U.S. envoy post to Canada in limbo as politicians duke it out over Keystone XL project

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
'Special Report' AllStar panel weighs in

How much should we take it to heart that the Americans can't be bothered to replace their departing ambassador to Canada?

David Jacobson left Ottawa last month after serving four years as the Barack Obama administration's top envoy to the United States' closest ally and biggest trading partner, with no word who the new ambassador might be.

The U.S. Department of State has dispatched a temp; career diplomat Richard Sanders arrived last month to act as chargé d’affaires until the president appoints a new ambassador and his choice is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, CBC News reports.

So what's the holdup? In a word, politics. Specifically, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, expert Colin Robertson suggests.

Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat now vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, told CBC News Obama may be delaying the nomination to avoid having opponents in the Senate "hold that candidate hostage."

[ Related: U.S. ambassador to Canada leaving before Keystone resolved but says problems taken 'in stride' ]

Obama has had a particularly hard time getting appointments, from federal judges to top administration officials, through the polarized Congress. Senate Republicans have used the filibuster to block seven nominees to head various government agencies and departments, the Guardian's Jim Newell noted last month.

Obama has exercised his right to temporarily fill key jobs using so-called recess appointments, raising fresh controversy that he was abusing this constitutional power.

Republicans in Congress are pressuring Obama to approve the long-delayed $7-billion Keystone XL project. He's expected to make a decision by the end of the year.

Obama has signalled he expects Canada to do more to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands production that will be the source of the crude flowing through Keystone to the refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and he's also expressed reservations about the project's economic benefits.

“This isn’t a slight against Canada, it’s U.S. politics," Robertson told CBC News, noting a Democrat senator miffed over another appointment held up Jacobson's nomination in Obama's first term.

Obama's choice for Canadian ambassador was thought to have been Goldman Sachs executive Bruce Heyman, like Jacobson a major fundraiser for his presidential campaign. But months after word leaked out there's been no announcement, leading to speculation he's been dropped.

“He simply had nothing, nothing to associate him with a senior position in Canada at all,” former U.S. diplomat David T. Jones told Postmedia News last month.

Appointing Heyman would be "committing a contempt of Canada," Jones said.

The U.S. envoy to Canada is considered a plum assignment in Washington and is often used as a reward for political allies.

Jacobson was a bagman for the Obama campaign and later worked on the presidential transition team. His predecessor, David Wilkins, chaired George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns in South Carolina.

[ Related: Canada's Harper insists Keystone XL is important for jobs ]

Some have suggested Obama was encountering resistance to giving yet another member of his "Chicago mafia" a top appointment. Others have said Heyman's role as a money manager with major clients in Canada represented a conflict of interest, Postmedia News said.

Whatever the reason, the vacancy means a career diplomat, not an Obama confidant with a direct line to the White House, will be in Ottawa during the high-pressure maneuvers over Keystone XL.

Wilkins, now a partner in a law firm specializing in Canada-U.S. trade issues, said Keystone XL has "sort of sucked the air out of the room."

"It's imperative the U.S. go ahead and make a decision on that," he told CBC News.

Wilkins recently told QMI Agency that Canadians shouldn't see the vacancy at the heavily fortified embassy on Sussex Drive as a snub.

"We've got professionals in the embassy that aren't going anywhere," he said. "You've got the same people who were supporting Jacobson still there, so you don't really miss a beat.

"You would hope that ... this process would be moving along a little quicker. Why it's not is anyone's guess, but it doesn't mean there is something wrong."