What the Saccomani Appointment Means

The appointment of Bruno Saccomani, head of the Prime Minister’s security detail, to be the next Canadian Ambassador to Jordan and Iraq struck even the most cynical observers of the Harper government as a curious move. The two countries are pivotal in a volatile region, at a critical time for Syria, Turkey, Israel and Iran as well as for the Palestinians. For many years, the Jordanian government has maintained an excellent dialogue with Canada at the highest levels, including with a succession of prime ministers and foreign ministers. Political appointments to Head of Mission positions are nothing new for Canadian governments, but for the most part they have been politicians with close ties to the ruling party. This appointment is different.

Superintendent Saccomani is a complete unknown in international affairs circles and deserves a chance to establish his credentials. But at first blush it would certainly appear that he does not have the seniority, experience or knowledge necessary to take charge of the mission in Amman. The government’s defence of the appointment—namely that he is an expert in security—confuses two different senses of the word. Providing security to the Prime Minister isn’t very relevant. The real issue is whether he knows anything about international security: the crisis in Syria, the extremist threats in the Syria and Iraq areas, the challenge of Iran, the Middle East peace process, the Palestinian issue, etc. (not to mention issues of trade, immigration and development). A thin CV suggests a knowledge base on the modest side.

This is another in a long line of issues that demonstrates that the Harper government has never understood diplomacy.

So what, then, does the appointment mean? The most obvious answer—to anyone who still needs the reminder from the PMO—is that loyalty counts.   

But for an additional rationale one should look at the unloved, untamed folk in the Pearson building.  This appointment is a prime ministerial shot across DFAIT’s bows and into the heart of Canada’s recalcitrant foreign service, abetted by a foreign minister whose contempt for professionalism is only thinly veiled.  Among senior minions in Ottawa there is a common refrain: “DFAIT doesn’t get it”. True enough, DFAIT’s reputation is that it has continued to speak truth to power even when those above them know the truth they want to know, as revealed to them by others. The tension between DFAIT and its political masters has long been evident in the government’s lamentable performance on foreign policy files. It started early with its reluctance to engage with China (against professional advice), but has continued with its uneven pursuit of a Latin American strategy (following political-level rejection of its costs), all the way to John Baird’s blunders on his recent Middle East tour (which was launched in large part in response to Canada’s isolation from big-spending Persian Gulf states, and to Canada’s ouster from the Middle East peace process). The message to Canada’s diplomats is clear:  get with the program, or the jobs to which you aspire will go to others.

There’s a third message in the Saccomani appointment, although it may be partly intentional or perhaps sheer blunder. It’s a statement about the value the Harper government places on Canada’s role in the Middle East, as well as the place of our embassies in pursuing that role. If the government was seeking influence in the region, many tools were available, including special emissaries and greater use of the government’s parliamentarians. If Canadian embassies were part of the plan, there were many appropriate persons to fill the job of Head of Mission in Amman—many with Arabic skills, knowledge of the region, and first-hand experience in the Middle East peace process. That none of this has been done suggests the role the government intends to play: namely, none. To put the matter bluntly, the government just doesn’t care enough about the region or its issues to put experienced people in charge.

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It would be interesting to get a frank assessment from the Jordanians on the Saccomani appointment. Amman has seen a succession of highly-competent Canadian Heads of Mission in recent decades. What did the Jordanian foreign ministry think when presented with Superintendent Saccomani’s CV for its agrément? Or did the Harper government bother with agrément before announcing the appointment?  These positions are taken seriously. DFAIT reviews the CVs of every proposed Head of Mission to be accredited to Canada, and from time to time even quietly rejects a proposed ambassador-designate after careful consideration. We’re unlikely to know, because the Jordanians are extraordinarily welcoming, and will undoubtedly receive Superintendent Saccomani warmly, regardless of their private views.

There’s at least one more meaning to the Saccomani appointment. This is another in a long line of issues that demonstrates that the Harper government has never understood diplomacy. It’s unable to grasp either how the international community and diplomatic world works, or the skills involved in making the diplomatic machine function in Canada’s best interests. At its outset, the Harper government  banished from DFAIT discourse the word “relationship”, because it couldn’t understand why DFAIT officials emphasized the significance of good “relationships” abroad, in the face of government policies designed to achieve the opposite (imposition of visas, embassy closures, aid program cuts, etc.). Only in recent months has the hated word returned, possibly too late to salvage much of the government’s now-tattered reputation abroad.

Diplomacy is much more than talking politely and knowing which fork to use for the main course. It involves knowing the world and how it works, and how to leverage Canadian strengths, mobilize embassy assets to common objectives, and develop long-term strategies to negotiate treaties and agreements in Canadian interests, among many other things. All of this may look easy in the execution.  But it relies on years of preparation and experience, as well as finely-honed judgment, based on tangible life-skills acquired in a region and on the job. It’s a long-term effort rewarding patience and preparation.  There is none of this in the Saccomani appointment, by a government that just “doesn’t get it”.

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