Iraqi trade mission visits Niger in 1999.
A trip to Niger is not a luxurious junket: they were on business.
Niger exports uranium, cattle, cowpeas, and onions.
- The cattle are mostly walked to Nigeria. Not much infrastructure for getting the animals to Iraq.
- Iraq exports onions too (one of the big exporters of shallots), so I doubt they were looking for trade opportunities in onions.
- Perhaps they were interested in importing cowpeas? Iraq grows them too, perhaps they had a bad year. Plenty of rain, though; the drought wasn't until 2000.
- Uranium? I think that must be it.
Setting aside Saddam's well-documented ambitions, he had reason to worry about his next-door enemy's nuclear ambitions. He once had an active nuke development program himself and was playing shell games with the inspectors. (The documents found later suggest that the program was on hold until the coast was clear, though that's more knowledge than anybody else had at the time.) Uranium is for either power production or weapons. Knowing Saddam, its weapons.
Its a no-brainer: Iraq wanted to buy uranium, or at least set up channels to do so later. Maybe it wouldn't be possible right away, but the intent is clear enough.
So why in the world would Wilson say anything else? (BTW, "I don't think they could succeed" is not the same as "They didn't try.")
If I assume that Wilson is reasonably bright I come up with only four reasons; maybe you can think of others:
- As Wilson sat with the Muyaki over dinner, Muyaki told Wilson that "No, we wouldn't dream of selling uranium to him, and anyway he never asked." Wilson "got a sense of Muyaki's soul" and believed him.
- Wilson thought he saw a way to a fast buck.
- Wilson was/is a political partisan who wanted to embarrass the administration.
- Wilson was/is a departmental partisan, and the infighting between Washington departments is worse than we realize.
I don't know which is more likely, though I lean to suspecting 3 or 4. Over the past dozen years I've been noting whiffs of something nasty in the air: nothing I can put my finger on, but enough to suspect that the various major departments in Washington are not all on good terms with one another.
That worries me a lot. Political partisanship we as voters have something to say about: we can complain and try to find principled candidates. But the giant bureaucracies are insulated from the citizens, and when their empire-building gets out of hand there's not much we can do about it.