Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Ted Cruz, Nominee-Obstructer-in-Chief

The Texas senator is holding up dozens of diplomatic appointments over Biden’s policy on a Russian gas pipeline.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Ted Cruz attends a hearing on the nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz attends a hearing on the nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in Washington on Jan. 27. Michael Reynolds/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie and Jack back with another edition. Special thanks to our colleague Amy Mackinnon, who helped out in our reporting on this. 

First off, happy Thursday. For the ice cream lovers out there, start your day off right by catching up on the latest geopolitical controversy involving Ben & Jerry’s, and then enjoy this throwback to an early Iraq War-themed ice cream company

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: A Republican senator issues a blanket hold on dozens of State Department nominees, the secretary of defense heads to Southeast Asia, and Yemen’s crisis gets a sorely needed glimmer of good news. 

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie and Jack back with another edition. Special thanks to our colleague Amy Mackinnon, who helped out in our reporting on this. 

First off, happy Thursday. For the ice cream lovers out there, start your day off right by catching up on the latest geopolitical controversy involving Ben & Jerry’s, and then enjoy this throwback to an early Iraq War-themed ice cream company

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: A Republican senator issues a blanket hold on dozens of State Department nominees, the secretary of defense heads to Southeast Asia, and Yemen’s crisis gets a sorely needed glimmer of good news. 

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Biden State Nominees Hit a Cruz-Shaped Wall

Getting a senior foreign-policy appointment in a new U.S. president’s administration can mean jumping through a lot of hoops. For career diplomats, it involves climbing the ranks of the State Department bureaucracy for decades. For political appointees, it takes backing the right presidential candidate early on; elbowing out the competition for that ambassador or assistant secretary post you want, usually with frantic behind-the-scenes networking and posturing (or, for the ultrawealthy, sizable campaign donations); lengthy vetting and security clearance forms; and then the Senate nomination hearings themselves. 

For President Joe Biden’s nominees who have run that gauntlet already, there’s one more hurdle: Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Cruz, infuriated by the Biden administration’s stance on a controversial Russian gas pipeline project, has either put a hold on or plans to hold more than two dozen nominees for the State Department and a handful of senior appointees to the U.S. Agency for International Development, officials and Senate aides confirmed to SitRep. The list includes much of the upper management structure of the State Department, namely assistant secretary of state posts.

Who’s being held up? Well, who isn’t? According to congressional and administration insiders, among the laundry list of nominees Cruz is holding or plans to hold: the ambassadors to Somalia, Algeria, Lesotho, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Vietnam, and Mexico; the assistant secretaries of state for Europe, Africa, East Asia, South Asia, conflict stabilization operations, consular affairs diplomatic security, international organizations, and political-military affairs; the undersecretary of state for energy and economics; and even the State Department’s chief of protocol.

In short: Cruz has gone the Senate confirmation version of nuclear.

Pressure cooker. The blanket hold is putting massive pressure on the Biden administration and inflaming tensions between Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the White House, and even among Republican lawmakers themselves. Some Republican lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee privately feel Cruz is taking things too far, congressional aides told SitRep.

The administration is already short-staffed. Biden has yet to name nominees for almost 100 ambassador posts and dozens of other key national security roles. Other nominees’ names in the pipeline are wallowing in bureaucratic backlogs, waiting in line amid a busy Senate schedule, or collecting dust on the logjammed desks of the White House personnel office. 

One nominee has made it through, thanks to some procedural wrangling from Senate Democratic leadership to override Cruz’s hold. Bonnie Jenkins, Biden’s pick to be the top State Department arms control envoy, was confirmed by the Senate this week ahead of scheduled U.S.-Russia nuclear arms talks.

Pipeline politics. Cruz is unapologetic. He argues the Biden administration is severely undercutting European energy security and U.S. standing in Europe by allowing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany to be completed without slapping mandatory congressional sanctions on all the entities involved in its construction. “I look forward to lifting the holds just as soon as they impose the sanctions on Nord Stream 2 that are required by federal law,” Cruz told CNN. (His office did not respond to our request for comment.)

Other Republican lawmakers are just as furious at Biden over his Nord Stream 2 plan—as are Eastern European officials, particularly Ukrainians, who warn Russia will exploit the project for geopolitical gain. (Democrats on the Hill, for what it’s worth, aren’t too pleased either). 

So what’s the end game here? Perhaps Cruz and other Republicans can extract some gains from the administration while they hold up nominees. But it seems unlikely that the Biden administration will cave to Cruz’s pressure and reverse course; it already made its position on the pipeline clear (basically, “We don’t like it, it’s bad for European energy security, but it’s mostly done and we can’t stop it, so let’s work with the Germans and Ukrainians and make the best of a bad situation”) and rolled out a plan with Germany from which there is no retreat.

Senate Democrats can use some parliamentary maneuvering to force votes on nominees here and there, but it’s difficult for Senate leadership to prioritize the nomination of ambassadors to some countries (no offense, Cameroon?) when the Senate has such a jampacked schedule. That means some of these nominees could be in limbo for quite a while if the impasse continues. (More on the process of confirming nominees or overcoming holds in this CNN story.)

Some experts are channeling the administration’s frustration, saying a blanket hold on nominees is throwing a wrench in Washington’s ability to conduct foreign policy. “It has an enormous impact,” Andrew Albertson, executive director of Foreign Policy for America, told SitRep. “At a moment when the U.S. faces crises in Cuba, in Nicaragua, on the U.S.-Mexico border, it sure would be nice to have an assistant secretary for western hemisphere [affairs] in place.” 

“At this point, no one thinks this is about a good faith policy disagreement,” he added, saying Cruz was pursuing an “agenda of destruction.”


Let’s Get Personnel

A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Turkey, John Bass, is being nominated to a senior State Department management post, as we scooped yesterday. 

Biden has tapped Tamara Cofman Wittes to be an assistant administrator for the Middle East at USAID. 

And the Kennedy legacy continues in Washington. Biden has named Victoria Reggie Kennedy as his choice to be U.S. ambassador to Austria. She’s the widow of late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. 

The State Department has tapped Daniel Foote, a senior career foreign service officer, to be a special envoy for Haiti after the nation’s president was assassinated earlier this month. Foote will push for fair elections and help with coordinating humanitarian assistance to the poverty-stricken country. 


Finger on the Button 

What we’re watching at the top of the news cycle.

Austin to Asia. Wheels up for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin bright and early Friday morning. The Pentagon chief is headed to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore, with a stop in Alaska on the way over. It’s a chance for the administration to smooth over hurt feelings among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations after technical glitches derailed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first call with the grouping. (Blinken, by the way, is reportedly making a trip out to Kuwait and India next week.) No word on whether new U.S. vaccines for the region will be announced on the way. 

First in SitRep: Lawmakers react to new Yemen developments. Qatar announced it is contributing $100 million to the United Nations World Food Program to address the humanitarian crisis in war-wracked Yemen. U.S. lawmakers who closely monitor Yemen and have been urging Gulf states to step up support for the humanitarian response praised the move.

“This money will go a long way in helping end the suffering in Yemen, which reinforces efforts for regional peace and security,”  U.S. Sens. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican; Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat; and Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told SitRep in a statement. “This humanitarian crisis has lasted too long, and it’s critical that neighboring countries help to care for those in need,” adding that “we must work together to end this humanitarian disaster once and for all.”

Somalia strike. The U.S. conducted a drone strike against the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia on Tuesday, the first such assault since Biden came to office earlier this year. Pentagon officials said the strike targeted al-Shabab militants who had attacked American-trained commandos. The move comes as Biden is weighing whether to send dozens of American troops back into Somalia—former President Donald Trump removed U.S. forces after the November 2020 election. The Biden administration has cut down the use of drone strikes compared to the previous two administrations. 

First in SitRep: Mapping China’s game plan for Taiwan. What would China’s war plan for Taiwan actually look like? Ian Easton at Project 2049 Institute, a China-focused think tank based in Washington, examined the People’s Liberation Army’s planning, based on a careful read of Chinese military research. SitRep got a sneak peek of his forthcoming report before the launch.

Here’s the rub: The massive logistical effort would dwarf the U.S. landings at Normandy and Okinawa during World War II, Easton found, and would require Chinese troops to take control of many of Taiwan’s ports to shepherd in millions of potential reinforcements without causing serious damage to the ports, because Taiwan’s beaches simply aren’t big enough to allow enough troops to flow in.

The Chinese military documents propose using theater ballistic missiles, bombers, and fighter-bombers to soften up port defenses, as well as ship and helicopter guns and artillery. But they also expect Taiwan to try to hunker down by sinking large container ships in front of its ports and pumping oil and gasoline into its harbors to create “seas of fire.”


Snapshot 

A prototype of Russia’s new Sukhoi Checkmate fighter jet.

A prototype of Russia’s new Sukhoi Checkmate fighter jet is on display at an international aviation show near Moscow on July 20. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images


From the Vault

Pomp and circumstance. Ever wonder what Biden’s top national security aides were like in college? SitRep went rifling through old U.S. Military Academy yearbooks (West Point, as they call it) and found pages for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (who graduated in 1975) and Air Force Secretary-designate Frank Kendall (who graduated in 1971). 

Austin’s 1975 West Point yearbook page described him as “YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK.” “Lloyd never lost his perspective or sense of humor,” his page read. Kendall was equally “at ease with a foil or popcorn popper,” classmates said, describing the future top Pentagon official as a bit of a renaissance man. “Stealing cannons, all night bridge games, scuba dives and exciting letters to Marge rounded out the whole man.” 


Put On Your Radar

Friday, July 23: The Tokyo Olympics kick off amid severe COVID-19 restrictions in Japan. First lady Jill Biden leads the U.S. delegation to the games. 

Friday, July 23: Funeral for assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse takes place. 

Monday, July 26: Biden hosts Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House. 

Tuesday, July 27: Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the Reagan Institute in Simi Valley, California. 


Quote of the Week

“Strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban.”

– Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, speaking at a Pentagon press conference on the situation in Afghanistan on Wednesday


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Olympic-level rant. The Tokyo Olympics kick off this weekend, and if there’s a gold medal for ranting, sportscaster Mary Carillo has our vote. Her 2004 stream-of-consciousness rant about the sport of badminton (yes, the game you play in your backyard is an Olympic event) from the wee hours of the Athens Games is the stuff of legend, complete with specific callouts of her neighbors. Hat tip to friend-of-the-program Aaron Mehta for bringing this to SitRep’s attention.

Correction, July 22, 2021: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is heading to Southeast Asia this week. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the region he plans to visit.

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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