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.
This set the stage for the return of UN weapons inspectors, who previously had been thrown out. Saddam had to show compliance to avoid war, but he wanted to leave open the possibility that he had the weapons, to deter invasion and to keep his own people in line.
Real divisions began to show at the Prague NATO Summit in late November, particularly as Britain began to lean in favour of invasion.
Bill Graham: At the Prague summit, I had a conversation with [British Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw at the gym one morning, and he said the British didn’t see any international legal constraints to using force – like Kosovo, when we’d gone in without a Security Council resolution but with NATO support, a legitimate rather than legal intervention. I call this the “Kosovo cop-out.” […]
The French and Germans were totally opposed to that interpretation. … I went to Moscow to meet with Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, who wanted to know what was going on in Washington. Everybody assumed that Canadians knew what was going on in Washington better than anyone else.
The mood in Canada became more feverish and polarized, with students protesting and much of the business community and some in the Defence Department on the other side. The U.S. Ambassador in Ottawa, Paul Cellucci, was overtly trying to sway public opinion. Meanwhile there was the upcoming provincial election in anti-war Quebec, which everyone pretended was not the obsession of the Prime Minister’s Office.
For my part, after nearly a month in Damascus trying to get into northern Iraq – the Syrians had closed the border after a CNN crew filmed themselves crossing it, ruining it for the rest of us – I finally got a visa and flew into Baghdad just as UN weapons inspectors began working. Soon the Iraqis released 12,000 pages of documents to comply with resolution 1441.
Bill Graham: What was Baghdad like then?
Patrick Graham: Nothing like what you would have seen, except the river. Even the Old City had been mostly destroyed by the building boom from petro-dollars in the 1970s and 1980s. The one similarity was that it was incredibly paranoid.
BG: Could you follow the weapons inspectors?
PG: We’d show up at their hotel in the morning and try to catch the inspectors as they raced off. It was a game, something of a cross between an Easter Egg hunt and a NASCAR rally. The inspectors wore blue baseball caps and looked like aging camp counsellors. After they left a site – say, an old insecticide factory – the Iraqis would let us in to poke around. We were terrified of stepping into a vat of some chemical weapon.
BG: Could you tell whether Iraq had any?
PG: We didn’t have a clue. We might have been on Mars; the Iraqi government controlled us so closely. What was the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, telling you?
BG: Blix was a very cautious international civil servant. Colin Powell used to refer to him as his Volvo – reliable and sturdy. … At one point, [Blix] told me to be very suspicious of anything that intelligence services told me. This was because a lot of this information was … obtained by satellites and other information-gathering systems.
Our position was that the context of that information required diplomats and other experts to interpret it. But the Americans relied on raw data and used it every time they could to bolster their case.
So what did you learn in Baghdad, besides the quality of the masgouf?
PG: You always learned something, but facts were hard to come by. I could tell the Iraqi government had almost given up on the Americans and now saw their only hope to stop an invasion was splitting the British and everyone else away from them using public opinion.
And there was the arrival of [Hollywood actor] Sean Penn, who tried to bum drinks from me. He’d come to Baghdad to “see the situation for himself.” I’d dropped by his room to ask about an interview and he was waving empty airplane bottles around saying, “There won’t be war, I’m certain.” Of course, he was pretty hammered, so maybe he sobered up later on.
By the New Year, it was clear the U.S. was going to war. For journalists who wanted to cover it, the question was which side of the front lines you would be on. For the G8, it was who would be with the Americans in the era of “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
With the Canadian public mostly against the war, the government was playing for time: It still wasn’t clear that Iraq really had WMDs. By the end of January, Blix reported that there was substantial cooperation from the Iraqis. Canada was floating the idea of a second UN resolution.
Patrick Graham: Would Canada have joined the coalition if the inspectors had shown that Iraq had WMDs?
Bill Graham: Clear evidence of the weapons and demonstrated intent to use them would have totally changed our position – and the French and Russians might have changed theirs, too.
PG: What about the British?
BG: The British had two problems: public opinion and the legal constraints, because the International Criminal Court would make it a war crime to get involved in an illegal war. The head of the British military was very worried about that – more than [Prime Minister] Tony Blair, apparently. … In London, governments were shopping around for legal opinions that would let them go to war. In Washington, the U.S. hadn’t signed the [International Criminal Court treaty] and Congress had already given approval, so they were not worried.
On Feb. 5, Gen. Powell, now acting for the bellicose majority in the U.S. administration, brought what came to be called his “show and tell” to the UN, based mostly on inconclusive intelligence about Iraq’s WMDs, as Hans Blix and European leaders soon pointed out.
Journalists went home to renew their visas. Chemical-warfare suits were added to flak jackets in reporters’ travel kits. My doctor gave me enough drugs and sutures to open a small field hospital. On Valentine’s Day, I was back. On Feb. 15, there were peace marches across the world, including in Baghdad, where groups of “human shields” had begun to arrive, including Buddhist monks and a St. Bernard named Gustavo.
Bill Graham: Had the atmosphere changed in Baghdad since December?
Patrick Graham: Among the press corps, totally. The question everyone began asking themselves after they got there was whether they would stay. What did you think of my staying?
BG: I would have preferred if you left, but I took it that it was your job to stay, and that’s what you wanted to do, and that’s what your life is.
PG: When you talked to Powell, what was he saying to you about war?
BG: We were working toward a second Security Council resolution that would give six weeks more for weapons verification. When I told Colin Powell that we were trying to be helpful, his answer was something like: “Six weeks are not helpful.” I realized then that they were too committed to delay.
PG: Did you ask anyone about post-invasion plans?
BG: When we talked to Powell and Straw about what would happen later on, it was pretty clear that little consideration was given to that problem. This was because it was all run out of the Department of Defense.
PG: So Defense trumped State?
BG: Right. Cheney and Rumsfeld trumped Powell. In Baghdad, did my being Foreign Minister affect you?
PG: My minder carried a pistol, which made me think he was heavier than your average Ministry of Information minder. One day he took me out for lunch with a very serious man who turned out to be on Saddam’s Revolutionary Council. The man wanted me to contact you about a peace deal. I doubt that could have happened without Saddam’s approval – they were clearly a bit desperate. Frankly, I didn’t like to be on their radar. These were not nice people.
BG: What happened to your peace initiative?
PG: I contacted Rob Fry in your office, who understood what was going on and said he’d look into it. Nothing happened. I failed to make peace between the U.S. and Iraq.
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.
PG: What has the world learned about multilateralism? Did anything change after this?
BG: Since the Iraq War, international law and the rules that govern state conduct have changed a lot. … If you enter into a war where it’s not considered legitimate by the international community, you are on very, very dangerous ground.
The difference between the way the Americans have handled Iraq and Syria is not just a difference between Bush and [Barack] Obama. It’s the result of a learning experience that if you flout international law, you’re going to have to pay some consequences.
When Libya came along, Obama made sure that he had a UN mandate – he wasn’t going to intervene without a Security Council resolution and Arab League approval before he acted.
And David Cameron, when justifying the British intervention, said something like, “It’s the right thing to do and it’s the legal thing to do.” States are much more conscious of international legal constraints.
PG: That’s ironic – Bush’s legacy was a stronger international legal framework.
BG: You were in Benghazi [in Libya]. What do you think of that intervention?
PG: People in Benghazi didn’t care much about the law or diplomacy. They just wanted someone to stop [Moammar] Gadhafi. … After Iraq, I had become very anti-intervention, but I was extremely glad to see the NATO planes, as was the entire Benghazi. It was going to be a massacre, that was clear.
Obviously, it’s much easier to be against intervention when neither you nor anyone you know is about to die.
Patrick Graham is a freelance journalist. Bill Graham retired from politics in 2007 and is working on a memoir.
Iraq War timeline
Dec. 16-19: United Nations inspectors withdraw from Baghdad a day after reporting that Iraq is not cooperating with their work. The next day, the United States and Britain launch four days of air strikes.
Jan. 29: U.S. President George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” which he claims is armed with weapons of mass destruction and supports terrorism.
Sept. 12: In a speech at the UN, President Bush says, “If Iraq’s regime defies us again, the world must move deliberately and decisively to hold Iraq to account.”
Nov. 8: The U.N. Security Council unanimously approves resolution 1441, giving Iraq a last chance to scrap its weapons of mass destruction or face “serious consequences.”
Nov. 13: Iraq accepts resolution 1441 unconditionally.
Nov. 16-17: Anti-war protests take place across Canada, with the largest gathering (approximately 2,500 people) in Toronto.
Nov. 20: In a speech at the NATO summit in Prague, President Bush says that “the United States will lead a coalition of the willing” to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But Prime Minister Jean Chretien sounds a cautionary note, in tune with most of NATO’s European leaders; he says going to war with Iraq should be the decision of the U.N., not the U.S. alone.
Jan. 28: In his State of the Union address, President Bush reaffirms his intention to lead a coalition to disarm President Hussein “for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world.”
Jan. 28: Weapons inspectors, headed by Hans Blix, criticize Iraq for not genuinely accepting UN resolutions demanding its disarmament. Iraqi presidential advisor Lt.-Gen. Amir Rashid responds by saying his government has been co-operating with inspectors “with all our capacity.”
Feb. 5: In a dramatic 83-minute speech at the UN, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell explains the American case for war on Iraq, unveiling new evidence that Baghdad has been flouting demands for disarmament, attempting to conceal banned weapons and keeping ties to al-Qaeda Islamist militants. A top Iraqi official denounces the report as “a typical American show” based on faked evidence.
Feb. 15: The U.S. is increasingly isolated over its possible invasion of Iraq. Millions march in anti-war protests around the world.
March 17: Prime Minister Jean Chretien declares (to a standing ovation from Liberal, Bloc Québeçois and NDP MPs) that Canada will not join in waging war against Iraq. The U.S., Britain and Spain, however, abandon efforts at an international endorsement for war against Iraq. President Bush gives President Hussein 48 hours to leave the country.
March 19: The U.S. launches thousands of cruise missile strikes and air attacks on hundreds of targets in Iraq. The next day, eight British and four U.S. troops become the first known casualties on the coalition side when their helicopter crashes in Kuwait.
Compiled by Stephanie Chambers
Sources: Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters, The Globe and Mail