WASHINGTON - A Senate logjam over confirming ambassadors risks hampering U.S. efforts to contain an expanding Islamist urgency in Iraq, with several of President Barack Obama's nominees for the volatile Middle East unsure when they can get to work.
Obama announced his choice of a new ambassador to Iraq last month, and recently nominated envoys to Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Turkey — key regional players Washington is counting on to combat Sunni extremists. But a distracted Senate is moving slowly to put the new Mideast team in place, its attention focused largely on judicial appointees and politically driven votes over everything from student loans to unemployment insurance as lawmakers gear up for November elections.
The prolonged transition in embassies across the region could compound the difficulty facing the United States as it seeks to stem the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The al-Qaida splinter group has expanded from its base in Syria, taking Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and vowing to march on Baghdad.
"No nation can listen to us if we are not present to speak," said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat. Since he became chairman 16 months ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved 129 nominations. The full Senate still hasn't confirmed a third of those nominees.
The delays have not concerned objections to the nominees' credentials. Rather, the long waits appear the product of Senate fallout from a decision by the Democratic majority last year to eliminate a 60-vote threshold d for most judiciary nominees. Ambassadorial confirmations have slowed to a crawl since, averaging about one a week as the administration and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders wrangle over whom to put to a vote and when.
The Foreign Relations Committee is likely to advance the nominations of career diplomats Stuart Jones for Iraq, Robert Beecroft for Egypt and Dana Smith for Qatar next week, but it's unclear how quickly that will translate into action by the full Senate.
Jordan nominee Alice Wells cleared the committee unanimously on May 20 but hasn't been confirmed. Douglas Silliman also faced no Republican opposition in committee yet has been waiting almost 200 days ago to become ambassador to Kuwait. It took months for the current ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and Yemen to take up their posts. The top U.S. diplomat for the entire Middle East, Anne Patterson, faced a similar wait before the being overwhelmingly confirmed in December.
Beyond the Mideast, the Senate ended a 10-month wait for a new ambassador to the U.N. culture and education agency last week. The U.S. has had no ambassador in Russia since February.
"We're talking about the U.S. representative to a country," said Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain. "That may not mean a lot in Congress. But that means a lot for that country. If there is no ambassador there, there is no one that government is going to give the time of day to."
Although communications advances have made direct diplomacy between governments easier, ambassadors play a key role. Their status facilitates high-level audiences with top officials and local leaders that lower-level diplomats may not be afforded.
Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have conducted the most high-profile diplomacy with Iraq and neighbouring governments on counterterrorism strategy. U.S. military leaders have spoken daily to Iraqi counterparts. But the State Department has regularly stressed how diplomats on the ground, led by ambassadors, form the front line in establishing relationships with foreign leaders and advancing U.S. security and economic interests.
In Baghdad, Beecroft, the ambassador to Iraq since 2011, is staying on at the embassy until the Senate approves either his replacement or his proposed move to Cairo. He returned to the Iraqi capital this weekend after attending a confirmation hearing in the Capitol last week.
© Coast Reporter