Ten years ago, Canada made a bold decision to stay out of the Iraq War. Many of us may forget how agonizing the process was. Patrick Graham was a reporter in Baghdad in 2003. His father Bill Graham was Canada’s foreign minister. Today, in an intimate conversation, they remember the months that changed the world, the nation and their own lives
A decade later, staying out of Iraq may seem like an obvious choice, since the invasion turned into the biggest U.S. foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam.
But in fact Canada didn’t make its final decision until March 17, 2003, just two days before the first missiles landed on Baghdad.
I was a freelance reporter in Baghdad, working for a number of publications, including the strongly pro-war National Post and The London Observer, whose previous correspondent had been hanged as a spy by Saddam Hussein’s government.
My father, Bill Graham, was one of those who had to make the fateful decision: He was Canada’s Foreign Minister, in the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien.
He was working to keep the country out of the war, despite pressure from the United States and from the opposition Canadian Alliance under Stephen Harper.
We couldn’t talk much about the events at the time, because our phones were likely bugged – his by the Americans, who were later caught eavesdropping on lead United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix; mine by the government in Baghdad.
But we’ve caught each other up in the intervening years. This week we sat down to take stock.
My father’s relations with Iraq go back five decades, to when he was jailed in Baghdad as he was driving with a friend across the Middle East on an overland “Afghanistan trail” trip in 1960.
The year before, a teenage Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate the Iraqi president. Everyone was jumpy. So when border guards searched their Land Rover and found the hunting rifles the two university students had brought on their adventure, they sent them to a Baghdad jail for a night, followed by week’s house arrest in a hotel.
In those days, my father says, Baghdad was a small town on the Tigris River . There was not much to do but eat masgouf (barbecued carp) on the river banks and visit the Old City, with its wooden shutters and narrow alleys.
By the time I arrived 40 years later, Baghdad had sprawled into the city of highrises, palm trees and highways we’ve seen blowing up on TV for the last decade.
In both our minds, the run-up to invasion began in the grandiose United Nations General Assembly room on Sept. 12, 2002, the day that U.S. President George W. Bush made his speech threatening to take action against Iraq with or without UN approval.
My father had made Canada’s presentation earlier that day, arguing that Iraq had to be contained by “international mechanisms, not by one or two states acting alone.”
Patrick Graham: So Bush’s speech to the UN was the opposite of yours?
Bill Graham: Basically.
PG: Was there any blowback from the Americans?
BG: Not at first. Multilateralism was still a possibility – it was working in Afghanistan. [The U.S. Secretary of State, retired General Colin] Powell was full-steam-ahead on that track. Of course, [Vice-President Dick] Cheney and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld might not have cared one way or the other.
The capitals of the world were trying to figure out who would prevail: Gen. Powell’s State Department, with its restrained and internationalist approach, or the hawkish, unilateralist neo-conservatives at the Defense Department.
BG: The purpose of most G8 foreign ministers was to support Powell, in so far as anybody could. When foreign ministers got together, we would often discuss what we could do to support Colin in the American system.
Ottawa was torn between the multilateralism of Liberal foreign policy and the country’s traditional ties with Washington, pushed strongly by the business community and the Canadian Alliance. In its very Canadian manner, the Chrétien government hoped to have it both ways.
On Nov. 8, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1441, which stated Iraq was in material breach of earlier resolutions, the most of important of which was in regard to “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear and chemical) and missile capability.