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 Barack 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 Chairman Sen. 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 non-controversial 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 Senator 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 blame Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saying he 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 the Levant 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 ISIL, 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 terror 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.