- Caleb Walsh illustration
Since last month, America has been ruminating on the death of George H.W. Bush. We associate him with dignity, the first Gulf War and also a stagnant economy (which should have been more associated with the policies of Ronald Reagan). We also associate Bush I with putting together a generally serious-minded cabinet — except for the appointment of Dick Cheney as secretary of defense. (And don't forget Dan Quayle!)
Well the apple fell pretty far from the tree, as there really is nothing to applaud about George W. Bush. He took a Clinton economy that had produced a surplus and, through tax reductions for the rich along with a war on regulation, brought on the economic meltdown of 2008. We also associate him with the mess known as Gulf War II.
Aside from Cheney — now the subject of his own unflattering movie, Vice — Bush I and Bush II had one more person who figured into both their administrations: Joe Wilson.
Wilson was admitted to the London School of Economics, but instead he chose the University of California at Santa Barbara because, as he put it, "the surfing was better." Following graduation, he applied to the UW Jackson School of International Studies. He wound up at Eastern Washington University, where we met. Toward the end of his first year, Wilson joined the Foreign Service and left Cheney.
We lost track of Wilson until the run-up to the first Gulf War; turns out he was acting ambassador in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Wilson's first challenge was to free the American hostages Saddam Hussein had taken. With the help of German intelligence, Wilson somehow talked Saddam into releasing them. Later, he became the last American out of Baghdad before the bombing began. Upon his return to D.C., Wilson was welcomed by President George H.W. Bush, who personally thanked him.
Fast forward to Gulf War II: Oh, how things had changed. The so-called neocons, led by Paul Wolfowitz, had always opposed the decision to end Gulf War I without deposing Saddam. George W. Bush, now president, had selected Wolfowitz to be deputy defense secretary under Donald Rumsfeld. Wolfowitz was finally in a position to exercise more influence.
Then came 9/11. Saddam, as we now know, had nothing to do with 9/11. Nevertheless, the George W. Bush administration used the attacks to push harder to invade Iraq. To seal the deal, they steered the ever-compliant W., in his State of the Union, to assert that Saddam was buying yellowcake uranium from Niger to build a nuclear weapon. The CIA, however, was not convinced.
About this time, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, then a CIA operative, let her colleagues at Langley know that her husband, by then retired, had spent considerable time in Niger. The CIA asked Wilson to travel there to check on the uranium story. Through his contacts there, he found no evidence of any uranium sale to Iraq.
When Joe Wilson heard Bush's speech, he was infuriated. He wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, "What I Didn't Find in Africa."
Then all hell broke loose. Learning that Wilson was the husband of Valerie Plame, Cheney and his adviser Scooter Libby outed Wilson's wife from her undercover status. They destroyed her career, but even worse, they launched an American military operation under what we now know to be false pretenses.
(Valerie Plame later testified before Congress, leading to the conviction of Libby for lying to Congress; Libby was recently pardoned by Donald Trump.)
As the movie Vice shows, Bush II turned over the national security establishment to Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby. So it was that Joe Wilson went from American hero under George H.W. Bush to Republican target under the son, George W. Bush. That's worth remembering as this history is written. ♦
Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University.