Report

Finally, the U.S. Is Getting Some Diplomats in the Field

Thanks to rule changes and a new push from the Senate and Pompeo’s team, a flurry of nominees is being approved at last.

Foreign Policy illustration/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Foreign Policy illustration/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

For over two years, dozens of senior State Department positions and ambassador posts sat empty, hamstringing the day-to-day work of U.S. diplomacy in an administration accused of sidelining career diplomats.

That is slowly, quietly changing as the Trump administration advances more nominees at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and smaller agencies dealing with foreign aid and development. Members of Congress—buoyed by recent rule changes in the Senate to expedite nominees—are responding in kind, pushing through a logjam of appointments, some of which had been stuck in place for over a year.

To some veteran diplomats, the flurry of activity offers a rare bit of good news and sorely needed course correction for President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy making machine, which has been hindered by depleted ranks and marginalized officials in acting capacities. But Democrats and other administration critics worry that some controversial nominees either held up in negotiations with the administration or seen as unqualified for the job are slipping through the net.

“We are seeing a fundamental shift,” said Liz Schrayer, the president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC), a Washington-based advocacy organization that tracks foreign-policy issues. “Over the last several months, the volume is real with the number of senior diplomatic and development posts confirmed by the Senate.”

In the first six months of this year, there have been more confirmations and nominations for posts than in all of 2017 or 2018, according to analysis from USGLC. As with other federal agencies, senior posts in the State Department require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, beginning with votes in the 22-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As of June, 35 of 54 nominees that were stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year have been reported out of committee, and 21 nominations have gone through the full confirmation process with votes on the Senate floor or unanimous consent agreements.

“I’m glad they’re getting more fully staffed,” said Laura Kennedy, a former U.S. diplomat and advisor to Foreign Policy for America, an advocacy group based in Washington. “This should be a matter of course, and it shouldn’t have taken them this long,” she said.

Some posts remain unfilled, a problem often attributed to a combination of mismanagement under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, indifference from the White House, or political impasse on Capitol Hill. In some cases, Trump simply never nominated people to begin with. In others, lawmakers held up nominees either with concerns over their backgrounds or as leverage in tussles with the administration.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said from his first days on the job he wanted to fully staff up the department, has engaged in sharp public spats with Democratic lawmakers over the deadlock on nominees. But Democrats hit back that some of Trump’s ambassador nominees weren’t qualified for their job—some political donors he tapped for diplomatic posts faced involvement in lawsuits or federal investigations—and point to ambassador nominees Republicans have held up as well.

That impasse is finally giving way. Current and former officials, as well as Senate aides, credit legwork from lawmakers and members of Pompeo’s team for breaking the backlog. Ulrich Brechbuhl, Pompeo’s handpicked counselor to the State Department, engaged in a marathon of phone calls with Capitol Hill to lay the groundwork for nominees clearing the committee, Senate aides and former officials tell Foreign Policy. They also say Republican Sen. James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his Democratic counterpart, ranking member Bob Menendez, have worked behind the scenes to overcome the impasse.

“It has taken everyone—Foggy Bottom, the White House, and [committee] leaders Chairman Risch and Ranking Member Menendez,” Schrayer said. “Both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania stepped up. They saw the imperative: America can’t compete without a full team on the playing field, because our competitors certainly aren’t waiting around for us to get into the game.”

Perhaps just as importantly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, in April changed Senate rules to significantly cut the amount of time to debate nominations amid fiercely partisan debates that largely centered on Trump’s federal judge picks. The change expedited the process for pushing through Trump’s nominees across the federal government.

Among the positions finally being filled, some of which have sat empty for nearly the entirety of the Trump administration: the undersecretary of state for management, an important position for internal State Department organization; assistant secretaries of state for Near Eastern affairs and East Asian and Pacific affairs, the top diplomats overseeing the Middle East and East Asia respectively; and the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, who oversees foreign arms sales and security assistance abroad. Ambassador posts that were empty for a year or longer—including for Mexico, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Australia—have also now been confirmed or finally have nominees awaiting Senate confirmation.

One victory for Pompeo was the confirmation of Brian Bulatao, his handpicked choice to be undersecretary of state for management, whose nomination was held up for over nine months. Menendez, the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, held the vote on Bulatao over the State Department’s refusal to hand over documents related to politically motivated reprisals by Trump appointees against career employees. Former senior U.S. diplomats and congressional aides familiar with internal deliberations said Risch helped persuade the State Department to hand over the documents after nearly a year of stonewalling. 

“The way Risch has always operated has been very behind the scenes,” said one Republican Senate aide. Risch “has made a very concerted effort” to staff up the State Department since taking the committee gavel in January, the aide added. 

Other nominations were forced through despite holds from lawmakers, and without significant concessions. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine held up David Schenker’s nomination as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs over the Trump administration’s refusal to disclose its legal justification for missile strikes against Syria in 2017. Former officials and Republican Senate aides say the White House counsel met with Kaine to discuss his concern, but the White House still never sent him the secret memo it drafted that served as the legal basis for the strikes. Schenker was confirmed in early June, over Kaine’s objections.

“This is the only time I have ever placed a hold on a nominee and I am disappointed that his nomination was advanced despite the continued stonewalling by the Administration to respond to my request,” Kaine said in a statement at the time. “As a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, I believe I am entitled to know how this Administration can justify an attack on another nation without coming to Congress.”

“Holds serve a purpose in the short term to get information,” said the Republican Senate aide. “But when holds start going for months or years, they start to lose their efficacy.”

Republican lawmakers have held up nominees as well. In February, the Trump administration bowed to quiet pressure from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to scuttle the nomination of the seasoned career diplomat Francisco “Paco” Palmieri for the ambassador post to Honduras. Rubio, insiders told FP at the time, blocked his nomination as he sought a harder-line approach from the Trump administration on Latin America.

Despite the recent surge in nominations and confirmations, some important posts at the State Department are still unfilled and without a nominee, including the assistant secretaries of state for Europe and European affairs; South and Central Asian affairs; and oceans and environmental sciences. Several undersecretary of state positions, including the post for public diplomacy and the post for energy and the environment, are also empty.

Filling senior slots at State and USAID are not just a formality. “In many countries, [acting officials] simply will not be granted the same access with the most senior officials,” said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Algeria and the current president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

While the positions are filled by lower-level diplomats in an acting capacity, these diplomats don’t have the same leeway or political clout to do their jobs, either in Washington or abroad, Neumann said.

Ambassadors have outsized sway to intervene on behalf of U.S. companies that have trade issues in the country in question, or Americans detained abroad who need help from the U.S. Embassy. “There [are] hundreds of smaller issues … that don’t get done quite as well without ambassadors,” Neumann said.

Then, there are the international crises that crop up without warning in every corner of the globe, where ambassadors and other senior diplomats can play important roles as first responders and mediators.

On nearly every foreign-policy initiative or crisis in the past two and a half years, critics could point to empty posts that impeded Trump’s policy. Amid a fierce row with Turkey over its planned acquisition of Russian missile systems and detention of U.S. citizens, there was no ambassador in Ankara or top Middle East envoy at the State Department.

When a skirmish in Kashmir pushed India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, to the brink of conflict in February, Trump had no ambassador in Islamabad or top appointed diplomat on South and Central Asian affairs in place.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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