same matter.

Wilson believes Novak's column was supposed to send a message to anyone thinking about contradicting the president: We will publicly attack your family.

But how, Wilson asked, could he be intimidated after spending years dealing with African dictators?

"Frankly, guys named Karl and Scooter aren't that scary," Wilson said.

Wilson said his obituary has already been rewritten once. He used to be known as the last U.S. diplomat to meet with Hussein. Now he's the husband of the CIA operative identified by Novak.

"I can't tell you what the third incarnation will be, but maybe it will include the names Scooter and Karl," Wilson said. ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.