Our guest blogger is David Halperin of the Israel Policy Forum.The biggest challenge to U.S. diplomacy today is just showing up. U.S. Ambassadors in Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan (and the Czech Republic too) are all missing — held up in Congress or in transition. In total, an area of over 700,000 square miles — and over 120 million people — is without official U.S. representation. Especially unhelpful is Republican opposition to ambassadors to Syria and Turkey, two strategically critical nations with significant influence in areas where U.S. national security interests are at stake.
The U.S. Ambassador post in Damascus has been vacant since February 2005, following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In February, the White House nominated Robert Ford, a career diplomat with vast experience in the region, to fill the post.
But Republican senators have since stood in the way, arguing in a letter to Secretary Clinton that “Engagement of hostile regimes in pursuit of U.S. interests is not necessarily bad policy, if it is part of a realistic strategy with measurable goals. But engagement for engagement’s sake is not productive. However well-justified that engagement is the U.S. pays a price for lending even a modicum of international legitimacy to a regime like Syria’s.”
Even without an ambassador in Damascus, the Obama administration has sought to engage Syria in an effort to ameliorate its behavior vis a vis Lebanon and Iraq, as well as advance the prospects for renewed Israel-Syria peace talks. But the obstacles to advancing U.S. interests without an ambassador will be difficult to overcome.
The highest U.S. representation in Syria today is the charge d’affaires, whose access to senior Syrian officials is limited. As Jim Walker wrote in a recent op-ed in The Hill, “while the U.S. chargé d’affaires cannot meet the Syrian foreign minister or president — unless accompanied by a visiting Special Envoy or Congressional delegations — Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have free access to the ears of President Basher Assad and his government.”
To be sure, the Republicans opposed to the nominee have reason to be concerned about Syria’s behavior. But an ambassador in Damascus will serve to advance US interests, not reward bad deeds.
Unlike with Syria, where Republicans are opposed to the mere concept of an ambassador, when it comes to Turkey, outgoing Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) is opposed to the specific nominee, Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr. Or at least that is what he claims.
On paper, Ricciardone is perfect for the job: He has over 30 years in the Foreign Service with postings across the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt and Afghanistan — and speaks fluent Turkish. Brownback’s opposition, which is reportedly backed by other Republicans as well, is that while in Egypt Ricciardone did not sufficiently engage opposition groups to advance democratization, and as such, he may not do so in Turkey either.
The one problem with this claim: it doesn’t hold any water. As Laura Rozen reported, Egyptian-American sociologist and pro-democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim strongly endorsed Ricciardone for the job. And then there is Brownback himself, who sent a 2002 letter hailing Ricciardone’s work as ambassador in the Philippines for securing the release of an American missionary and his wife held captive by a terrorist organization.
It appears that like the Robert Ford nomination, Ricciardone’s post might essentially be opposed because Republicans are against the idea of engaging adversaries, of which they seem to now count the AKP-led government in Turkey. Neo-conservatives have become obsessed with the role of religion in Turkey’s politics, with some going so far as to argue that Turkey’s membership should be withdrawn from NATO, of which it has been a member since 1950.
Brownback’s August 16 letter to Secretary Clinton is not subtle in its opposition to the current Turkish government:
“I believe we must be concerned that the Turkish government is moving away from its secularist roots. Next year’s pivotal elections provide an opportunity for the secularists to demonstrate their strength, and we cannot let our desire for a strong bilateral relationship translate into de facto support of the ruling party, especially if we have reason to believe that opposition parties are in danger of being marginalized,” he said.
Apparently, like in Syria, Republicans think that U.S. interests are better advanced by not showing up. But it isn’t just Republicans playing politics with ambassador nominations. As has been reported in numerous outlets, Democrats are opposed to Matthew Bryza’s posting as Ambassador to Azerbaijan, in a not so subtle nod to their Armenian constituencies in an election year.
Meanwhile, Senator majority leader Harry Reid’s decision to hold pro-forma Congressional sessions during the election season means that the Obama Administration’s nominees will not need to be resubmitted for committee approval when the new Congress reconvenes—but it also means the White House cannot make any recess appointments.
So the nominees – and the American interests they are to advance – will have to keep waiting.