A ‘Big Cat’ With Nothing to Lose

Joseph C. Wilson, chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1988 to 1991 and acting ambassador during Operation Desert Shield, is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Saddam Hussein is a murderous sociopath whose departure from this Earth would be welcomed everywhere.

I met with Hussein for the last time in a heavily curtained room in the Foreign Ministry late in the morning of Aug. 6, 1990, four days after his invasion of Kuwait. As the senior diplomat in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at the time, it was my responsibility to tell him to get out of Kuwait and to let the several thousand Americans, including 150 so-called “human shields,” leave the region.

I knew from previous meetings that he always stacked the deck to give himself every advantage, and this session was no different.


I was accompanied by a single embassy note taker, while Hussein had eight senior foreign policy officials with him. But only Tarik Aziz, then the foreign minister, dared speak in his presence. The others were as silent as furniture.

Hussein joined me in the middle of the room with the Iraqi news cameras whirring. Typically, when it came time to shake hands, he deliberately held his low so that to take it I would have to lean over. The cameras would then capture for posterity that his visitor had bowed to the potentate. I kept my back straight.

Later in the meeting, when he turned to others in the room to elicit a reaction, the discomfort was palpable. At one point, he made a move to his ever-present gun. My immediate thought was that I had said the wrong thing. To my relief he took it off, telling me that it hurt his back when he sat. I looked at his people, who were also on edge, watching his every move. He reminded me of a big cat at a watering hole, with the zebra and antelope wondering whether he is there to drink or to eat.

During our session -- the last he had with any American official before the war -- I listened as he offered his deal through a translator: In exchange for keeping Kuwait, he would give the U.S. oil at a good price and would not invade Saudi Arabia. In a matter-of-fact manner, he dismissed the Kuwaiti government as “history” and scoffed at President Bush’s condemnation of him.

He mocked American will and courage, telling me that my country would run rather than face the prospect of spilling the blood of our soldiers in the Arabian Desert.

I was never prouder than when the American response was to confront Hussein and ultimately force him from Kuwait.

Desert Storm was a just war, sanctioned by the international community and supported by a broad multilateral coalition. Today we are on the verge of another conflict with Iraq, but unlike Desert Storm, the goals are not clear -- despite Secretary of State Colin Powell’s eloquent argument for war in his address Wednesday to the United Nations Security Council.

Is it a war to liberate the people of Iraq, oppressed all these years? Is it a battle in the war on terrorism? Or is it, as President Bush often says, all about disarmament?

Clarity matters, because our goals will determine how Hussein reacts.

By all indications, Hussein is clear in his own mind about our intentions: He believes we are going to war to kill him, whether he disarms or not.

This is a major problem for us. My judgment was -- and is -- that only power will make him yield, but there also has to be some incentive for him to comply.

During the Gulf War, we were always acutely aware of the need to be confrontational on the issues at hand but to leave Hussein, a proud and vain man, a way to save face.

When he released the women and children hostages, Hussein initially threatened to keep dual Kuwaiti-American citizens. I told his underling that unless all Americans were put on the evacuation flight within half an hour, I would inform the American TV networks that Hussein had again reneged on his promises and was toying with the lives of children.

Hussein relented, and our official statements acknowledged Iraqi cooperation.

There is now no incentive for Hussein to comply with the inspectors or to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction to defend himself if the United States comes after him.

And he will use them; we should be under no illusion about that.

Hussein and Aziz both told me directly that Iraq reserved the right to use every weapon in its arsenal if invaded, just as it had against Iran and later the Kurds.

The fact that thousands of men, women and children had died in these attacks fazed them not one bit. In fact, Aziz could barely be bothered to stop puffing on his Cuban cigar as he made these comments, of so little importance was the use of chemicals to kill people.

It is probably too late to change Hussein’s assessment, and that will make any ensuing battle for Iraq that much more dangerous for our troops and for the Iraqis who find themselves in the battlefield.

The assertion that Hussein might share weapons of mass destruction with a terrorist group, however, is counterintuitive to everything I and others know about him. The Iraqi leader is above all a consummate survivalist.

He acts as if he expects the people around him to die for him, but he has long known that every terrorist act, and particularly a sophisticated one, raises the question of his involvement and invites blame. He has nothing to gain and everything to lose. In his mind he is Iraq, Iraq is Hussein, and as long as he survives, Iraq survives.

After then-Secretary of State Jim Baker made it clear to Aziz on the eve of the Gulf War that the United States would destroy Iraq if weapons of mass destruction were used, Hussein did not use them. He is not stupid, and for him living is better than dying in vain.

Now, however, if he feels his death is inevitable, he may well arm extremist groups in an attempt to have a last, posthumous laugh.

Along with our drive toward war, it should also be made clear to Hussein that -- in the little time remaining -- he still has a choice.

We should do everything possible to avoid the understandable temptation to send American troops to fight a war of “liberation” that can be waged only by the Iraqis themselves. The projection of power need not equate with the projection of force.