Although the Senate confirmed four ambassadorial nominees on Monday, the United States still doesn’t have an ambassador in more than 25 percent of countries with U.S. embassies — even though people have been nominated for nearly all of the posts. Many nominees have been waiting for Senate approval hearings for months. Nine of them have watched a year go by without a vote on whether or not they’ll be named ambassadors.
Many of the countries lacking these diplomatic positions are politically volatile hot spots or key strategic partners. They include Afghanistan, a country with which the U.S. is wrapping up a decade long war, and Mexico, where 10,000 drones have patrolled the border to monitor illegal immigration. India, the largest democracy in the world, which just elected a new and controversial prime minister is also without an ambassador. (Richard Verma, the nominee to the Indian ambassadorship is an employee of the Center for American Progress, with which ThinkProgress is affiliated.) NATO allies including Norway, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia and Slovenia are awaiting ambassadors too.
“The Senate is trying to use the confirmation process to achieve other objectives,” says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “In other words, they might not be happy with things that the president is doing with Obamacare, for example, or immigration, [or] not raising the defense budget, so this is one way in which they can express their displeasure.”
He says the backlogged nominees may also be a way for Senate Republicans to push back at Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who changed longstanding legislative rules to make it easier to pass such nominations.
“It’s a bipartisan failure of the Senate,” Bob Silverman, the president of the American Foreign Service Association told McClatchy DC earlier this year. But it’s a more politically complex issue than the sort of party politics that have beleaguered Congress during much of President Barack Obama’s presidency.
That’s because presidents have historically abided by a “70–30” split for ambassadorial nominations, meaning that 70 percent of nominations ought to be career foreign service diplomats, and 30 percent of them political figures.
President Obama has exceeded the framework, according to Silverman’s organization. Since he took office, 64.8 percent of his nominations have been career diplomats and 35.2 of them political. So far in his second term, 41.4 percent of Obama’s ambassadorial picks have been political ones.
Only two presidents — Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — have exceeded Obama’s rate of appointing ambassadors with political backgrounds.
Not all of the backlog can be explained by Republican resistance to Democratic appointees, Korb argues.
“They’re also holding up the career people too,” he says. “And just because they’re political [nominees] doesn’t mean they’re not qualified.”
But, Korb relents, “Obama nominated a couple of people who didn’t deserve to be there.”
One nominee who’s gotten the president a lot of flack is George Tsunis, the hotel executive who Obama nominated to be the next ambassador to Norway — even though, as he admitted in a particularly thorny Senate confirmation hearing — he’s never set foot in the country.
Over the course of the hearing back in February, it became apparent that Tsunis didn’t just lack experience in the Norway, but he isn’t very well-versed in its politics either. He made a major fumble by saying the country had a president. It doesn’t. Norway is headed by a king and prime minister.
Tsunis then called one of the country’s most powerful political parties a “fringe element.”
To this, Senator John McCain retorted, “The government has denounced them? They’re part of the coalition of the government.”
Tsunis, embarrassed, replied, “You know what? I stand corrected.”
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, McCain wrote that Obama may have tapped Tsunis for an ambassadorial post because he contributed $1.3 million to the president and fellow Democrats ahead of the 2012 election. The New York Times tracked the amount at just over $751,000.
The same money trail, McCain noted, could be traced back to Colleen Bell, a soap opera producer, and Noah Mamet, a political consultant, who he said raised $2 million each for Democratic candidates. The two have been appointed to be the ambassadors to Hungary and Argentina, respectively. According to the Times, Bell raised $2.1 million and Mamet raised nearly $1.4 million.
“To be sure, the practice of nominating political appointees, including wealthy campaign donors, to serve as ambassadors is unobjectionable in principle,” McCain wrote. “It pre-dates President Obama, and it is certainly true that political appointees have served with distinction in important and challenging foreign assignments, including in the Obama administration.”
Among those currently mired in the confirmation process, the majority are career diplomats. Only 14 of the 48 — or exactly 30 percent — are political appointees.
Five more nominees — all of them career diplomats — will be up for voice votes on Tuesday.
Korb thinks more such votes on career diplomats will follow, but he says, getting appointments — especially political ones — through the incoming Republican majority Congress won’t be easy.
The effect on U.S. foreign policy because of the vacant ambassadorships is already being felt.
“You have several impacts,” Korb says. “One is symbolic: the country will say, ‘You don’t really care about us. You don’t even have an ambassador here. How important are we to you?’ and if we need them to work with us at some point, they may not be so happy. The other issue is substantive, [because] you don’t have the most qualified person in their running things.”
“Basically, [it seems] like they’re not concerned about diplomatic relations,” he says of current Senators, noting, “It doesn’t reflect back on them.”
But the power struggle at home, Korb says, is dealing a serious blow to America’s image abroad.