Joseph Wilson: politics and lies
The one-time ambassador to Iraq tells Chico audiences how the U.S.-led war got personal
Concerned citizens of a democracy in decline heard their hopes and fears articulated last week when former career ambassador Joseph Wilson spoke to a sell-out crowd at Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union March 22. Wilson, who attracted the wrath of the Bush administration in 2002 when he penned an op-ed piece for the New York Times questioning the motives for the current U.S. war on Iraq, drew frequent, spontaneous applause and a standing ovation from an audience that seemed eager to soak up his anti-Bush—and especially anti-Cheney—message.
“Because this is the third anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, and because the president has made it clear that Joe Wilson should shut up about Iraq, I think I’ll start by talking about Iraq,” Wilson began, warning the audience he might get “fired up” about the subject.
But Wilson, ever the diplomat, never lost his cool. He spent the better part of two hours calmly, and sometimes humorously, detailing the failures of the current administration, which he said is made up of a small group of neoconservative hacks pushing a bankrupt ideology crafted not in the real world, but in the isolation and splendor of a few Washington, D.C., think tanks and gentlemen’s clubs.
“This is the jodhpurs-and-pith-helmet crowd,” said Wilson. “People who think the United States should move from being a republic to being an empire. It’s a set of ideological assumptions that has taken us down a road we should not be on. … We are ill-suited to being an empire.”
Worse, he said, “the Republican majority has decided it is more important to slavishly follow the president than to uphold the Constitution.”
Wilson’s condemnation of the Bush administration is rooted in the now-established fact that much of the information the government presented as justification for the Iraq invasion was faulty, misrepresented or just plain made-up. But for Wilson, the fight is also personal.
That’s because somebody inside the administration leaked the name of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer. Outing an undercover agent is a federal crime, and it may even have put Plame’s life in danger. Since the outing, Plame has kept a low profile, raising the couple’s twin boys at their Washington, D.C., residence while Wilson wrote a book (The Politics of Truth) about the affair and took to the nationwide lecture and talk-show circuits.
An investigation into the leak is ongoing, and one cabinet member, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly lying to investigators about the leak’s source. Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby’s boss, is also thought to be involved in the leak. (Wilson holds a special place in his heart for Cheney, whom he called “a lying son of a bitch,” among other things.)
“I knew they’d go after me,” Wilson said. “I never thought they’d go after my wife.”
The irony would be delicious if it weren’t so potentially deadly, Wilson said. Plame was part of a CIA effort to identify and marginalize groups who were actively seeking nuclear technology to build the one weapon with the potential to immediately and irreversibly affect the American way of life. By outing her, the administration may have made it easier for terrorists or rogue nations to build a nuclear weapon, Wilson said.
“When they came after me, they [damaged] someone who was busy working to make sure a nuclear weapon was not detonated in an American metropolitan city.”
Wilson’s credibility has been attacked by some of the same media figures involved in publicizing Plame’s identity. Robert Novak, who wrote the first column identifying Plame, made much of the fact that Wilson’s wife may have suggested to her superiors that he travel to Africa to research the administration’s claim that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy raw uranium ore—called “yellowcake"—from the African nation of Niger. That claim, based on obviously forged documents, was debunked by several reports, including Wilson’s.
But if Plame did suggest her husband was the right man for that job, it may have been because he was. Wilson spent 17 years as ambassador to African countries before being appointed by President George H. W. Bush as ambassador to Iraq in 1988. Thus Wilson’s knowledge and credentials, not to mention his patriotism, have been hard to impugn. While he was ambassador to Iraq, the first Gulf War broke out, giving him a front-row seat at that conflict as well as a tough job trying to negotiate for hostages with “those assholes in Saddam’s government,” as he put it.
The first President Bush commended his service there, calling Wilson “courageous” and “inspiring.” Given his experience in foreign affairs and his long record of patriotic service, Wilson was surprised when the government he had so tirelessly supported attacked him for pointing out factual errors in its public statements, he said.
“I’ve been an agent of the state for 23 years. I’ve only been an enemy of the state for five,” he joked.
One audience member asked Wilson if he planned to run for office, a question he said he fielded “all the time.”
“No, I live in Washington, D.C.—where we don’t have representation,” he answered. “I suppose I could move, but … I’ve done my service.”
He said he hoped his book and speaking tour would make a difference, and on stage he urged those present to get more involved in government and to make a stand whenever possible.
“If we are passive, we lose,” he said. “This is a great democracy. [But] we have a population that is sincerely worried about where we are and where we are going as a nation.”
When asked what he thought about the Bush administration’s assertion that it has the right to spy on its citizens, Wilson was blunt.
“It’s a huge threat to democracy,” he said. “They want us to believe that if you don’t have ties to Al-Qaeda you’ve got nothing to worry about. ‘Trust us,’ they say. But they will use it when it serves their political ends. I know this because they’ve done it to me.”