By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — Talk about America’s decline is usually wrong. But how else would you describe a country that, in a world of exploding tensions, is unable to confirm dozens of ambassadors to foreign posts because of partisan political squabbling?
Even by Washington standards, the Senate Republicans have hit a new low for hypocrisy. They denounce President Obama’s inaction on foreign policy — and simultaneously refuse to confirm his nominees for U.S. ambassadors to such hotspots as Turkey, on the front lines against the Islamic State, and Sierra Leone, epicenter of the Ebola outbreak.
Let’s say it plainly: This is how nations lose their power and influence, when they are unable to agree even on basic matters such as diplomatic representation. The decision-making system breaks down, and the public is too bored or disunited to take action. Sadly, that’s a snapshot of America in 2014.
The State Department says it has 65 nominees awaiting confirmation. A few are ill-prepared political appointees who bungled their confirmation hearings and, frankly, should be withdrawn. But 40 are career diplomats with distinguished careers whose only misstep was to get caught in the Washington morass of partisan politics. The average wait time for nominees who managed to clear the Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate floor is 237 days.
Here’s a map of America’s dysfunction: Eleven of our empty embassies are in Africa, where disease and terrorism are spreading, and countries are desperate for American leadership. Nine are in Eastern Europe, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the march. Six are in East Asia, where China is flexing its muscles. Worried about the Middle East? Sorry, but we lack ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in addition to Turkey.
The State Department’s Foreign Service doesn’t even have a director-general. Arnold Chacon, a distinguished career diplomat, has been waiting 326 days for confirmation. John Estrada, a decorated former sergeant major of the Marine Corps who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, has waited 394 days to be confirmed as ambassador there. The Senate hasn’t confirmed assistant secretaries of state to oversee the United Nations, or arms control negotiations, or global energy affairs.
Consider the case of Guatemala: Senators give windy speeches about stopping that country’s migration of undocumented children. Yet for 86 days, they have stalled the nomination for a new ambassador to Guatemala, who could deliver the message in person.
Sometimes in Washington, you can say that the problem is everyone’s fault, or nobody’s fault. But that isn’t the case here. This one belongs to the Senate Republican leadership. Apparently, they want to make the Democrats pay a price for removing the filibuster power. Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee, including Sen. Robert Corker, the ranking member, are said to favor a deal that could break the logjam. But no: It’s payback time. Nobody seems to have told the Republican leaders that the price is being paid by the United States in lost representation.
Ambassadors matter, even in the age of Twitter. They can open the door at a key ministry, or introduce a prominent business official. The State Department estimates that this year, U.S. businesses have sought embassy help in $119 billion in contracts in countries where we have no ambassador (a list that includes France, Ireland, Norway and Finland.)
The Obama administration is all but pleading for action. Officials have signaled they would support a plan to allow the 40 career diplomats to be confirmed as a group, the way military promotions are, and save the partisan rancor for the political appointees. No deal, so far.
A wise move for the administration would be to pull back political nominations that were mistakes. Find a replacement for the fundraiser who was nominated to be ambassador to Oslo, for example, who described one of Norway’s ruling parties as extremist. Withdraw the nomination of the money-bundler pegged for Argentina, a country he said he had never visited and whose language he barely speaks. Ask the soap opera producer waiting for a star turn in Budapest to find another way to serve her country.
Once the list is pared to nominees who are clearly qualified to represent America, this issue should be a no-brainer. The world is a mess these days, and nations need a diplomatic connection to a United States that values and respects them.
Yet when the world looks to Washington, what do they see? A capital in decay, whose embittered politicians can’t even agree on ambassadors.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.