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Opinion A foreign minister’s inside tip: Know what you don’t know

What's this we've heard through the years about Canada being low on the White House priority list? One of the more revealing memoirs by a Canadian politician to come along has a different take. The book is The Call of the World by Bill Graham, the former foreign affairs and defence minister as well as interim leader of the Liberal Party.

Mr. Graham served when Ottawa said yes to war in Afghanistan, no to Iraq. How much did George W. Bush want Canada to take part in the latter mission? So badly that "at one point," Mr. Graham writes, the President "offered to come personally to Ottawa to brief the prime minister on secret evidence about the existence of the [weapons of mass destruction]."

You don't often find presidential overtures of that kind in bilateral history. But Jean Chrétien turned down the offer. Easier to say no to Mr. Bush on the phone than face to face, he told Mr. Graham. True enough. Had Mr. Bush put on a convincing performance with his sheath of fabrications, Mr. Chrétien might have found it more difficult to stay out of the war.

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We recall that Colin Powell, then the U.S. secretary of state, caved to administration hawks. He presented the United Nations with evidence of a terrifying Iraqi weapons cache that, while helping to trigger a war that killed 5,000 Americans and tens of thousands of others, was never found.

Later, Mr. Powell explained to his friend Mr. Graham the pressure he was under: "Bill, you have no idea. I threw out boxes and boxes of stuff they tried to get me to say. I was briefed by our intelligence people with mountains of crap. That's what I got."

They strong-armed Mr. Powell and they tried to strong-arm Ottawa. At one point, U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci telephoned Mr. Graham with a message from Andy Card, Mr. Bush's chief of staff: "Card wants to know why we're getting the shit kicked out of us by all those Canadian politicians. And he's given me a message to give to you. The Prime Minister of Canada needs to say something nice about the President of the United States, in public, soon." Mr. Graham, furious, relayed the message to Mr. Chrétien, who felt the same. He didn't follow the instruction.

These are just a few of the revelations in Mr. Graham's book, which, as is the case with many important books, hasn't received the attention it deserves.

Mr. Graham was closer to Paul Martin than to Mr. Chrétien in the Liberal Party's civil war – but that doesn't prevent him from taking on the bunch that Mr. Martin surrounded himself with. They blew it, he writes, by pushing Mr. Chrétien out of office a few months before the toxic auditor-general's report on Adscam was due to be released. Had they waited, Mr. Chrétien would have had to take the heat on it, not Mr. Martin.

They blew it again, he writes, by spitefully pushing for an inquiry into the scandal. "Some of Mr. Martin's closest advisers seemed driven," Mr. Graham writes, by the idea of "getting back at Chrétien for slights they felt they had suffered in the course of their careers."

Mr. Graham also takes issue with the saintly image of late NDP leader Jack Layton, saying he showed himself to be just another crudely partisan politician by defeating the Liberal minority in 2005. "Only the extremely naive could claim he had done it for the good for the country."

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As for being a bit naive, Mr. Graham is candid enough to say his Liberals were guilty of it in getting Canada involved in the Afghan war. They undertook a mission that was next to impossible. "I have to admit that some of the seeds of our disappointment should have been evident at the start. We knew much less about Afghanistan and the politics of the region than we should have."

It's one of the lessons from this fine memoir: You have to know what you don't know. On Iraq, our politicians did. On Afghanistan, they did not.

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