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The atypical ambassador

I PASSED by the old American Embassy the other day, a modest, nondescript building of the kind you find all over town. It appeared to be deserted, and people say it is for rent. I would have liked to take a longer look, but in the Baghdad of today Westerners do not linger, or even get out of their cars, unless absolutely necessary.

The old embassy that I came to know in the runup to the Gulf War in 1991 is a far cry from the present embassy -- that great pile of neo-Babylonian splendor called the Republican Palace, from which Saddam once ruled. Its ceilings are high and festooned with chandeliers. Much of the furniture is of the type cheerfully described as Louis Farouk. American diplomats today live in isolation, along with Iraq's provisional government, inside the hyper-protected Green Zone away from the lawlessness, insurgency, and chaos that now dominate Iraq.

Back in January 1991 the acting ambassador was Joseph Wilson IV, and it didn't take long to find out that Wilson was an unconventional, even flamboyant diplomat. Those were trying days as America prepared for war. But Saddam wasn't about to give up Kuwait, and Wilson knew that the embassy would soon have to be evacuated.

From time to time Wilson would invite the press in for a briefing, and they were usually precise and informative, even though there was little to report. He used to come around from behind his desk and lean back against it to take questions. There was a little black box on his desk near his hand, and when the question was too aggressive or silly, he would press a button and the box would speak a four-letter expletive followed by ''you." Invariably it got a laugh, and, of course, no one could accuse him of saying anything rude. It was just the little black box talking. But whatever you thought of the gimmick, you knew that Joe Wilson was not cut out of the same cloth as most diplomats.

He would later be commended for his time in Iraq by George H.W. Bush, whom Wilson admires to this day. When the day did come to evacuate the embassy from Baghdad, it was done with efficiency and dispatch. Wilson served his country well at a difficult time.

I didn't hear of him again until his now-famous op-ed article telling a tale of White House misinformation concerning Saddam Hussein's quest for nuclear material. There then followed the White House effort at wholesale character assassination. One famous organ of the right opined that Karl Rove was a hero for warning journalists of how dangerous and despicable Wilson was.

For the left, Lewis ''Scooter" Libby's indictment is another Watergate, but prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was surely correct when he said that the trial should not be construed as an indictment on America's war in Iraq. This particular case will be limited to whether or not Libby is a liar.

Yet the lengths the White House would go in order to discredit Wilson are astonishing, even if no one is ever indicted for exposing his wife's CIA connection. I am sure the White House heard in Wilson's whistle-blowing the voice of the little black box and were both outraged and determined to squash him. For the White House did not want it revealed how they had massaged intelligence in order to create a casus belli.

We know now that the decision to invade Iraq was made on a neo-imperial design for the Middle East, and weapons of mass destruction were the excuse that people would accept. We know that this administration took advantage of Sept. 11 to scratch its Iraq itch, even though Sept. 11 had nothing to do with Iraq.

We know now that then secretary of state Colin Powell's WMD performance at the United Nations was nonsense, and, as he himself admits, an indelible stain on his record and reputation. We know how men like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bought into a utopian grand design and took a deeply inexperienced young president along with them.

And we know now what a deep and damaging failure this botched dip into idealistic colonialism has been, and how it has hurt our cause of trying to combat Islamic extremism.

I left here with Joe Wilson nearly 15 years ago, but because the son lacked the wisdom of the father, I am back in this demeaned and bitter city witnessing the greatest foreign debacle of a lifetime.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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