The United States does not have ambassadors in more than a quarter of the countries in the world, hindering U.S. efforts on issues ranging from counterterrorism work in Africa to the flood of children fleeing Central America for the U.S. border.
The vacancies are driven by the Senate, where President Barack Obama’s nominations for ambassadors are caught in a partisan feud between the Democrats and the Republicans, and by complaints that Obama is nominating an unusually large percentage of political supporters rather than career diplomats.
Currently, 43 ambassadorships are awaiting confirmation by the Senate. Thirty-five of the nominations have been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and are awaiting action by the full Senate.
“We’re going without our strongest voice on the ground every day in more than 25 percent of the world,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, noting that a fourth of the 169 nations where the U.S. has embassies are without ambassadors. “We cannot lead if we are not there and we can’t be there if the Senate won’t confirm our best and brightest.”
In Africa, the U.S. does not have ambassadors in 13 counties, a problem that will be underscored when the U.S. hosts a summit of African leaders next month in Washington.
Among the vacancies, the Senate has not acted on nominations for U.S. ambassadors to Cameroon and Niger, where the Obama administration says the lack of ambassadors complicates U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa’s Sahel region, including countering Boko Haram, the al Qaida-linked militant group that abducted more than 200 Nigerian school girls in April.
In Central America, the Senate on Tuesday confirmed Obama’s nomination for ambassador in Honduras, which had been vacant. And there’s still a vacancy in Guatemala, another Central American country where unaccompanied minors are leaving in droves.
The slow crawl of Senate votes stems in part from acrimony over Republican objections to Obama’s nominations for all posts and the change of longstanding rules by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to make it easier to pass some nominations.
In protest, Republicans are routinely refusing to give the unanimous consent required to proceed on quick confirmation votes. Without consent, it can take up to eight hours on the floor to confirm a single ambassador.
“So who are the Republicans hurting?” Reid said last week. “They’re not hurting me. Is this some payback for me?”
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Republican, said Reid bears the responsibility for the logjam.
“Rather than filling vacant embassies to alleviate the national security concerns raised by Secretary Kerry and others, the majority leader – who controls the Senate floor – chose to spend last week on a sportsman’s bill and previous weeks confirming mostly judges,” Corker said in a statement.
Bob Silverman, president of the American Foreign Service Association, blames both parties.
“It’s a bipartisan failure of the Senate,” Silverman said. “It’s a Senate leadership problem . . . at the top. They just don’t see eye to eye, there are blowups, they don’t get along, they’re not able to agree on things that used to be routine.”
Silverman and some Senate Republicans also say that the White House has complicated matters by tapping a higher-than-normal percentage of campaign contributors, fund raisers and political friends – some of whom with questionable international expertise – for ambassadorships.
Historically, presidents have adhered to a “70-30” combination on ambassadorial nominees: 70 percent of them career diplomats, 30 percent of them political appointments.
Since taking office in 2009, 64.8 percent of Obama’s ambassadorial appointees have been careerists and 35.2 percent political, according to American Foreign Service Association statistics.
Only Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had higher rates of political appointees, according to the association.
And the trend appears to be accelerating in Obama’s second term. So far, 57.7 percent of his ambassadorial nominees are careerists and 42.3 percent political.
“They’re far away from that usual split – they’re a much higher percentage of politicals,” Silverman said. “It’s a problem.”
George Tsunis, a hotel executive and a major fundraiser for Obama and other Democrats in 2012, raised eyebrows when he called Norway’s second-largest party in its parliament a “fringe element” during his confirmation hearing to be that country’s U.S. ambassador.
The president also tapped Colleen Bell, a producer of the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” who contributed or raised $800,000 for the Obama campaign. She had a less-than stellar appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee on her nomination to be ambassador to Hungary.
“That affects the morale of the professional diplomatic corps,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Foreign Relations Committee member. “The percentage of politicals is way too high, way too high.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stressed that the majority of Obama’s nominees still are career Foreign Service officers. He added that those who aren’t shouldn’t be dismissed by critics.
“I think it’s shortsighted to automatically rule out nominees that aren’t career Foreign Service officers,” Earnest said last month, lauding such high-profile appointments as Caroline Kennedy to be ambassador to Japan and former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah to China.
Still, several lawmakers and the American Foreign Service Association have questioned the quality of some of Obama’s political nominees. Stressing its concern, the association has urged the immediate confirmation of all “qualified” ambassadorial nominees by the Senate.
The State Department has proposed a compromise to address Republican concerns about the qualifications of some political appointees.
Under the proposal, the Senate would approve with a single vote only nominees who are career diplomats, according to Assistant Secretary of State Douglas Frantz.
“It gets them into critical posts and it really helps us in Africa and Central America in a real way,” Frantz told McClatchy. “It would also take pressure off the Republicans. It would be a positive step. If they did that, it would not look like this was blocking for the sake of blocking.”