When the roof blew off in Baghdad last July, causing more astonishment in Western capitals than it should have done, Canada had three sources of information about what was going on there—Washington, London and the daily press. We have had the same intelligence on the long series of coups d’état in Syria, before that country joined Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, as well as on the events in Damascus since that time. For such chronic trouble spots as Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Iraq and Syria, Canadian decisions are based upon secondhand data. Canada has no observers of her own anywhere in the Arab world except Egypt and Lebanon.
The missions we have got in the Middle East are undergraded and understaffed. In Lebanon, which was known as a valuable listening post long before it became itself a focus of tension, Canada has a chargé d’affaires whose sole assistant on the political side is a young third secretary. (There’s a commercial man as well,' but his territory includes Syria, Iraq, Jordan and the British-protected states on the Persian Gulf.) The office staff includes only one coding clerk, so it’s the better part of a day’s work to send or receive one telegram. Most communications from Beirut to Ottawa go by diplomatic bag, courtesy of the British embassy, and are many days old when they arrive.
In skeleton missions of this sort, a diplomat must spend a lot of his time on office routine which, in a larger embassy, would be done by an administrative officer. Treasury officers back home see to it that the burden of routine keeps on growing; one recent circular, for example, asked all foreignservice officers to make an estimate of how much their expenses for dry cleaning were increased, over a normal amount, by their representational duties. Another topic that proved good for an exchange of correspondence lasting several months was a tailoring bill for three dollars. One diplomat remarked, only half in jest: “I sometimes think I’d have been smarter to take a job with an oil company in Montreal, and join the Canadian Institute of International Affairs for my. own pleasure— I’d spend more time on world affairs that way.”
If you try to argue the point with officials of the Department of External Affairs, they put up two defenses for our skimpy representation in the Middle East. One is that we simply haven't got enough people, suitably trained, to open a group of new missions in a critical region.
At the moment, Canada has more foreign-service officers in the Scandinavian peninsula alone—Sweden. Norway and Denmark—than in the whole
Middle East including Turkey and Israel. Each Scandinavian capital has a Canadian ambassador, and each ambassador happens to be one of the ablest and most senior men in our foreign service.
Several years ago, at a meeting in London, I met the then ambassador to one of these capitals. He had just been appointed, and 1 asked him how he liked it.
"You know, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. “All my life I’ve had to work very hard, and I’d have thought it would be wonderful to have an easy job for a change. But now I’ve got nothing to do, and it’s driving me crazy.”
Allowing some discount for facetious overstatement, it still looks as if Canada could spare a senior man or two from northern Europe, if necessary, in order to open a few windows of our own in Asia Minor. There is also the whole of Latin America as a manpower pool— Canada has twelve missions and fortyfour officers there, including some of the brightest professionals in the department. What makes Bogotá more important than Baghdad?
The other official defense for our
neglect of the Middle East is on quite different ground. The department says it’s difficult to carry on a good diplomatic mission in a country where Canada has no direct or immediate interest—where few Canadians visit or trade, and where the duties consist mainly of observing local affairs and reporting them to Ottawa, where the reports may be read or may be pigeonholed. The mission and its staff feels isolated, begins to doubt whether it is performing any useful function, has trouble keeping up its morale. That’s the theory, anyway.
Actually, Canada doesn’t seem as
remote from these faraway lands as you might think. In late July, on the road to Beirut, a young Lebanese Army captain who was examining my papers looked up sternly:
“You are from Ottawa?” I was.
"When are you going back to Ottawa?”
I said I would be there in a month or so.
“My fiancée lives in Ottawa,” said the captain, suddenly turning human. “She keeps writing to me and asking if we are all right; I have very little time to write back. I will give you her address—would you be so kind to telephone and tell her Mohammed is fine, and everybody in our family alive and well?”
In Beirut a young Lebanese journalist commissioned me to give his best regards to his wife, who was spending the crisis summer with her family in Niagara Falls, Ont. One of our taxi drivers told me his son, of whom he vyas enormously proud, was a graduate in medicine of the University of Toronto. In Amman, Jordan, we hadn’t even got our bags unpacked when we were invited to the home of a British foreign-service officer whose wife is from Saskatoon; the next day we had lunch with a couple from Vancouver. There is some such trace of a Canadian community, however small, in every Middle Eastern capital.
But you don’t need trivial incidents like this to prove that the morale problem of isolation doesn’t exist. You can prove it by enquiry. In the last two months I’ve met almost every Canadian foreign-service officer from Cairo to Ankara. I've also met other Canadians doing somewhat similar work for the United Nations—Milton Gregg, the former minister of labor, now directing UN activities in Baghdad; Stewart
Sutton of Toronto in Beirut; various Canadian officers in Damascus and Jerusalem, serving with the mixed armistice commissions along the borders of Israel. I didn’t meet a single man who complained about his post, or his work. Most of them were fascinated by what they were doing; none was seriously discontented. Their one real complaint was that they didn’t have enough help.
However, there is one other objection to expanding the foreign service which the department doesn’t mention, but which might occur to a Canadian taxpayer: what good would it do us to have our own information, instead of American or British information, from an area where we have no special knowledge and experience and they have a great deal? Why spend the money?
Canada has no Middle East experts. Only a handful of our diplomats speak any Arabic at all, and none has the kind of lifetime acquaintance with the region that so many British and some Americans can boast. Therefore, even if our information came from our own missions in our own code, it would still be secondhand in a very real sense. Is there enough advantage in this to make the change worthwhile?
The answer is yes. In actual fact Canadian dispatches would not be entirely secondhand, but even if they were it would be better to receive them directly from the spot than it is to have them filtered through Washington and London.
In Baghdad, for example, the bestinformed and most helpful man I met was a junior member of a Western diplomatic mission. He was the only foreigner in town, it seemed, who had any real knowledge of the new government or acquaintance with its personnel. A few months earlier, his ambassador had called him in and warned him that if he continued to see so much of the opposition (as the new government then was) he might seriously offend the Nuri Said regime.
This young man was not as much surprised by the events of July as his own government appeared to be. He didn't know just when the outbreak would come but he knew it would come sometime, and fairly soon. If Canada had had a mission in Baghdad, his knowledge would have been available to us long ago. As it was, the appraisals of Iraq that Ottawa got through other capitals were the official ones, and it looks as if the official appraisers didn’t pay enough attention to their own juniors.
But finally, and most important of all, this is an area where Canada ought to be showing her own face and speaking with her own voice. As far as pure information is concerned, no doubt we could make do with what the British and the Americans tell us about most parts of the world. But Canada started her foreign service, in part, as an assertion of Canada's identity.
There is no place where it’s more to our advantage to have our own identity, and not have it confused with anyone else’s, than the Middle East. Britain, France, the United States are all, for different reasons, suspect in this region. All have special interests to serve that are not Canadian interests, special likes and dislikes that need not be Canadian either. There is no such thing as an unprejudiced opinion about the Middle East—but let’s at any rate have prejudices that are our own. ^
The diplomatic dilemma: so much to see, so little to look with.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.