Eighteen years ago, a glowering Saddam Hussein appeared on the cover of U.S. News, which called him "The Most Dangerous Man in the World." The cover line might not seem all that provocative today, but the issue was dated June 4, 1990, two months before his surprise invasion of Kuwait and well before the events that led to the troubled U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The story came at a time when the world was entranced by the crumbling of the Iron Curtain and few people were scrutinizing the words and actions of the mustachioed strongman. "There were a lot of signs, but nobody was paying attention," says Louise Lief, who covered the State Department for U.S. News at the time. "It was seen as posturing."
Like most goodstories, this one started with a hunch. Lief, who speaks fluent Arabic, had followed Saddam's eight-year war with Iran and was alarmed by his continuing military buildup and aggressive troop deployments along the Kuwaiti border. She also took his escalating rhetoric against Kuwait, Israel, and others quite seriously. "The context was this was a guy who had a very warped understanding of the outside world and his own judgment," says John Walcott, who was U.S. News's foreign editor. "You could see that he was heading for trouble."
Shopping spree. Separately, some of the magazine's reporters were tracking a pattern of Iraqi weapons purchases, many with the involvement of western governments and companies. Over nearly a decade, Iraq had systematically been gathering technology and ingredients needed for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. "Everywhere we turned, it appeared that some of the most dangerous material being procured illegally around the world, and in some cases inside the United States, was being shipped to Iraq," recalls Peter Cary, who was covering the Pentagon. "All roads were leading in the same direction—to Baghdad."
Even many in the U.S. government had failed to piece together the full extent of the threat—perhaps, in part, because of their occasional complicity. When Brian Duffy, then the magazine's intelligence reporter, informed a top U.S. intelligence official that U.S. News was about to label Saddam Hussein "the world's most dangerous man," the official simply said, "Oh, Saddam's not going to like that."