The fate of political appointees

November 18, 2018

As the foreign minister announces appointing professional diplomats in key foreign capitals, how will this decision be received in the US?

The fate of political appointees

Since taking charge, the Imran Khan-led new government has managed to rack up multiple gaffes. The excuse was that the stakeholders were new to the business. Still, the branch least expected to commit faux pas was the foreign ministry, since its head was presumed to be the most experienced.

The first unlikely incident occurred when the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo phoned the prime minister secretariat to speak with Imran Khan. Usually, such calls are pre-scheduled, keeping all concerned authorities in the loop. Yet, the foreign minister was miles away in his home constituency at exactly the same time instead of being with the prime minister to advise and manage the situation, which inevitably then turned into a full-blown crisis. The foreign minister had okayed the foreign office to send out a tweet, presumably without knowing the content, that challenged the State Department’s version. The Foreign Office had to step back from its claim afterwards.

The latest item added to the list recently was the announcement made by the Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, at a press briefing that he was reshuffling diplomats assigned overseas. He proposed to appoint career diplomats as new envoys at Washington, London, Ottawa, Riyadh, Doha, Rabat, Belgrade, Serbia, Havana, and Dubai. According to him, the decision was made after a detailed discussion with the prime minister.

Most of these consuls were caught by surprise since, apparently, the foreign ministry had not even informed them first about the decision. The usual procedure requires that relevant embassies are notified about any changes prior to moving an envoy. The announcement, thus, immediately undermined the ability of top representatives posted at these stations to perform at optimum since the host countries tend to slow down the on-going process and await for the next appointees to resume undergoing tasks.

This is especially jeopardising in case of the most challenging posts. Consider this that President Donald Trump had tweeted unfavourably on the very first day of this year accusing Pakistan of giving back "nothing but lies and deceit". In the following days, not only Pakistan’s security assistance was suspended but the administration also restricted the movements of Pakistani diplomats in the US to a 40 kilometres radius.

Pakistan then had a career diplomat at the helm who failed to mitigate the situation. The man who was sent to fight fire had been rumoured to have close relations with America’s first family. No evidence of this claim ever surfaced but there was a supporting argument too that Ali Jahangir Siddiqui could simply tick because of his background in business, just like the Trumps. So that the two sides might just be able to understand each other better.

Career diplomats can, undoubtedly, hold fort and offer advice; but political appointees can always reinvigorate, expand or improvise in the face of challenges.

While the appointment of a businessman-turned-serviceman had raised eyebrows, the very approach is being deemed more viable in the existing Trump-ian era. Even the British are mulling over plans to open up ambassadorial roles to applicants outside the centuries-old civil service. Jeremy Hunt, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, is inviting business leaders to become British ambassadors. "The strength of our network is its professionalism, which has given us what I believe is the finest diplomatic service in the world. But we must never close our eyes to the approaches and skills of our industries," the Financial Times quoted him last month. The paper also reported others saying the scheme was not a criticism of the calibre of civil servants, but rather that some senior business figures with specific knowledge of a country could bring a new dimension to the diplomatic service.

Two months after reaching Washington, Ambassador Siddiqui’s first high profile official meeting made public was with the US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, at the Pentagon. It was significant in that the ambassador not only had the Secretary’s eyes and ears to himself for over thirty minutes but also received an honour guard. It’s hard to say how the ambassador pulled off such a reception, but in that moment it seemed plausible the ties between the US and Pakistan could improve sooner. The moment passed and the ties did not change much, but it’s certain that a bureaucrat could not have scored the face time that Siddiqui managed.

A couple of weeks later, Ambassador Alice Wells publicly recognised that in a short time Ambassador Siddiqui, a non-career diplomat, had established himself as an important player. "It seems as if everyone in town has met you and is talking about the energy you bring to the job. We particularly appreciate your concerted efforts to advance the full range of our bilateral relations, and in particular our economic relationship. Your vision for bringing Pakistan and the United States together to fulfill Pakistan’s energy needs in ways that benefit both our businesses is impressive," Wells acknowledged in a gathering at the Pakistani Embassy in August.

During his visit to the US in late September, the foreign minister had scheduled meetings with the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Along with that, the embassy had also set up meetings with various leaders and members of high powered Congressional Committees. In the prevailing difficult relations, arranging such meetings could have been more challenging for a service official since they’re trained to follow instructions and bear red-tapes rather than analysing political nuances.

The civil service cadre is also tied to an institution that, according to the PTI government itself, needs reforms. The cadre carries and heavily relies on institutional memory which at times is narrowly selective, especially when it comes to relations with the US. The institutional memory could be helpful for setting up a backdrop but not for exploiting ways to move ahead. Career diplomats can hold fort and offer advice; but political appointees can always reinvigorate, expand or improvise in the face of challenges. They also enjoy the leverage of direct connections to the ruling party, giving civilian authorities the opportunity to directly control foreign policy.

Still, and contrary to this, the foreign minister has claimed that in order to make foreign policy stronger and more robust, he was appointing professional diplomats in key foreign capitals. Listing the names of proposed appointments, Qureshi said the decision was aimed at replacing political appointees and assigning that to senior and career diplomats so that they could "safeguard Pakistan’s interests and present the country’s point of view on various issues in a more effective manner". As if, political appointees do not serve the country accordingly.

Given that it’s the prerogative of the sitting government to make appointments at their will, the Foreign Minister Qureshi, instead of rushing and compromising, could have preferred political appointees over service members to showcase an independent policy, just as he had declared in his speech after taking oath.