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Human Moments With George and Barbara Bush on the Eve of the 1991 Gulf War

Joseph C. Wilson IV oversaw the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in 1991, just before U.S. and allied forces launched Operation Desert Storm.  Wilson defied a directive from the State Department’s Operations Center to evacuate the American Embassy under cover of darkness, insisting that the U.S. departure be coordinated with the embassies of our allies.  “It was important . . . not to abandon the other diplomats,” he recalled. They and their governments “had been part of this drama” and would participate in the coming war. On January 12, Wilson flew out of Iraq with the American flag and a planeload of U.S. and foreign diplomats, U.S. citizens, and a few members of the press.  

Shortly thereafter Wilson was at the White House, briefing President George H.W. Bush and senior cabinet officials — about 36 hours before the start of the Gulf War.  It was a heady moment for a self-described “California ex-hippie surfer.” The President then invited Wilson to meet First Lady Barbara Bush. His recollection? “To be hugged by Barbara Bush is really something . . . She’s great at that, and she’s a great lady.”

Wilson had foreign service postings in Niger, Togo, South Africa, Burundi, Congo, Iraq, and finally as the Ambassador to Gabon. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1998.  After retirement, he was famously asked by the CIA to travel to Niger to evaluate claims that Saddam Hussein purchased uranium there. Wilson found no credible evidence to support the claim, which nevertheless resurfaced in President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address.  The interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on January 8, 2001.

Read Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV’s full oral history HERE

“The only way that I’m going to do this is if I’m given a direct order from the President of the United States.”

Leaving Baghdad on the eve of war: “Since we were still in Baghdad, all other diplomatic missions were still there. It was quite clear that they were going to leave if and when we decided to leave, and they were going to stay so long as we stayed. It was important in everything that we did that there be others than the Americans involved; it was useful to us to have them there…. We needed third parties; it was important then not to abandon the other diplomats as we left in the darkness – these people and their governments who had been part of this drama. That is what I basically told Operations Center and they who put this plan together still remember. They’ve since forgiven me for it, but they still remember that this ‘jerk’ was sitting in Baghdad saying, ‘The only way that I’m going to do this is if I’m given a direct order from the President of the United States. When I say ‘direct,’ I want him to call me on the telephone and tell me that that’s what he wants me to do.’ They didn’t do it, so my position was upheld obviously. We went out. We took the flag with us and flew out on the 12th. We took most of the other diplomats….  Most of the rest, certainly all the Western diplomats, we took with us and we flew to Germany.”

With President Bush:  “I have to tell you that I felt from the very beginning we were on the same wavelength.”

Meeting with the President: “Anyway, the time comes and the door opens and there’s the president of the United States. I went up and shook hands with him, and I said to him – we’d never really talked, we had a couple of exchanges of cables but we hadn’t really talked – ‘We never talked during this past six months, but I have to tell you that I felt from the very beginning we were on the same wavelength,’ which was true. I felt from the very beginning that this was a very serious situation that we would confront militarily, and he did as well. He said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ Then he turned into the Oval Office. Behind him was basically the War Cabinet – the vice president, the secretary of state, the national security Advisor, the head of the CIA, John Sununu…. The head of the FBI was there, and there were three or four others. I didn’t hear what the president said to participants but [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] John Kelly told me later that he had turned to them and he said, ‘Gentlemen, let me introduce you to a true American hero.’ I shook hands all around, not knowing what he’d said about me. He could have said, ‘Let me introduce you to this asshole that we had out there in Baghdad.’”

“To be hugged by Barbara Bush is really something. It’s something not to be missed if you ever have the chance. She’s great at that, and she’s a great lady.

Receiving Barbara Bush’s famous hug: “The meeting ended and I walk out. The president’s personal aide, I guess, comes up to me and says, ‘The president wants to know if you would like to come over to the residence and meet Mrs. Bush. She’d like to meet you.’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I thought to myself: ‘I’ve got nothing else on my schedule.’ So we walked over to the residence. We actually walked out in front of the residence, the diplomatic entrance. Mrs. Bush was in a wheelchair at the time; they brought her out. I didn’t know what to say to her, but I remembered that when she was in the Arabian Desert, some soldier carrying his gun had come up to her and said he wanted a hug. She said, ‘Well, I’ve never hugged a gun before.’ So I walked up to her and I said, ‘I read what you said in Time Magazine when you hugged that soldier, and I just wanted to assure you, I’m not carrying a gun but I could sure use a hug too.’ She said ‘absolutely.’ At that time she had broken leg from a sledding accident. So she was in the wheelchair with her leg propped up. She reaches up and grabs me and she gives me a great big hug. To be hugged by Barbara Bush is really something. It’s something not to be missed if you ever have the chance. She’s great at that, and she’s a great lady.” As she’s hugging me – it’s a January day, it’s a bright January day – suddenly there’s this shadow coming across. I looked around, I was still in her grasp, and I looked around and it’s the president. He has walked out of the Oval Office to join us, only to catch me in an embrace with his wife. He understood[.] . . . We stood there, just the three of us, and Millie [the Bush’s Springer Spaniel], and the photographer always followed the president…. This was literally 36 hours before Desert Storm kicked off.”


Drafted by Neil Nabar



     BA in History, University of California Santa Barbara                            1967-1971

Entered Foreign Service                                                                              1976

     Niamey, Niger—General Services Officer                                                   1976-1978

     Brazzaville, Congo—Deputy Chief of Mission                                            1986-1988

     Baghdad, Iraq—Deputy Chief of Mission                                                    1988-1991

     Gabon—Ambassador                                                                                       1992-1995