When it comes to faux pas, the performance of Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) in Iraq in April will be hard to beat.
Metzenbaum left his chutzpah at home when he met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In one of the rare times when Saddam deigned to meet with U.S. lawmakers, Metzenbaum used the occasion to effusively call Saddam a "stong and intelligent man" who wanted peace. Oops.
Granted, Metzenbaum could not have been expected to know that Saddam would invade his neighbor, Kuwait, four months later. But at least Metzenbaum might have noticed Saddam's eight-year war with Iran, his attempts to develop nuclear bombs to obliterate Israel, the murder of thousands of Kurds with poisonous gas and the torture and execution of hundreds of children whose only crime was that their parents were Saddam's enemies.
None of that was a secret. So how did Metzenbaum become the original "innocent abroad"? Here's the whole story.
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) headed a delegation of senators to the Middle East and wanted an appointment with Saddam. At first, Saddam refused. He doesn't like Americans and rarely makes time for them.
In a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the five senators in the delegation (Dole, Metzenbaum, Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) and James A. McClure (R-Idaho) mentioned that Saddam would not see them. Mubarak picked up the phone, called Saddam and talked him into a meeting.
Dole and the other four got on the phone with President Bush to consult with him about what they should get from Saddam. After the call, Metzenbaum expressed reservations about going to Iraq because he is Jewish and Saddam is reputedly antisemitic. The others persuaded him to go.
The meeting got off to a bad start. The interpreter was five minutes late, and Saddam was visibly tense. Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz speaks fluent English, and he had begun translating when the interpreter arrived, huffing and puffing. His face was ashen, apparently because he knew Saddam was not a man to be kept waiting.
The tense moment was a grim reminder for some of those present that Saddam has a reputation for executing those who irritate him.
We have obtained a transcript of the meeting, the accuracy of which was verified by participants. Saddam kept saying "We want peace," and apparently Metzenbaum believed him.
"Mr. President," Metzenbaum said to Saddam, "perhaps you have been given some information on me beforehand. I am a Jew and one of the staunch supporters of Israel. I did have some reservations on whether or not I should come on this visit."
Saddam reassured Metzenbaum and the senator continued, "I have been sitting here and listening to you for about an hour, and I am now aware that you are a strong and intelligent man, and that you want peace."
The next day during a brief news conference in Jerusalem, Metzenbaum had come to his senses. He said Saddam "has a war psychosis and has difficulty bringing himself to the peace table . . . ."