President Trump’s long-awaited ambassadorial nominee to Saudi Arabia, retired Gen. John Abizaid, heads to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. The delay in appointing an ambassador to such a high-profile post is notable, but hardly unusual under the Trump administration.
To date, 52 ambassadorial posts remain vacant with no nominee, including posts in Brazil, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, Venezuela, and Mexico, according to data compiled by the American Foreign Service Association as of Feb. 27. By comparison, 27 ambassadorships are awaiting action in the Senate, including the nominees to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The ambassadorship in Riyadh has been vacant since Jan. 9, 2017, when President Obama’s political appointee, former Army Secretary Joseph Westphal, retired. Trump has relied on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Jared Kushner to handle relations, and his son-in-law last traveled to Riyadh for a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Feb. 27.
Several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are expressing relief that Abizaid may soon take over.
“We should feel really lucky that Abizaid is chosen to take this job,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, who met with Abizaid on Monday morning. “If it was somebody else, then the hearing might be a showcase for some pretty angry sentiments about the administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia.”
Murphy added that Abizaid might “straighten out” the Trump administration’s policy in Saudi Arabia, and that he wanted to get him to Riyadh “as quickly as possible.”
“He’s a great nominee,” agreed committee chairman James Risch, who met with Abizaid on Tuesday morning. Risch said that he intends to accelerate the consideration of other ambassadorial nominees.
Abizaid’s biggest supporter is Sen. Dan Sullivan, who served as a staff assistant to Abizaid for a year-and-a-half. Sullivan will be introducing him at the Foreign Relations hearing, and said he advocated for Abizaid during a classified briefing on Yemen.
As the former commander of United States Central Command, Abizaid oversaw a 27-country theater of operations that included Saudi Arabia. He also speaks Arabic.
“Literally, I couldn’t think of anybody who is more qualified,” said Sullivan. “On the [Senate Foreign Relations] committee, there [are] a lot of disagreements about policies that relate to Yemen, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, but there should be no disagreement—none, zero, zilch—on the fact that we need a highly qualified ambassador in Riyadh.”
Abizaid is likely to face tough questions from senators over the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Although intelligence agencies have concluded that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, Trump has refused to impose Magnitsky Act sanctions on the de facto Saudi leader.
Abizaid’s confirmation could make a big impact at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, where career foreign-service officer Christopher Henzel has taken over as the interim chargé d'affaires.
“Foreign countries want to talk with and negotiate with and make deals with people that can credibly speak for the country,” said David Lewis, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “And if there is some concern that the people that are in country don’t reflect the will of the president, that gives them some pause, and they naturally search for officials they can talk to that can speak authoritatively.”
Two years into the Trump administration, dozens of top ambassador posts remain unfilled and without a nominee. Delays in ambassadorial appointments can affect staff morale at embassy posts around the world, observers say.
“For the embassy, it’s hard because you’re getting stretched,” said Evan Haglund, assistant professor of public policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. “You have the deputy chief of mission, who is essentially doing the top job, and then everybody else is getting moved around to fill in the gaps created by that, so it’s a challenge for staffing as well.”
Delays can also have a ripple effect on other embassies. Henzel, for example, was confirmed as ambassador to Yemen in January, but cannot leave his post until the current ambassador to Yemen, Matthew Tueller, vacates the position. The committee is also considering Tueller’s nomination to become ambassador to Iraq on Wednesday.
Pompeo has stated it is a priority to confirm upper-tier positions in the State Department, which was gutted under then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. During his confirmation hearing, Pompeo said officials had told him “how demoralizing” vacancies at the agency were.
But many of Trump’s nominees have little or no foreign policy experience. As of late February, roughly half were political nominees, versus just 30 percent, 31 percent, and 28 percent in the Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton administrations, respectively. Like prior administrations, many of those appointments were doled out to political allies or campaign bundlers.