BAGHDAD, Iraq — Dressed in faded jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, Joe Wilson settled into a deck chair beside his tiny swimming pool in suburban Baghdad the other night, fired up one of the fat cigars that have become his trademark, and reflected on yet another day as the cutting edge of U.S. policy in Iraq.
It was well after midnight, but his dinner of cold pizza and olives remained uneaten on the kitchen counter. Joseph C. Wilson IV, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Iraq and the man President Bush officially designated as "his man" in Baghdad days after the current Persian Gulf crisis began, had been far too busy to eat.
Typically, he had spent hours this day haranguing low-level Iraqi officials about the plight of scores of ailing and aged American hostages, and hours more arranging the nightmarish logistics for a series of freedom flights taking American women and children out of occupied Kuwait city. Then, there were the press briefings, reports to Washington and the basic work of running an embassy that has been America's only official presence behind enemy lines since the Persian Gulf crisis erupted nearly 10 weeks ago.
When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said in those early days he was ready to talk to Bush, the U.S. President responded that if Hussein had anything to say, he could say it to Joe Wilson.
But even with such a burden squarely on his shoulders, the 41-year-old career diplomat from an established Northern California family showed few signs of strain as he sat with a Times reporter in the early morning autumn blackness outside his modest, Malibu-style Baghdad residence. Far from it. To hear Joe Wilson tell it, he's just getting started.
"Are you kidding, or what?" Wilson laughed when asked whether the weeks he has spent commanding the front lines of America's diplomatic combat with Iraq were finally beginning to take their toll on him.
"No way. For a diplomat, it can't get any better than this," he said. "This is it. This is the ultimate test and the ultimate challenge. This is what we're trained for. This is the major leagues. This is what I spent all those years clinging to the vines of small African countries learning, studying, preparing and waiting for. I've always dreamed of covering a war as a diplomat, and now that I'm here in the middle of it; it's absolutely fascinating."
If there was a faint strain of immodesty in Wilson's tone, it was well within context. Disarmingly frank even in the quietest of times, the UC Santa Barbara graduate has carefully crafted an image--both in public and in private--that is finely tuned to personify official U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein. President Bush is outraged by Hussein's invasion, annexation, and continuing occupation of Kuwait. So, Wilson's public pronouncements and daily meetings with Iraqi authorities are steeped in the kind of bluster and angry confidence most likely to convey that pique.
"Joe Wilson has taught the Iraqis a whole new set of four-letter words, as well as some interesting new ways to use them in combination," noted a European diplomat in Baghdad who has witnessed some of the American's angrier meetings with Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials.
"It's sort of a reverse diplomacy," the European envoy added. "In most situations as a diplomat, you don't want to offend. But in Joe's case, here and now in Baghdad, I think he'd actually be a little disappointed if he didn't. And that's exactly the role that he should be playing here now. He must make it clear on each and every occasion that America is mad as hell and that it isn't going to take much more."
Occasionally, Wilson's antics have gone beyond words.
At one point last month, for example, when U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III engaged in some psychological warfare by publicly turning an innocuous Iraqi diplomatic note into what he inaccurately characterized as an outrageous threat to execute Western diplomats in Baghdad, Wilson read the cue perfectly.
The next morning, the American diplomat showed up at a briefing for Western journalists here with a noose around his neck. The gesture wasn't meant as "gallows humor," he stressed, but as a powerful physical statement of America's utter disdain for the Iraqi regime.
Still, his friends and colleagues in the State Department insist that the role he is playing out here in Iraq is perfectly suited to Wilson, who combines the textbook skills of Old World diplomacy with the looser and more innovative approach that characterizes many members of the department's new generation of diplomats.
If Wilson had any weaknesses coming into the present crisis, it was his relative lack of experience in the Middle East.