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Biden to Tap Career Diplomat to Senior State Department Management Post

John Bass has served in some of the most difficult diplomatic assignments abroad, including Turkey and Afghanistan.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
John Bass attends a press conference.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass attends a press conference during the U.N. Conference on Afghanistan in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 27, 2018. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden is poised to nominate a seasoned career diplomat, John Bass, to a key U.S. State Department management role as part of his administration’s efforts to revive a demoralized diplomatic corps.

Bass, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Turkey, and Georgia, will be nominated as the undersecretary of state for management, according to a White House official familiar with the matter. 

U.S. President Joe Biden is poised to nominate a seasoned career diplomat, John Bass, to a key U.S. State Department management role as part of his administration’s efforts to revive a demoralized diplomatic corps.

Bass, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Turkey, and Georgia, will be nominated as the undersecretary of state for management, according to a White House official familiar with the matter. 

The undersecretary post has an outsized role in managing the State Department’s employees. Patrick Kennedy, who served as undersecretary of state from 2007 to 2017, was described by one former diplomat as “the most powerful guy you’ve never heard of.” During the Trump administration, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought in a former business associate and longtime colleague and friend, Brian Bulatao, to serve in the post. 

Biden’s choice of Bass could be a boost the beleaguered ranks of the foreign service, where morale plunged under the Trump administration amid hiring freezes, allegations of mismanagement by political appointees, and an impeachment trial that dragged career diplomats into a political maelstrom.

Bass, if confirmed by the Senate, would bring a career diplomat to one of the agency’s senior-most roles, a move that could be seen as a confidence-building measure in Washington and with diplomats serving abroad. He served in a trio of hardship ambassador posts in the latter part of his diplomatic career. He was in Georgia from 2009 to 2012 in the wake of the 2008 Russian invasion that broke off two separatist territories, before clashing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the top U.S. diplomat in Ankara amid a deterioration in relations between the United States and Turkey. Bass last served as ambassador to Afghanistan, where he oversaw the drawdown of the United States’ diplomatic footprint in a war-zone embassy and managed the diplomatic aspects of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to open negotiations with the Taliban and begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops after nearly two decades of war. Bass left Kabul in January, 2020.

James Jeffrey, another former ambassador to Ankara who last served as the Trump administration’s top envoy for the Syrian conflict, credited Bass with holding together the U.S. Embassy in Turkey during the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, an episode that saw Turkish F-16 striking targets near the U.S. diplomatic compound. 

“There’s no better officer in the foreign service,” Jeffrey told Foreign Policy. “This is the A league.” 

If confirmed, Bass is expected to face a number of internal management challenges at the State Department, including many that long predate the Trump administration. Congress has been ramping up pressure on the State Department in recent years to improve its laggard record on diversity and inclusion and address a steep attrition crisis; as many as 1 in 3 diplomats are eyeing the exit door, according to one recent study. 

The Biden administration has also struggled to fill top national security jobs, facing paperwork delays and logjams in Congress. Nearly 60 State Department nominees are still waiting to be confirmed—although some of them have already had hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and some nominees are being held up by Senate Republicans over their opposition to Biden’s policy on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.

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

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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