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. Read more