A Republican senator has threatened to block the Trump administration’s choice to lead U.S. diplomacy in Africa, citing a disagreement over the status of the Western Sahara region in Morocco, sources familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
The administration had planned to nominate J. Peter Pham, an academic and author, as the next assistant secretary for African affairs at the State Department. But it has yet to announce the decision due to objections from Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who wants to see the administration take a tougher stance on the status of the disputed territory in Morocco.
More than seven months have passed since Trump was sworn as president, and his administration has failed to fill numerous senior positions at the State Department and across the executive branch due to disorganization, infighting over who should get key posts, and delaying tactics by Democratic lawmakers. But, in this case, a lone Republican lawmaker is delaying a nomination that would otherwise enjoy broad bipartisan support in the Senate.
With no assistant secretary for Africa in place, and key ambassadorships still empty in South Africa and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, critics say the administration is rudderless when it comes to setting policy on a range of issues that affect the continent. The White House this month finally appointed a senior director for Africa on the National Security Council — Cyril Sartor of the CIA — after several months of vacancy in the post.
The administration in July postponed a decision on whether to permanently lift sanctions on Sudan. Current and former U.S. officials and Africa experts blamed the delay on the White House’s failure to appoint officials to senior positions handling Africa policy. The State Department rejected the criticism, saying more time was needed to fully assess the issue.
With so many Africa positions empty, one congressional staffer said the administration risks being caught off guard by a severe humanitarian or security crisis, particularly in Congo, where tensions are escalating.
“We’re not diplomatically prepared if that place blows,” said the Senate aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Administration officials are holding discussions with Inhofe to try to resolve the dispute, but it’s not clear if the Oklahoma senator is ready to withdraw his objections, congressional aides said.
It’s also unclear precisely what Inhofe is demanding from the administration or whether he is promoting an alternative to the administration’s nominee.
Inhofe’s office declined to comment, saying it does not discuss nominations before they are announced. And the Trump administration did not respond to requests for comment.
Inhofe, best known for his outspoken rejection of climate change science, has long championed the cause of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony on the northwestern coast of Africa that was annexed by Morocco in 1975. A U.N.-brokered truce in 1991 ended fighting between an insurgency and the Moroccan government, but a promised referendum on independence has never taken place.
“The people of the Western Sahara have languished in desert camps for more than 30 years as the conflict has gone unresolved,” Inhofe said in 2010. “I have visited the camps and have seen with my own eyes that their story is one of determination, persistence, and hope that one day they will enjoy the basic rights all humans deserve — the right to life and to self-determination.”
Inhofe and several other lawmakers have urged Morocco to hold a referendum on independence and want to see the United States push for a vote. Over the years, the United States, which values Morocco’s cooperation on other fronts, has chosen not to press for a plebiscite or to recognize Western Sahara’s government and instead has favored more autonomy for the region.
The Moroccan government has spent millions of dollars over the past decade lobbying in Washington against independence for Western Sahara. Representatives of the region have also sought to present their case to lawmakers, but their lobbying expenditures have paled in comparison, as FP has previously reported.
Despite Inhofe’s focus on the issue, the assistant secretary for African affairs does not oversee policymaking for Morocco, which falls under the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
Pham, currently director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, has devoted his career to studying African issues. He served as an advisor on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. AllAfrica first reported that Pham, a Republican, was a top choice for the assistant secretary job.
Despite his Republican roots and his hard-nosed views on security questions, Pham has forged contacts and friendships with other Africa experts across the political spectrum, including human rights activist John Prendergast, who worked in the Clinton administration and is a founder of the Enough Project, which works to end genocide in Africa and elsewhere.
Prendergast said he believed Pham was well-equipped for the job and that he would not be hampered by never having served in the State Department.
“Peter has deep Africa experience and would be able to hit the ground running if confirmed,” Prendergast told FP. “He has had good relationships with many of our best diplomats, so the experience factor will be less of an issue than with someone coming out of the blue.”
If confirmed, Pham would be one of the highest-ranking Vietnamese-Americans ever to serve in the federal government.
FP‘s Elias Groll contributed to this report.
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images