Missing foreign minister

Updated 21 Jul 2015

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FOREIGN affairs is a complicated business, but there are occasionally simple truths too. One of those truths is this: every country needs a full-time, cabinet-level, officially appointed foreign minister.

Pakistan does not have one. Instead, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has a foreign adviser who doubles as national security adviser and a close Sharif aide who serves as the special adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs. That is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

For one, the international diplomatic network is built around foreign ministries led by foreign ministers — there are protocol and coordination elements that simply cannot be well executed by ad hoc appointments.

For another, the Foreign Office structure inside Pakistan is hierarchical and designed to be led by a foreign minister who coordinates with the Prime Minister’s Office.

The flow of information, the interaction between the bureaucratic layers and political leadership, the drumming up of ideas and exchange of points of view — all of that and more are interrupted when there is no full-time foreign minister. And all of that adds up to harming the country’s diplomacy and interactions with the outside world.

There was a relatively straightforward solution to the problem: to use the Senate elections in March to elevate Mr Aziz or Mr Fatemi to parliament and hence be eligible to become a full cabinet member.

For reasons best known to Mr Sharif, that opportunity was declined. Worse yet, the prime minister has done nothing to try and resolve the turf war in the foreign ministry that has hamstrung its functioning.

While kept largely out of the public domain, there is nevertheless a sense that the bureaucracy is being pulled in different directions and the political appointees are unable to present a unified opinion to the prime minister.

None of that is good for the government. Yet, the ministerial problems go well beyond the foreign ministry.

Consider that the information minister is still moonlighting as the law minister, while the supervision of the law ministry has effectively been outsourced to a prime ministerial aide. Then, rather extraordinarily, the water and power minister is also serving as the defence minister.

Both those ministries have heavy workloads — but what sense is there in having a water and power minister during an epic and continuing electricity crisis who also serves as the defence minister at a time of massive internal military operations and significant military-related activity with major regional and international powers?

Ultimately, it appears that Mr Sharif’s instinct to not trust anyone beyond the smallest circle of aides and then to have ministries staffed with multiple principals who are loyal to the prime minister but at odds with their intra-ministerial counterparts is undoing many of the government’s policy initiatives.

A prime minister with a dysfunctional and incomplete cabinet is a prime minister with his policy hands tied.

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2015

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