Joe Wilson’s one-man crusade

against the Bush White House.

 By: Mathew Continetti



 When Wilson’s CIA operative wife had her cover blown by leaks from the Bush administration three months ago, July 2003, the story received very little attention. But in the days since the leak investigation has become a major Washington scandal, Wilson has been at the center of press coverage. By leaking his wife’s identity, the Bush administration created its own monster: an anti-war critic with a legitimate grudge whose one-man press operation functions much more smoothly than those of most political operatives.

In the space of a few days, Wilson has fashioned himself as the leading critic of the Bush administration, causing more trouble for the president than the entire Democratic presidential field. Wilson’s canny public relations moves shouldn’t come as a surprise. Unlike most career foreign service officers, he has a history of headline grabbing. He’s an articulate spokesman and unafraid to take controversial public stands. He enjoys taking on authority figures. And he will almost certainly dominate coverage of the CIA scandal for as long as he is able.

If you wan t to understand Wilson, read the New York Times from the summer and fall o f 1990. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Wilson was the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Ambassador April Glaspie was on vacation in London at the time of the invasion, which meant that Wilson was the senior American official in Iraq. He was the last American government official to meet with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, which thrust him into the public arena for the first time. He didn’t seem to mind.

When you read about the Joe Wilson of 10 years ago, (1993).you find that he’s a lot like the Joe Wilson of today. During the tense months before the first Gulf War, Wilson was told by Iraqi government officials that all those “sheltering foreigners” in Baghdad were subject to execution. His response was, well, unique in the annals of diplomacy. He briefed reporters with a hangman’s noose around his neck instead of a necktie. (Yes, a hangman’s .noose) Wilson says the message behind the noose-wearing was, “If you want to execute me, I’ll bring my own f—ing rope.”

Wilson’s stand against the Iraqi dictator won accolades from the press, as well as the administration he worked for at the time. The first President Bush told reporters, “We’ve got a very able person there in Baghdad.” The columnist Rowland Evans wrote that Wilson’s behavior was “the stuff of heroism.” After the war, Wilson was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Gabon, which eventually led to his work on the Africa desk of the Clinton National Security Council.

It’s clear that Wilson demonstrated true courage a decade ago. But certain personality tics were present in the months after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, tics that Bush administration officials would have been well advised to notice before getting drawn into a fight with him in July, . That’s when Wilson’s New York Times op-ed attacking the administration’s use of intelligence in making the case for the Iraq war prompted a leak of the fact that his wife works for the CIA. The idea seems to have been to explain how someone so hostile to administration policy had been picked by the CIA to investigate whether Saddam Hussein was now trying to buy uranium in Niger.

First, there is Wilson’s penchant for slightly exuberant behavior, of which wearing the noose is but one example. When Wilson secured the release of several hund-red American hostages of the Hussein regime, he told the Washington Post, “Obviously we’re delighted for the [hostages] and their families. . . . I put a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator and will light my cigar as soon as I see the first hostage leave.” It’s a typical Wilsen statement: a little charming, a little off topic,

more than a little self-centered.

Today, Wilson is no different. In a front-page profile last week, a Washington Post reporter noted that the ambassador “seems to have a theatrical streak.” That’s an understatement. Wilson describes himself as a former hippie, surf bum and ski bum.” He quotes Jimmy Buffett in press interviews. He says he and his wife discussed “who would play her in the movie” version of the CIA scandal.

But the more important trait is his tendency to personalize conflict. In October 1990, he told the Los Angeles Times that “no one is ever going to be able to point a finger and say Joe Wilson was the guy who lost Iraq.” Three weeks before the U.N.-imposed deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, with Hussein as belligerent as ever, Wilson told reporters, “I have not given up hope on the diplomatic process,” which scanted the more important question of whether the Iraqi dictator had given up hope on the diplomatic process.

 Wilson has personalized his fight with the Bush administration over faulty intelligence and the leaking of his wife’s identity in much the same way. In one sense, this is perfectly understandable—after all, it was the administration that made his wife an issue in the first place. But Wilson has upped the ante. He told a crowd in Seattle that he wants “to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs”—later admitting that when he said “Karl Rove,” he wasn’t saying that Bush’s top political adviser was the “ source or the authorizer” of the leak but that he “thought that it came from the White House and that Karl Rove was the personification of the White House political operation.” He wrote in the Nation that “neoconservatives” have “a stranglehold on the foreign policy of the Republican party.” The Washington Times reported that Wilson is not shy about his political agenda, quoting him as saying, “Neoconseratives and religious conservatives have hijacked this administration, and I consider myself on a  personal mission to destroy both.”

Wilson’s grudges are buil t to last. According to the Washington Post profile, he likes to imagine how his obituary will read. He “used to say” that it would describe “Joseph C. Wilson IV [as] the last American diplomat to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.” Now he thinks it’s going to say, “Joseph C. Wilson IV, the Bush administration political appointee who did the most damage to the Bush II administration.”

Wilson’s many Democratic fans like to say that the story is about what the Bush administration did, and not about Joe Wilson. Maybe they should tell him that.

----Matthew Continetti is an

editorial assistant at



October 13, 2003. (Pgs. 14-16)

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