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Baird not interested in Robert Fowler's criticism of foreign service cuts

Robert Fowler waits to appear before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on Parliament Hill Tuesday February 12, 2013 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Former Canadian diplomat and one-time al-Qaeda hostage Robert Fowler says the government needs to stop cuts to the foreign service because it is harming Canada's international interests.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, however, isn't interested in his advice.

Mr. Fowler is criticizing the Foreign Affairs Department's plan to cut costs by closing embassies and selling property at a time when a terrorist insurgency is threatening West Africa.

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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 is projected to generate $80-million in revenue.

Four years ago, Mr. Fowler and fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay were kidnapped and held for 130 days by the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Qaeda linked group in Mali.

Mr. Fowler told an all-party committee of MPs that he doesn't want to see Canadian infantry battalions "drawing a line" in Mali's desert fighting terrorists.

But he says 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."

Mr. Baird responded that he has no interest in hearing any direct advice from Mr. 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.

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"I'm not going to get into a debate with a former diplomat."

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-Qaeda 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."

Opposition MPs on the committee questioned why Baird wouldn't want to hear Fowler's unique perspective.

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."

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