BG: That makes two of us.
PG: The man also said they would turn Iraq “into Vietnam” if the Americans tried to occupy. That seemed absurd – but a few years later it pretty much happened. He’s now in U.S. custody.
After more than 10 years of the Gulf No-Fly Zone War (1991-2003 – the longest air war in history), air strikes began escalating in March as the U.S. softened up Iraqi defences.
The Iraqi government still thought it had room to manoeuvre, destroying missiles and desperately trying to account for various WMDs that had disappeared (or in fact had been used domestically) over the decades.
By now, there were some 200,000 American, British and Australian troops in the Gulf, too many to take home without a fight. On March 16, the Spanish agreed to join the Coalition of the Willing; the Italians were already on board.
Many journalists headed for the border, where they were said to have paid huge bribes to get out. I decided to stay and bought a generator and a lot of bottled water, Nutella and Scotch.
On March 17, President Bush gave Saddam and his sons 48 hours to get out of Dodge. Two days later, early-morning missiles landed on a compound in Dora Farms where the family was mistakenly thought to be hiding. The war had begun.
Patrick Graham: March 17 was a big day. Can you explain why?
Bill Graham: It was very intense. The day before the Spanish had publicly joined the coalition. That morning, [National Security Advisor] Condi Rice called the Prime Minister’s office and wanted to know whether we were in. I was working out in the parliamentary gym –
PG: You seem to be in gyms more than I realized.
BG: I’m trying to be a good example to you.
I was dragged out by my chief of staff and we came up with a draft statement for the PM. Just before Question Period, I met with John McCallum, the Minister of Defence, in the PM’s office. Mr. Chrétien announced his decision: that he would inform the House that, without a UN mandate, Canada would not participate in any military action.
After Question Period, I phoned Colin Powell to tell him our decision and he was remarkably gracious. But the statement caught Ambassador Cellucci offside, because he’d been telling Washington that, when the time came, we’d be on their team.
PG: I had to watch you say no to the Americans, so I was a bit worried for you – the White House could be pretty nasty, and it was a really vicious time of character assassination. I don’t remember The National Post being too complimentary.
BG: As it turned out, the saying “no” was just the beginning. It was managing the whole fallout after that was much more complicated, frankly.
PG: How did you manage that?
BG: We were very careful to say that we made our decision on our own priorities but weren’t criticizing the U.S. This differentiated us from France and made the difference on how the Bush administration and the American public treated us. Canada was never considered anti-American by their public the way the French were.
PG: Did Canada pay a long-term price for not joining the coalition?
BG: Not really. We did get cut out of the intelligence loop for a short time but with so many other factors, our relations with Washington remained good. We worked closely with them, not just in Afghanistan but also in Haiti. And now the Americans have a president who would have made the same call we did.
PG: Twenty-four Iraqis died Thursday in Baghdad. More than 100,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion, more than 4,000 American soldiers. What does that make you think in retrospect of Canada not being involved?
BG: You can make a case that this was one of the most serious foreign-policy blunders, certainly of this century. The deaths in Iraq, the destruction of the Iraqi Christian community – and the Americans delivered Iraq to Iran. How much bigger a miscalculation could you make?
PG: Would you say that playing a role in keeping us out of the war in Iraq was the defining moment in your time as Foreign Minister?
BG: It was a defining moment for Canada and Canadian foreign policy … but the decision was the Prime Minister’s. It’s like a Shakespearean play: I wasn’t the king, but I was one of the Earls. It was a very important moment in Canadian history, and anyone involved was glad they were.