Like so much else in Washington, D.C., the system of confirming U.S. ambassadors is broken. Blame Barack Obama. Blame Harry Reid. Right now, mostly blame Senate Republicans.
The magnitude of the problem is shocking. The United States has embassies in 169 nations. Nearly a quarter of them currently have no ambassador to represent America.
This is a big deal. Foreign leaders feel slighted when it looks like the United States can’t be bothered to send top-level diplomats to their countries. Under international law, ambassadors serve as a personal envoys of the president; like the president, they are entitled to face-to-face meetings with heads of state.
The absence of an ambassador means the president has no formal proxy in a country. That means fewer handshakes, fewer photo ops and fewer ceremonial speeches. More important, it means that U.S. companies can find it harder to do business there. It can also mean that the United States has a harder time pursuing its national interests in a region.
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For example, America has no ambassadors right now in much of Central and West Africa, including places where Boko Haram and other violent Islamists threaten the region’s stability.
The reason, naturally, has to do with D.C. politics. Harry Reid and other Senate Democrats infuriated Republicans in November by partially ending the so-called filibuster privilege, which had allowed the Senate minority party to block legislation and presidential appointees with 41 votes. (This may fall into the “seemed like a good idea at the time” category if Republicans win back the Senate in November.)
Republican senators have retaliated with scorched-earth parliamentary tactics against Obama nominees – demanding, for example, separate votes on each ambassadorial appointment rather than the normal practice of confirming multiple candidates at one time.
Even those who delight in retribution, though, can’t justify the failure to confirm more than a dozen people Obama nominated long before November.
Obama hasn’t helped matters by nominating an uncommonly high number of campaign donors for plum positions, a few of them diplomatic dunces. A ambassador proposed for Norway, for example, irked Norwegians by referring to one of their governing parties as a fringe group.
But most of the people Obama has nominated are not fools. Especially not the competent career diplomats chosen to serve in the world’s trouble spots.
By and large, donors and party luminaries wind up in comfortable, high-prestige capitals like Tokyo (Caroline Kennedy) or Beijing (Max Baucus). The real diplomatic experts are typically sent to places like Guatemala or Cameroon where the United States needs Foreign Service professionals at the scene.
Guatemala and Cameroon lack U.S. ambassadors now, as do many other low-prestige, high-stakes assignments. Senate Republicans do a great disservice to the nation by keeping such posts empty.