OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he has no interest in hearing any direct advice from former Canadian diplomat and one-time al-Qaida hostage Robert Fowler.
“He obviously had a distinguished record as a former diplomat … I can tell you I have one better than that: I have the entire foreign service, diplomatic team at the Department of Foreign Affairs that I count on and rely on,” Baird said Tuesday as he testified before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.
“I’m not going to get into a debate with a former diplomat.”
Four years ago, Fowler and fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay came face to face with that threat when they were kidnapped and held for 130 days by the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Qaida linked group in Mali.
Prior to the minister’s testimony, Fowler told the all-party committee of MPs that Baird hasn’t asked to meet him to hear about his unique perspective on the al-Qaida linked terrorist threat in West Africa.
“Mr. Baird has not sought my advice,” he said in response to a question from NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.
“I have had chats with other people in the government, particularly shortly after I came back.”
Fowler has been critical of the Harper government, which he maintains is not doing enough to help French and African forces in Mali, where the same terrorists behind his abduction recently gained a foothold in the northern part of the country before being driven out.
Fowler renewed that criticism Tuesday when he told the committee that the government needs to stop making cuts to the foreign service which he says are harming Canada’s international interests.
Fowler criticized the Foreign Affairs Department plan to cut costs by closing embassies and selling property at a time when a terrorist insurgency is threatening West Africa.
The department plans to cut $170 million from its $2.6-billion budget over the next two years, including the sale of some official residences, which are projected to generate some $80 million in revenue.
“We’re going in a counter-trend direction. I don’t know why we are,” Fowler testified.
“I know life is tough and budgets are tight and we can do things smarter. But yes, I believe Canada has interests to protect and project. We haven’t been doing much of that lately.”
Fowler said he doesn’t want to see Canadian infantry battalions “drawing a line” in Mali’s desert fighting terrorists.
But he said Canadian special forces could be helping French special forces, while the military could contribute intelligence and logistics officers as well as helicopters and trucks.
“I wish we would stop talking in binary fashion about boots on the ground or not boots on the ground. It isn’t that simple.”
Baird told MPs the government is considering its next moves carefully, and won’t be rushing any decisions.
“We are not at the drop of a hat going to get into another Afghanistan in this region,” he said.
Baird was non-committal about whether Canada would contribute funds or military trainers toward African Union peacekeepers. He also wouldn’t say whether Canada would extend the mission of its C-17 heavy transport, which has been ferrying troops and equipment for France.
“We’ll let you know,” the minister told the MPs.
Fowler also said Canada’s recent $13-million contribution in humanitarian aid was paltry when compared with past aid contributions.
Opposition MPs on the committee questioned why Baird wouldn’t want to hear Fowler’s unique perspective.
“He’s an experienced diplomat and obviously went through what he went through recently,” Dewar said.
Liberal MP John McKay said Fowler would likely have a lot more to tell Baird in private than he has said in public.
“It’s disappointing, minister, that you haven’t had time to visit with Mr. Fowler over the last few months,” said McKay.
“He’s clearly one of Canada’s most experienced and respected diplomats, and is very knowledgeable of the area.”