Monday, February 18, 2013

President’s State of the Union address: US economy growing stronger

FEBRUARY 17, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

President Obama gave his fourth State of Union address last Tuesday, his first of his second term. With the elections out of the way, the President’s address was a more confident one. The Constitution does not  require the President to make a personal appearance in Capital Hill to address a joint session of the US Congress. It merely mandates that the President must “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

President George Washington performed this constitutional obligation through annual appearance in the Congress. His successors instead sent written statements to the Congress till 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson re-established personal appearance in the Capital Hill to address both Houses of the Congress for his State of the Union Address.  These days, the State of the Union address is watched by a large number of Americans; 40 million of them watched his Tuesday’s address live on TV. The address is what its very name suggests; it allows Americans to know the health of the country; the problems facing it and the way the President as head of the executive branch of the government, intends to tackle the problems.  It is also a mechanism through which the President encourages the Congress to legislate to fulfill his agenda.

In this year’s address, President Obama underlined this necessity of cooperation between the executive and the legislature at a time when the need of such cooperation was brought home to every American with the fiscal cliff hanger that the country faced just after his re-election; a crisis that has only been avoided when the White House and Congress reached a temporary compromise early in the year with a lasting agreement yet to be negotiated between the White House and the Congress. He used a historical reference from President John Kennedy’s  State of the Union address 41 years ago to underline the importance of such cooperation.  In that address, President Kennedy had reminded the legislators “that the constitution makes us not rival for powers but partners for progress….it is my task to report the State of the Union- to improve it is the task of all.” A confident President Obama who won re-election in the end easily after the media made it look like he was in danger of losing, made a strong case before the Congress and the nation and left the ball to move the country forward in the court of the legislators.

The economy was the President central theme upon which he built his address. He informed the nation that if he receives the “partnership” of the Congress, he could lead the country back on rails with the economy that he said was showing very positive signs of recovering from its worst recession for many decades. In fact, he articulated the achievements of his first term in economic recovery in the second paragraph of his speech. He said “after years of grueling recession, our businesses have created 6 million jobs. We buy more American cars than in last 5 years and less foreign oil than in last twenty. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding and consumers, patients and homeowners enjoy stronger protection than ever before.”

The President not just underscored that America is stronger than when he assumed power, he also made it abundantly clear that he would be making the American middle class the major focus of his second administration. He stated clearly that while corporate earnings have reached an all time high, the minimum wages have not kept pace with it. He therefore announced a raise in minimum wages to US$ 9 an hour. He also addressed the crucial agenda of fiscal deficit. He said that his first administration has been able to work with Congress and reduce the deficit by S$ 2.5 trillion “mostly by spending cuts but also by raising taxes on the wealthiest 1% of the Americans.” He underscored that the US$ 4 trillion that the economists have said is essential for the economy to stabilize would need bipartisan support of the Congress to his administration and warned that unless that support is forthcoming, US 1 trillion cuts in federal spending would automatically take effect that could “devastate priorities in education, energy and medical research.”

The President also spoke on manufacturing, Medicare, immigration and now the most emotive issues of American politics, gun control. All these issues except gun control are ones with which the President had gone to the electorate and won their endorsement. The gun control issue became a national one with renewed emphasis after the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th , where a young man gunned down 26; mostly school children in the elementary classes that touched the soul of most Americans expect the cold hearts of the gun lovers, the gun industry and the National Rifles Association (NRA). On gun control, the President strongly sought variety of new legislation aimed specifically at “military style assault weapons.” The President called upon the Congress for swift action on immigration reform that went down with the country’s large immigration population and ever growing whose influence in US’s politics was quite evidently underscored in the last Presidential election.

The President spoke on foreign affairs with significant emphasis devoting full 15 paragraphs of the subject. He said 34,000 combat troops will return home from Afghanistan to bring to an end USA’s longest ever overseas war. He assured that the end of the war would not mean end of US involvement in Afghanistan where America would remain engaged in “training and equipping Afghans so that the country does not slip into chaos and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of Al Qaeda and their affiliates.” He also spoke on drones; on Iran where he underscored the need for diplomacy; on containment of North Korea; and trade agreement with Europe. Unfortunately, his emphasis on foreign affairs did not give Middle East and the need to jumpstart the Palestine peace process the importance that many outside the United States expected. The underlying theme of his foreign policy references was that the United States would not be willing anymore to fight someone else’s war abroad.

Florida’s Senator of Cuban origin and the rising star in the party and a potential Presidential candidate for 2016 Marco Rubio who gave the Republican response to the President’s address criticized it on well known party lines. He said that the President’s agenda will end in more government spending that will enhance the federal deficit that in turn will push the country into continued recession. He tried to answer the charge against the Republican that it is a party of the wealthy by referring to his own humble back ground and accused the President for having an obsession “for raising taxes.” The Senator’s rebuttal was weakest when he said the way to deal with violence is not through weakening the “rights of law abiding Americans”  given by the Second Amendment when speaking on the President’s emphasis on gun control but failed to give his Party’s details on how to respond to tragedies such as the one in Newtown. Whatever the Senator said was eventually made irrelevant by his “first truly embarrassing gaffe of his national career” when he turned to a bottle of water to deal with a case of dry mouth.

The President will now take his national agenda to the people in the same way he led his successful re-election bid by touring the country over the next few weeks. America is now on strong rebound. Hence, the President is expected to receive the same positive response as he did while on election trail that in turn is likely to help him in putting pressure on the Congress  on a host of issues on the economy,  governments spending and cuts , healthcare and immigration. Early indications after the President State of the Union address are that he would have a more comfortable and successful second term with the Congress than he did in his first.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies


16 FEBRUARY, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

Bangladesh-India relations have picked up tail wind in recent weeks after remaining stuck in the doldrums since the disappointing visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September, 2011 on the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement (TWSA) and the land boundary agreement (LBA) issues. There has been a flurry of visits, some already undertaken and more scheduled over the next few weeks and months that brought the Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai to Dhaka early this week. The Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid will be in town next week followed by the visit of the Indian President early next month, his first overseas visit since assuming office. A visited by the Bangladesh Prime Minister to New Delhi in August is bring talked about but yet to be confirmed.

A team from the Indian Foreign Ministry had visited Dhaka prior to the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary to line up these visits. Before that the Indian Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde came to Dhaka in early January and signed the Extradition Treaty and the Indian Power Secretary P Uma Shankar was in Bangladesh   in end of January to set up cooperation in the power sector. The good work from these visits are expected to be crystallized in the shape of the long awaited agreements that had stalled Bangladesh-India relations since the visit of Manmohon Singh, namely the TWSA and the LBA for which the Bangladesh Prime Minister is expected to go to New Delhi.

The Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, while reacting in the media during his press conference after the conclusion of his official talks with his Bangladeshi counterpart Shahidul Haque, said that both the issues would be resolved in the “shortest possible time.” The TWSA is stuck in Paschim Bangla (PB). The state’s mercurial Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee (MB) used the powers given by the India constitution to the state on the issue of water to derail the Teesta agreement at literally the eleventh hour. She had used the argument that the 50/50 sharing formula   was reached by the negotiators of the two sides without her state’s approval. She further argued that she could not agree to such a sharing formula without view from her experts and that she would wait for a report from the 15 member commission she had appointed with Kalyan Rudra as the head before a decision on the sharing formula.

The Commission recently   submitted its report but not a complete one because the Central Water Commission did not provide the data of flow of Teesta from Sikkim into PB. As a consequence, MB stated that she would deal with the issue politically although in the incomplete report, the Commission underscored the need to give Bangladesh adequate quantity of water to sustain the river.   The LBA that was signed during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister could not be made effective because the BJP declined to support the ratification. Under the agreement, India would need to cede territory for which ratification by 2/3 majority in Parliament is mandatory requirement  under the Indian constitution. The Congress led government does not have the 2/3rd majority and hence without the BJP supports, the LBA cannot be ratified. The government sources including the Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid in New Delhi and the Indian Law Minister on a visit to Dhaka in December said that they are hopeful of ratifying the LBA soon but did not provide details. The BJP has not spoken on the matter to sustain the government’s optimism.

The ground reality at the moment does not suggest that much forward movement has been made on the issues to back   the Indian Foreign Secretary’s optimism  that  the deals would be resolved “soonest possible”. Nevertheless the assurance coming from the Indian Foreign Secretary  is a step forward from the one the Indians  had been giving Bangladesh  since , 2011 that the deals would be resolved “soon.” In diplomatic terms, this is a tricky assurance though for although there is a difference between “soon” and “soonest possible”, in the ultimate analysis, “soonest possible” also lacks the element of certainty as “soon”.  Given the fact that India has in the past reneged on commitments, “soonest possible” is not much to feel confident.  When a journalist asked the Indian Foreign Secretary whether the two deals would be translated into reality during the Prime Minister’s visit to New Delhi, he said that the date of that visit has not yet been finalized that raises question on how much Bangladesh can depend on “soonest possible” as our Prime Minister has said in private that she would not go to New Delhi unless she is certain that the TWSA and LBA would be delivered and the formalities completed before her visit.

Further, on MB agreeing to the Teesta deal, there is more disturbing news. MB has simply said that she would deal with the TWSA politically after the Commission submitted an incomplete report. Politically she is now on a war path with New Delhi on a host of issues and her relation with Manmohon Singh is now on an all time low. Further MB is now playing the communal card in PB politics openly. The Muslims of PB are not particularly well disposed towards Bangladesh and the Teesta on the PB side runs through areas populated by Muslims in large number. These factors do not hint that MB would be more inclined to sign the Teesta deal now than she was in September, 2011. Likewise, on LBA, with elections in India now not very far away, BJP would be more inclined playing the nationalist card against the Congress that would encourage it to object to the LBA because it would mean ceding Indian Territory to Banagladesh. In the exchange of enclaves agreed between the two countries in Dhaka during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, Bangladesh would get more territory than it would cede to India.

Therefore Bangladesh should be careful in building expectations because in the past, Indians have not kept their part of the commitments and promises. The one good thing about the recent moves in jump starting relations that had almost stalled is that the negotiations seem to be directed by the Prime Minister and her Advisers have not been seen in public view this time as they were last time. The other good thing about the recent moves is that these are coming from India. The Bangladesh side should keep in mind that the LBA ratification, Indian assurances notwithstanding, would be a long drawn process. Even if it is tabled in the next session of the Lok Sabha, getting enough votes in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha would take time and Bangladesh should wait before the process ends to believe that the issue has been resolved.

On Teesta, Bangladesh should be cautious and study carefully what the Indians offer. In water sharing agreements, sentences and languages can be crafted in a manner that may hide real intent of either one of the parties if the other does not read it carefully. The Ganges Water Sharing Agreement for instance could have been much better had Bangladesh negotiating team not been divided and there was a national consensus in approaching India and the agreement scrutinized and read carefully. In the Teesta deal also, there has been no effort by the negotiators to keep the nation on board. If the Indians offer a deal this time, this should be discussed in parliament before the government signs it.

There is a nagging suspicion in many minds that the Indians are making the moves to come to the assistance of the Awami League in the forthcoming elections. Nevertheless, one has to welcome the moves because it underscores the fact that the Indians have accepted that they are responsible for derailing the courageous move of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations by failing to deliver on commitments. Our negotiators must keep this in mind while they receive the Indian Foreign Minister next week and the Indian President early next month. They also have a duty to the nation to be transparent so that the public feels that these deals are not being made with political motive and not in the interest of Bangladesh.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and a former Secretary

Second anniversary Egypt’s Arab Spring: Ominous signs

10 FEBRUARY, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The second anniversary of the Arab Spring in Egypt that fell on January 25th was not an auspicious one. Instead of warmly celebrating the end of dictatorship and flowering of democracy, Egyptians saw riots in the streets where more than 50 people were killed by the security police for demonstrating against the government. Egyptians who are not supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) led government that constitutes a significant part of the country’s population are shuddering at the prospect of the ghost of the Mubarak era returning. Outside Egypt those who had expected Egypt’s Arab Spring to usher in democracy not just in Egypt but to become a tsunami for the region’s absolute rulers are worrying if Egypt’s tryst with democracy is becoming still born.

The ominous developments surrounding the second anniversary of Egypt’s Arab Spring are still evolving although the worst seems to be over for this time. It has claimed so far over 50 lives in the hands of the same dreaded police and security forces that had terrorized all sections of Egyptians under the Mubarak era; the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic forces as well as those that are fighting them now, the liberals, the Christians and others who were not supporters of the Mubarak regime. These forces have been at odds with the MB after the latter reneged on its promises not to contest the Presidency after they had helped it win the parliamentary elections in November, 2011-January, 2012.

Later their differences sharpened when the MB started to go alone in exercising power that came to them when their candidate Mohammad Mosri became the President in an election he won marginally (51.7% against 48.3%) against the candidate backed by the liberals/Christians, supporters of the Mubarak regime and the military  in June 2012. The new President activated the parliament that the military/judges had annulled on technicality. He also succeeded in removing the powerful Defense Minister and Army Chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi together with senior officers of the armed forces that made his presidency look better in public perception. The President also was able to earn USA’s admiration for his role in resolving the Israel-Hamas conflict as well as in the region where he backed the USA against Syria.

President Morsi ran into conflict with his opponents when he hurried the draft constitution through a constituent commission where his Brotherhood members and the Islamic groups in parliament were the architects after his secular/Christian and other opponents stayed from participating in the commission. The President adopted the draft constitution in the face of the protests of his opponents who went to the streets over it, claiming that it was not drafted with due consideration to the secular and multi-cultural roots of the Egyptian society. One reason to hurry the draft through was to beat the deadline that was set by the judges.

The President argued that unless he had adopted the constitution before the deadline, the commission would have ceased to exist and the process of adopting the country’s constitution would have been inordinately delayed. He also argued that the people would have the right to accept or reject the constitution in a referendum to which the draft was placed on December 15th. The draft was approved in the referendum by 67% of the votes cast but its credibility was dented because only 30% of voters turned out to vote thus making the support for the referendum only 20% of the actual voters of Egypt. Additionally, to add to the discontent of his opponents, Mohammed Morsi assumed powers that set him above the law that many claimed had given him powers no less than the discredited President Mubarak.

Thus by the time the second anniversary arrived, the politics of Egypt was highly charged with sentiments against the government of President running very high. Egyptians not belonging to the camps of Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic groups were up in arms against the government, demanding that the constitution adopted by the referendum be scrapped. In the week of the second anniversary, a court in Suez passed death sentences on 21 for the “soccer deaths” of last year that added fuel to the fire. Riots erupted in 3 cities, Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, three cities critical to Egypt as these are located on the side of the Suez Canal.

The President clamped emergency for a month in these 3 cities, called in the military and the police and security. The army remained calm and professional and also assisted the opponents of President Morsi to demonstrate. The police and security forces were different and they showed the same mindset that they had done during the Mubarak era and killed over 50 demonstrators/rioters. Nevertheless, the army whose powers remain deeply entrenched, and in the current turmoil keeping its distance, showed its concern over the latest disturbances when the Army Chief and Defense Minister (under both the Mubarak era constitution and the newly adopted one, the Army Chief automatically becomes the Defense Minister) warned about the possibility of “collapse of the state” that gave rise to serious worries in Egypt and abroad that Egypt’s Arab Spring was being derailed.

There is no doubt that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have made serious mistakes, many arising out of their inexperience as well as their impatience to establish their authority on Egypt’s government.  Although the move to hurry through the constitution caused the perception that the Brotherhood would enshrine its ultra Islamic agenda in it; in reality the new constitution does not include any such contents. There is nothing like governance according to Shariah law in the constitution that many had feared. The discarded constitution had grounded Egyptian law in the “principles of Islamic law”. The new constitution has grounded Egyptian law in the “principles of Sunni Islamic law.”  

Nevertheless, independent analysts who have studied the new constitution closely have concluded that the dissatisfaction of the opponents to the new constitution is based less on ideological issues. They feel that while the MB could interpret the constitution’s reference to Sunni Islamic law to take the country to the right, the language is also flexible enough to argue for individual rights too. The new constitution guarantees Islam, Christianity and Judaism freedom of worship but is silent on the other religions. Women’s rights have also not been specifically guaranteed. The new constitution also calls upon the state and society to uphold family and moral values causing concern that such ambiguity could “open the door for vigilante pressure from self appointed moral guardians. The military’s position is the new constitution has been retained unchanged as was in the discarded constitution.

The way the MB handled the task of writing the constitution, endorsing it and then sending it to referendum caused apprehension among the MB’s opponents   because they were afraid that it would impose its ultra-conservative agenda on Egypt. The decision of the President to assume powers above the law as well as declaration of emergency and calling the military and the hated policy/security forces to quell the riots and disturbances  that resulted in  deaths further accentuated  apprehensions that the new regime was following the path of President Mubarak’s absolute rule. However, on analysis of the new constitution, a lot of the apprehensions of the opponents that it will be ultra-conservative in contents do not appear to be well grounded.

Most importantly, the regime has demonstrated that it is willing to compromise and learn from its mistakes. The President Mohammed Morsi has relented on his decision to assume powers above the law. When the opposition had taken to the streets during the recent disturbances, the President had offered to sit and discuss with them to find a way out of the impasse. In fact, the MB has so far shown enough indication to find out the democratic way out of Egypt’s current political problems. As the cliché goes, it needs two to tango. Egypt’s opposition must show the spirit of negotiations by withdrawing from the streets and talking with the Government. Meanwhile what Egypt is seeing at the moment are the pangs of the birth of democracy for the Arab Spring has ensured that Egyptians have overcome their fear of power of the autocrats and their democratic yearnings cannot any longer be subdued by force.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS

Sunday, February 17, 2013


the independent
9 February, 2013

M. Serajul Islam

Recently, I read a few articles on Peter Vergese, the new Australian Foreign Secretary in the Australian media.  Two of the articles appeared in The Australian, one of the country’s leading newspapers.  One article was headlined “Chief diplomat: nation needs bigger imprint”. Another in the same newspaper was captioned “Chief diplomat spells out the rules of engagement.”  These articles reflected something that the reader did not miss; that in the conduct of Australia’s foreign policy, the Australian Foreign Secretary’s role is extremely crucial..

Peter Vergese s is a friend of mine from the “Class of 1979” of the Australian Foreign Service Training programme that he and I attended together.  I felt proud at the way he is taking up his role to shape the foreign policy of his country as Australia’s “chief diplomat.” But then his confidence is nothing unusual. In Australian government, the Foreign Secretary’s pre-eminent role in foreign policy is a fact established by law. In contrast, I could not help feeling sad at the way we have allowed over the years to marginalize the “chief diplomat” of our country. At the same time as Peter Vergese took over his position in Canberra, our “chief diplomat” Shahidul Huq also took over the same responsibility in Bangladesh. Where does he stand in comparison to the Australian Foreign Secretary?

Our Foreign Secretary has not yet come into public view like his Australian counterpart. He has not made any public pronouncement of what role he intends to play as the “Chief diplomat” of Bangladesh. Hence, what role he will eventually play in the context of Bangladesh’s foreign policy is a subject upon which no prediction can yet be made with any certainty.   I can only wish and perhaps pray for him that he would be play a role in the affairs of foreign policy as his counterparts play in other countries. The relevant rules concerning allocation of   functions among the Ministries give the Foreign Secretary considerable influence over foreign policy. One wishes that the new Foreign Secretary would exercise these powers during his tenure.

Although Bangladesh was born in the war field, its birth was consolidated in the hard task of successful diplomacy. A fact that many have now forgotten is the opposition that Bangladesh faced in its struggle for freedom from the comity of nations during its struggle for independence in 1971. The era in which we fought our glorious war of liberation was one where in international relations; only lip service was provided to concepts that are now so much glorified such a people’s right of self determination or the importance of democracy and democratic elections. Bangladesh as the former East Pakistan had won a free and fair election that should have sent the AL to power in Islamabad and made Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Prime Minister of Pakistan.  Pakistan’s military rulers did not like the prospects. They declared the democratic elections void; banned AL and incarcerated the AL leader on charge of treason.  They then embarked upon genocide to bring the people of Bangladesh into subservience by brute force.

The people of Bangladesh stood against the oppressors and fought one of the most glorious wars of liberation based on a people’s right of self determination. Yet except for India and the former Soviet Union, none of the members of the United Nations, themselves signatories to international documents protecting the right of self determination of a people came forward to assist Bangladesh’s war of liberation. In frustration, Dr. Henery Kissinger called Bangladesh “an international basket case” when it emerged as an independent nation against his and President Richard Nixon’s wishes and attempts to the contrary.  Nations were afraid to support Bangladesh’s right of self determination overtly because they were afraid that supporting such a cause could encourage secessionist movements in their own countries.

Thus when Bangladesh became independent, its greatest challenge was to be recognized by the member states of the United Nations that had stood by silently during our war of liberation. It was a daunting task but Bangladesh achieved the recognition and respect of the countries of the world because Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the task in his hands and with the Foreign Ministry by his side, achieved recognition  in very quick time to launch Bangladesh’s tryst with history as an independent and sovereign state. In this period of our history, the Foreign Secretary’s role was a major one. In fact, as Foreign Secretary, Enayet Karim was one of the closest and loved companions of the Prime Minister. Often, he would get together with the Foreign Secretary and senior officials of the Ministry and take foreign policy decisions that were crucial for the needs of a war ravaged country that he was trying to rebuild.

Enayet Karim died in office. His successor Fakhruddin Ahmed was allowed  by the Prime Minister to work with him and the PMO in the same hand in glove approach  and the results were more successes in foreign affairs. When President Ziaur Rahman became the President, he also gave the Foreign Ministry respect and he understood its importance in the affairs of the nation. In fact, Tobarak Hossain and SAMS Kibria both yielded considerable authority in formulating and implementing foreign policy because the President gave them the opportunity to play their rightful role in matters of foreign policy. SAMS Kibria went from his post as Foreign Secretary to become the Executive Director of ESCAP.

Enayet Karim, Fakhruddin Ahmed, Tobarak Hossain, SAMS Kibria were outstanding diplomats and built upon traditions inherited from British India where the Foreign Secretary was the only Secretary who had direct access to  the Viceroy directly. Annada Sankar Roy writing in his well read book on the ICS, referred to the Foreign Secretary under the British Raj as a “koolin” among the Secretaries. In independent India under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Foreign Secretary’s position was also special among the central Secretaries of the Government.  Indian Foreign Secretaries have moved to important position on retirement as has SS Menon who is now the powerful National Security Adviser. Pakistan also inherited the same tradition with the post of Foreign Secretary like India. In both the countries, the post of Foreign Secretary has been strengthened over the years.

In Bangladesh, the position of the Foreign Secretary started to decline under HM Ershad because he just did not like the professional diplomatic cadre. He systematically sidelined the Foreign Ministry and overtly encouraged other Secretaries to undermine the Foreign Secretary. He treated Fakhruddin Ahmed, whom he recalled home to become Foreign Secretary a second time unfairly and removed him abruptly on the excuse that he was seldom available over the Red Phone, a line of communication that he loved to use to keep the Secretaries on leash. Yet under even President Ershad, some of the Foreign Secretaries like  Abul Ahsan, a topper in his CSS batch   kept their heads high owing to their personal brilliance but knew that their power base was being systematically undermined with indulgence from the top against the Foreign Ministry.

The return of elected governments failed to bring the Foreign Ministry into reckoning in governance. The Foreign Secretaries after 1991 were extremely competent diplomats who could have done the nation much credit. Farooq Sobhan as a Deputy Permanent Representative in New York in the 1980s had chaired the important and powerful Group of 77. Yet as Foreign Secretary, he found that the rest of the government did not feel the need to benefit from his brilliance and kept him on the sidelines on issues of foreign affairs. Shafi Sami had proved his worth as High Commissioner to Pakistan and India as a diplomat of the highest standing. Yet as Foreign Secretary, he had to compete hard with his fellow Secretaries over foreign policy matters where he should, as the country’s “Chief Diplomat”,  been allowed to lead.

It was only when Bangladesh and India came close to a war over border conflict in 2001 did the government realize the benefit and the need to depend on a career diplomat in times of a national crisis. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina publicly named the Foreign Secretary Syed Moazzem Ali as the Government’s spokesman and stated that no other Minister should speak on the subject and placed in his hands the major role of dealing with India.  He did his job well and the nation benefited. Unfortunately, after Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury vacated the post of Foreign Secretary to become the Ambassador to Washington during the last BNP Government, the need to choose the best diplomat as Foreign Secretary based on merit cum seniority criterion principle was sacrificed.

The office of the Foreign Secretary has not been the same ever since.  The present government having named a new Foreign Secretary should encourage him to once again become its “Chief Diplomat” in dealing with foreign policy, for that would serve its interests more than those of the new incumbent. On his part, the Foreign Secretary should make efforts to reclaim a lot of the legitimate powers and functions that are still his. He could start with the weekly press briefings to establish his visibility that his predecessors had used even during President Ershad’s times to good use when the latter all but wanted to close down the Foreign Ministry. He should set the MFA in order where important posts in the Ministry and its legally guaranteed functions are being lost to other cadres and other Ministries. The wish of the incumbent Foreign Secretary becoming our “Chief Diplomat” like his counterparts in Australia  India and Pakistan and his predecessors in the 1980s is a fond one given the predicament in which the present incumbent finds himself. Nevertheless, this wish is one that would benefit the country and hence must be stressed for whatever it is worth.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affair Studies, CFAS