The Cable

Kerry Finally Fills Top Positions at State

Secretary of State John Kerry’s leadership team is finally coming into place after a hard-fought deal with Senate Republicans cleared a slew of diplomatic nominees that had been blocked for up to a year -- and that many feared would never make it through at all.

US Secretary of State John Kerry waves after delivering a statement at the second day of the 52nd Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 13, 2016.
Russia must change its military targeting as it backs the Syrian regime, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, as world powers seek a cessation of hostilities in the war-torn country within a week. / AFP / Christof STACHE        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry waves after delivering a statement at the second day of the 52nd Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 13, 2016. Russia must change its military targeting as it backs the Syrian regime, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, as world powers seek a cessation of hostilities in the war-torn country within a week. / AFP / Christof STACHE (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry’s leadership team is finally coming into place after a hard-fought deal with Senate Republicans cleared a slew of diplomatic nominees that had been blocked for up to a year — and that many feared would never make it through at all.

The breakthrough came after the Senate passed legislation introduced by Texas Sen.Ted Cruz that would change the address of the Chinese Embassy in Washington to 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza after the imprisoned Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate. Even though the White House promised to veto the measure, Cruz surrendered his holds on a slate of ambassadors and diplomats, which is now triggering a game of musical chairs on the seventh floor of the State Department.

The little-noticed confirmation of David McKean as ambassador to Luxembourg on Friday will leave an opening for a new director of Policy Planning, the State Department’s incubator for long and medium-term strategic thinking. As first reported by Foreign Policy, that job is expected to be filled by Kerry’s chief of staff Jon Finer, who will manage both jobs simultaneously. The move would give Kerry’s right-hand man direct control of more than two dozen staffers he can task on high-priority issues and international flashpoints, though State Department officials declined to say when exactly McKean would be shipping out to Europe.

McKean’s confirmation came as a surprise to some State Department officials given the staunch opposition to the president’s appointments by Cruz and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. Many assumed that political appointees such as McKean would have to wait in line as career foreign service officers, viewed as less controversial by Republicans, got preferred treatment.

The deal cleared the nominees to other powerful posts as well, including State Department counselor Tom Shannon, who will become undersecretary for political affairs, the No. 3 position at the State Department.

Shannon, a longtime Latin America hand who’s been spending more time in the Middle East, will be replaced by Kristie Kenney. Kenney previously served as ambassador to Thailand, the Philippines and Ecuador. In announcing her appointment to counselor, a position that typically takes on the secretary’s pet projects, Kerry noted Friday that Kenney will become “one of the most senior female foreign service officers in the history of our country.”

Some officials at Foggy Bottom remain shocked that the deadlocked Senate was able to move the nominees, particularly since the opposition had been led by Cruz, an arch-conservative and leading GOP presidential candidate.

“This came as a complete surprise to us,” said one diplomatic source. “Cruz had been so adamant in his opposition that we were actually anticipating that some of these names would be withdrawn.”

The other major Senate confirmations included the ambassadors to Sweden (Azita Raji), Norway (Samuel Heins), and Trinidad and Tobago (John Estrada). Lawmakers also cleared the picks to be the State Department’s legal adviser (Brian Egan) and the U.S. alternate executive director of the International Monetary Fund (Sunil Sabharwal).

Still, it’s too soon for Kerry to pop the champagne. The Senate has not cleared a number of other high-profile appointees, including Roberta Jacobson as ambassador to Mexico and Jennifer Haverkamp as assistant secretary for Oceans, Environment and Science. Jacobson was not involved in the secret negotiations to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, but helped implement the rapprochement after it became Obama administration policy. That’s resulted in her nomination being held up by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a reflexive Cuba critic and leading GOP presidential candidate.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told FP “We continue to want to see our outstanding nominees confirmed for the important posts that await them. Now is not the time to continue to experience these vacancies.”

Aides for Rubio did not respond to a request for comment on the nomination.

An aide for Cruz declined to offer details about his boss’s decision to release holds following the Senate’s passage of legislation changing the address of the Chinese Embassy. The aide did, however, pass along a statement from the senator blasting Obama’s veto threat, which is expected to prevent the bill from becoming law.

“The Obama administration’s veto threat is yet another outrageous example of its eagerness to coddle an authoritarian Communist regime at the expense of pro-American dissidents,” said Cruz.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday that the name change was unlikely to change the Chinese government’s position on human rights. “We view this kind of legislative action as something that only complicates our efforts, so we oppose this approach,” he said. “It’s our desire to work more productively and cooperatively with Congress on ways to address our shared goal of improving human rights in China.”

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