A senior State Department official has been stripped of responsibility and faces severe discipline for stating what might seem the obvious: that Quebec may secede from Canada and that U.S. policymakers should start planning for the possibility of a new neighbor north of the border.
In an article published last week in the spring edition of the Washington Quarterly, David Jones, former political officer with the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, describes French-Quebeckers as deeply disaffected from the rest of Canada and argues that an independent Quebec would be likely to become a peaceful, prosperous democratic nation posing no security risk to the United States.
That is hardly a stunning notion. Quebec's separatist leaders have repeatedly made the same argument _ as have some American academics specializing in Canadian issues.
What is stunning is that Jones' article diverges dramatically from the official U.S. policy of support for a strong and united Canada, a policy that he is sworn to uphold as a member of the Foreign Service.
The article almost certainly will be of propaganda value for the Quebec separatist movement. It marks the first time a senior official in the U.S. government has stated publicly that Quebec independence is not just possible but perhaps inevitable.
"Quebec qualifies as a nation-state," Jones wrote in the magazine, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "Canada is virtually irrelevant to the average citizen of Quebec."
The U.S. Embassy hastily assured Canada's foreign affairs minister that the article reflected only Jones' personal views.
And in Washington, the State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, blasted his colleague Jones for committing an "outrageous and undisciplined act."
The department was enraged and embarrassed that he wrote the article without permission required by Foreign Service regulations.
"No diplomat serving in the United States government has the right, in effect, to stand up in a crowded theater and yell, "Fire!'
" said Burns. "This is the diplomatic equivalent."
The issue is touchy for the United States, and Burns said Jones will be severely disciplined by the State Department and perhaps dismissed.
In 1995, separatists narrowly lost a referendum on independence. Another vote is expected within two years.