A little over a week ago, Donald Trump celebrated his first anniversary in the White House. Mitch McConnell began his second year as Senate Majority Leader under a Republican president. At this point, one would expect to see the administration fully in place, with nominees appointed to all key positions and the Senate having confirmed them in an expeditious manner.
So why are well over 20% of all ambassadorial slots still unfilled, and another 10% awaiting confirmation as we start the thirteenth month of the Trump administration? The question arises from this interview between Hugh Hewitt and Admiral James Stavridis on MSNBC over the weekend about rising tensions with Turkey over our anti-ISIS campaign in Syria. Relations between Washington and Ankara have gotten more strained than ever, a key problem for two NATO partners in any circumstance but especially so considering the geography and political landscape in that region. Stavridis tells Hugh that a major obstacle to resolving the issues is the lack of a US ambassador and high-level military designation dedicated to Turkey:
— The Fletcher School (@FletcherSchool) January 29, 2018
The lack of a full diplomatic presence in Turkey by this stage of the administration is nothing short of shocking. Trump made the war on ISIS a particular point of emphasis during the presidential campaign, and he rolled out an aggressive and effective war plan against them once in office, all of which are admirable. However, that strategy always carried a strong risk of aggravating relations with Turkey, which should have put the ambassador slot near the top of the priority list for the incoming Trump administration.
Unfortunately, Turkey is not a singular oversight. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) tracks nominations and appointments to the US ambassadorial corps, and it lists over thirty vacancies to various countries around the world, and nearly a dozen ambassador-level openings to international organizations. These are posts for which no one has been nominated at all, and among them are at least three other key relationships for US political and military efforts in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, the latter two of which play an important indirect role in Israel’s security.
Other key openings include South Korea, which is astounding given all of the attention and pressure on the Korean Peninsula over the past year (and beyond, of course). The Olympics will take place in less than a month, and the US still has not even chosen its official ambassador — which should be an embarrassment. Australia is another traditional military ally without an official envoy, a posting that is all the more attractive for its use of the same language.
For that matter, even Ireland has been overlooked despite a normally competitive environment among donors to get the posting in Dublin. Maybe it’s time to dust off the #Morrissey4Ireland hashtag again, eh? Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge arís, agus ba mhaith liom a bheith sásta an post a ghlacadh. (Tá mo chuid Gaeilge bocht fós, ach tá sé ag feabhsú.) President Trump or Rex Tillerson can e-mail me for the translation.
The State Department may be ripe for cost and staff reductions, but that’s no excuse for this performance. Diplomacy requires the use of ambassadors to fully represent nations, and the failure to appoint them gives either the impression of a lack of seriousness or an intentional insult, or both. Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump should both know that without having been told. Having these many openings after a full year of the presidency speaks to the competence of the administration — and it doesn’t speak well of it, either. We made that point during Barack Obama’s second term more than once, and it applies here as well.
This does not let the Senate off the hook. AFSA also lists eighteen ambassadorial appointments still awaiting confirmation. Half of those were resubmitted this month because of the end-of-year recess, with some such as Richard Grenell for Germany and Edward Masso for Estonia waiting for months to get on the Senate calendar. It’s time for Mitch McConnell to start expediting these votes, especially since the filibuster no longer applies to presidential appointments. The competence issue exists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on this score.
Update: The reason so many of the pending nominees have January 2018 submission dates on the AFSA site is because they had to be resubmitted after the end-of-year recess. I’ve edited the final paragraph to reflect that.