As the campaign debate over Iraq intensifies, one key element is missing: the figure of Saddam Hussein. It's hard to imagine now why the United States went to war against the disheveled tramp who was found cowering in a bunker in December.

A revealing portrait of the real Hussein emerges in an oral history recorded in January 2001 by Joseph C. Wilson, a State Department diplomat who was serving in Baghdad when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in 1990. Wilson's account is powerful for two reasons: He is one of the few American diplomats who met with Hussein in his heyday, and he is now a prominent critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Wilson is probably best known as the husband of Valerie Plame, the covert CIA operative who allegedly was outed by Bush administration officials -- apparently because they were angry about Wilson's public rebuttal of Bush's claims regarding Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium from Niger.

Whatever his criticisms of Bush's war planning, Wilson had no illusions about the Iraqi leader. "I always understood that you had to be tough with Saddam Hussein," he told me this week. The question, then and now, was how best to contain the threat Hussein posed.

Wilson described his meeting with the Iraqi leader in a recent book, but the oral history offers a more powerful, unvarnished account. The 365-page transcript has never previously been disseminated, but it's available from the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training in Arlington, which has collected more than 1,000 such interviews with former diplomats.

By Wilson's account, Hussein was contemptuous of what he saw as U.S. weakness, viewing America in much the same way that Osama bin Laden did. When Wilson met Hussein on Aug. 6, 1990, just after the Iraqis had invaded Kuwait, Hussein explained his belief "that the United States was unwilling to spill the blood of 10,000 of its youth in the sands of Saudi Arabia, or the Arabian Desert. He thought that we didn't have the staying power for the sort of war that he contemplated. He was basing his view on a couple of things: one, his ability to have stalemated Iran for 10 years [in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s]; two, his understanding of our experience in Vietnam; and, three, his understanding of our experience with the Marine barracks in Beirut and the various hostages in Beirut."

The centerpiece of Hussein's strategy was based on contempt for the United Nations. Wilson explains Hussein's perspective this way: "He had basically made a bet that if he could get the Iraq-Kuwait issue thrown into the United Nations system, then he could have 20 years in Kuwait."

Wilson continues: "He envisioned some toothless U.N. resolutions. He had already been the recipient of two resolutions on his use of chemical weapons. Nobody remembers them because they had no biting sanctions to them. He anticipated that if he got the issue into the U.N. system, he could spend 20 years jockeying and negotiating, while at the same time plundering what was left of Kuwait."

The only thing that changed Hussein's calculus, explains Wilson, was when the United States moved troops into Saudi Arabia to prepare for Operation Desert Storm. "Up until that point, he had some reason to think that if he could keep this in the U.N., then he probably could win."

What's haunting about Wilson's account is that it tracks the dilemma facing U.S. policymakers as they debated whether to invade Iraq in 2003. As in 1990, officials feared that without military intervention, Hussein could exploit divisions at the United Nations and evade sanctions.

What drove the Iraqi leader, says Wilson, was a conviction that he and his nation were inseparable: "Saddam was prepared to kill as many Iraqis as necessary because as long as he survived, he was the embodiment of the state of Iraq; he was Iraq."

Wilson draws a far different lesson from this history than does the Bush administration. He thinks Saddam Hussein's contempt for the United Nations made it all the more necessary to gain U.N. backing for any military intervention. The Bush administration would counter that by March 2003 any such international consensus had become impossible.

The debate over what the United States should have done in Iraq will haunt the country for a generation. The virtue of Wilson's raw oral history is that it captures the true face of the adversary the United States confronted, and the difficulty of the policy choices that leaders faced. The right answers may look obvious now, but they didn't in 2003.

davidignatius@washpost.com