Senate Politics Leave 28 Countries With No U.S. Ambassador

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (R) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) hold a news conference to introduce the Start-Up Jobs and Innovation Act at the U.S. Capitol November 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. According to the senators, the bipartisan legislation 'would make it easier for entrepreneurs to start and grow a small business and to help them comply with burdensome tax rules.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Molly O'Toole, Defense One
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Molly O'Toole, Defense One
June 30, 2014, 12:07 p.m.

The Sen­ate just con­firmed two new United States am­bas­sad­ors to cru­cial posts — Ir­aq and Egypt.

Two down, 49 to go.

A back­log of nom­in­ees for am­bas­sad­or po­s­i­tions across the world has been gath­er­ing dust in the Sen­ate, in­clud­ing in coun­tries and of­fices that Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials con­sider vi­tal to U.S. se­cur­ity in­terests.

Demo­crats have ac­cused Re­pub­lic­ans of block­ing nom­in­ees favored by Pres­id­ent Obama for polit­ic­al reas­ons. Re­pub­lic­ans re­ject the claim. But fol­low­ing Thursday’s high-pro­file vote on Egypt and Ir­aq, there re­main 49 am­bas­sad­or-level nom­in­a­tions await­ing Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion.

With­in that back­log, the posts in­clude the State De­part­ment, USAID and de­vel­op­ment banks, as well as 28 coun­tries for which Con­gress has not yet con­firmed a U.S. am­bas­sad­or. The White House isn’t happy. Dozens of nom­in­a­tions sent to the Sen­ate have waited an av­er­age of 262 days for con­firm­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor Susan Rice. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., say Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are hold­ing posts host­age and put­ting U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity at risk.

“Nev­er — to my know­ledge — has this body, as a polit­ic­al strategy, ob­struc­ted — en masse — the ap­point­ments of non­con­tro­ver­sial ca­reer For­eign Ser­vice of­ficers who have worked for both Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions,” Men­en­dez said on the floor last week. “Simply stated, the back­log is weak­en­ing Amer­ica’s role in the world.”

A spokes­man for Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., called the ob­struc­tion­ism claim “simply ri­dicu­lous.”

“The Sen­ate has been pro­cessing nom­in­ees on a reg­u­lar basis,” spokes­man Don Stew­art said Thursday, cit­ing the Sen­ate’s clear­ance of the am­bas­sad­ors to Egypt and Ir­aq, as well as re­cent con­firm­a­tions for am­bas­sad­ors to Dji­bouti, Jordan, and Peru. “But [Sen­ate Mah­jor­ity Lead­er Harry] Re­id sched­ules the floor and he’s been pri­or­it­iz­ing judges over bund­lers” — a derog­at­ory term to de­scribe wealthy polit­ic­al sup­port­ers who raise bundles of cam­paign cash from many donors.

Stew­art said the Sen­ate can’t act on nom­in­a­tions un­til they pass the Demo­crat-con­trolled For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, not­ing that the nom­in­a­tions for am­bas­sad­ors to Egypt, Ir­aq, Qatar, Hon­dur­as, Ar­gen­tina, Korea, Al­ger­ia, and Vi­et­nam only made it out of the com­mit­tee to await Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion this past week. The ad­min­is­tra­tion, he noted, hasn’t named a nom­in­ee for Ro­mania, and has yet to fin­ish pa­per­work for newly nom­in­ated am­bas­sad­ors to France, Ire­land, and Slov­e­nia. “That’s an is­sue for the ad­min­is­tra­tion/com­mit­tee — not ‘ob­struc­tion,’” he said.

Re­pub­lic­ans con­tend that Re­id has held an iron grip on le­gis­lat­ive pro­ceed­ings after he went “nuc­le­ar” and en­acted a rules change to over­come fili­busters of many Obama nom­in­ees. They’ve also poin­ted to a few Obama am­bas­sad­ori­al choices with strong polit­ic­al ties to the pres­id­ent but weak­er dip­lo­mat­ic cre­den­tials, such as Noah Bryson Mamet, the nom­in­ee for Ar­gen­tina, who ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post, ad­mit­ted he had nev­er been to the coun­try and was not flu­ent in Span­ish. Mamet raised more than half a mil­lion dol­lars for Obama. His nom­in­a­tion cleared the com­mit­tee this week.

But many of the nom­in­ees need­ing con­firm­a­tion are ca­reer dip­lo­mats and made it out of the com­mit­tee months ago with un­an­im­ous or near un­an­im­ous bi­par­tis­an sup­port, and there is little pre­ced­ent for the sheer num­ber gath­er­ing dust while wait­ing for floor time.

In the past, such nom­in­a­tions were of­ten con­firmed en masse, without de­bate, as Men­en­dez noted in his June floor speech. While the am­bas­sad­ori­al po­s­i­tions are polit­ic­ally ap­poin­ted and con­firmed by Con­gress, bey­ond the con­firm­a­tion pro­ceed­ings, dip­lo­mats are more or less shiel­ded from par­tis­an polit­ics back home to al­low them to fo­cus on rep­res­ent­ing and pro­tect­ing Amer­ic­an in­terests abroad.

Yet the hy­per-par­tis­an­ship that emerged from the at­tacks on the U.S. dip­lo­mat­ic mis­sion in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Amer­ic­ans, in­clud­ing Am­bas­sad­or Chris­toph­er Stevens, has helped sty­mie the State De­part­ment on the Hill. As Benghazi in­vest­ig­a­tions con­tin­ue in the House, the ran­cor is un­likely to re­cede be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tions des­pite grow­ing con­flicts in or near key U.S. al­lies.

Cur­rently, the U.S doesn’t have an am­bas­sad­or to Kuwait. That nom­in­a­tion has been wait­ing for con­firm­a­tion by the Sen­ate for more than 200 days, ac­cord­ing to Men­en­dez. Mean­while, the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia has over­taken ma­jor ter­rit­ory in Ir­aq and the con­flict is es­cal­at­ing in­to re­gion­al war­fare, with Syr­ia launch­ing air strikes in Ir­aq, Ir­an and the U.S. aid­ing Ir­aqi troops but jock­ey­ing for in­flu­ence with the gov­ern­ment, and neigh­bor­ing coun­tries like Kuwait and Jordan be­ing over­run with hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees. Kuwaiti donors have been tied to IS­IS, and its emir re­cently made a trip to Ir­an, Men­en­dez noted.

As U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts pivot to Africa, a quarter of all Amer­ic­an am­bas­sad­or post­ings on the con­tin­ent await Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Rice.

The Sen­ate has yet to send a top U.S. dip­lo­mat to Ni­ger, Cameroon, and Maur­it­ania, sev­er­al of Ni­ger­ia’s re­gion­al part­ners in the fight against the ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion Boko Haram. Al­most three months ago, Boko Haram stepped up its ter­ror­ism  cam­paign by kid­nap­ping hun­dreds of Ni­geri­an school­girls. While the world’s at­ten­tion has faded, the kid­nap­pings have con­tin­ued, with the group tak­ing ad­vant­age of Ni­ger­ia’s por­ous bor­ders.

Even Korean ten­sions have not seemed to spark ur­gency. On Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range pro­jectiles off its coast in the dir­ec­tion of Ja­pan, fol­low­ing threats by Kim Jong Un to re­spond to an Amer­ic­an film fea­tur­ing a plot to kill him. The nom­in­a­tion for U.S. am­bas­sad­or to South Korea — De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel’s chief of staff and long­time Obama for­eign policy aide Mark Lip­pert — just made it out of com­mit­tee this week. It was a re­l­at­ively short time from of­fi­cial nom­in­a­tion to com­mit­tee for Lip­pert, but he had been rumored for the post for months.

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