A behind-the-scenes clash is playing out over President Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, a key Middle East post at a time of tense relations between Washington and an increasingly independent-minded Ankara.
The would-be envoy, Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., is a 32-year veteran of the Foreign Service who most recently served as the deputy ambassador in Kabul. He's served in Ankara in the past and speaks fluent Turkish. Ricciardone also played a role in organizing the Iraqi exile community before the 2003 U.S. drive to Baghdad.
But it's his tenure as George W. Bush's envoy to Egypt that has provoked the most criticism, particularly among neoconservatives who are hoping to persuade Republican senators to torpedo his nomination.
Ricciardone served as the U.S. ambassador in Cairo from 2005-2008. Activists and journalists dubbed those first few years the "Arab Spring," when street demonstrations, political ferment, and contested elections in Baghdad, Beirut, and other Arab capitals inspired hope that the Middle East's stagnant authoritarian regimes -- including that of Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981 -- might finally fall.
The Bush administration exerted special efforts to promote democracy and human rights in Egypt, a longtime recipient of billions in military and economic aid, and a close U.S. partner on regional security matters. U.S. officials repeatedly raised human rights concerns with Mubarak's government, including the case of dissident political leader Ayman Nour. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a ringing 2005 address on democracy at the American University in Cairo, calling on Mubarak to embrace political reform.
Those efforts came crashing down months later, amid the widespread fraud and violence of Egypt's parliamentary elections. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood performed surprisingly well in the early rounds, prompting a harsh government crackdown that continues to this day. When Hamas shocked the world by winning the Palestinian elections the following January, the Bush administration appeared to lose its appetite for promoting Arab democracy altogether.
Former top National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams blames Ricciardone.
"Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy," Abrams told The Cable.
Ricciardone's supporters counter that he is a distinguished diplomat with a history of serving in tough parts of the world. Some former officials maintain he forged close working relationships across the interagency, worked effectively with the military, and argue that his past experience in Turkey makes him ideal to advance that relationship and U.S. interests across the region as a whole.
"He's an outstanding and extremely dedicated Foreign Service officer who has served his country in some very delicate and dangerous postings," said Mitchell Reiss, who served at the State Department's director of policy planning under Bush,
But other former Bush administration officials are circulating stories they believe show Ricciardone in a negative light.
In one of them, before Rice's Cairo speech, she had a particularly nasty press conference with Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, where Gheit defended his regime's conduct by criticizing U.S. conduct in the war on terror. Sitting next to Rice following the press conference, Ricciardone blurted out "the problem is that fucking Patriot Act," one senior Bush administration official said, adding that Rice was incensed.
Egyptian officials have cited the Patriot Act in explaining the continued need for their own much-criticized Emergency Law, which contains loopholes that facilitate far-ranging restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
"Putting aside the language, this seemed to those in the secretary's party to be yet another case of our ambassador's unwillingness even to see bad conduct by the government of Egypt, and to blame any case of it on Washington," the official said.
Ricciardone's critics claim that his strong personality and often blunt speaking style are the wrong mix for the current task at hand -- and that he has a tendency to get too close to his foreign interlocutors.
"Now is not the time for us to have an ambassador in Ankara who is more interested in serving the interests of the local autocrats and less interested in serving the interests of his own administration," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.
Aides from two GOP Senate offices said that while it's too early to say there is firm opposition on the Hill, their bosses have reservations about Ricciardone that could complicate his confirmation process. They plan to not only examine his time in Cairo, but his stints as deputy chief of mission in Turkey once before and his time serving as an official in Baghdad and in Kabul.
"Ricciardone has a lot to answer for on his record in Afghanistan, Egypt and on Iraq policy. What's more, his temperament and professionalism are in serious doubt," said one senior GOP aide. "It's unclear why the administration would send this FSO [Foreign Service officer] to such an important country given the tenuous state of Turkey's relationship with the West."
For all of Riccardione's detractors, he seems to have at least as many supporters. Experts, former officials, and diplomats from across the political spectrum have contacted The Cable in recent days to express their support for him and push back against what they see as the criticisms of a few. They say Ricciardone was made the scapegoat for a flawed Bush administration democracy push that never really had the financial commitment or follow-through it would have needed to be successful.
Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that there was never real consensus inside the Bush administration as to how to implement the pro-democracy push Rice highlighted in her Cairo speech, and that Ricciardone was put in the impossible situation of having to manage a complex relationship with a supposed ally while implementing a new policy that was aimed at his overthrow.
"He was quite effective as a U.S. ambassador at a time when the Bush administration and the Egyptian government were at loggerheads. There needed to be someone who could continue the conversation on a range of other things, not just democracy promotion," said Cook.
Ricciardone was tasked with doing two things that seem to be in direct contradiction: Pushing Egypt to help the United States on a host of regional issues, such as the war in Iraq and the fracturing of the Palestinian government, while also pushing Cairo to make reforms it was severely resisting.
"The Bush administration was saying ‘Carry our water while reforming yourself out of power,'" Cook explained, adding that Bush's Egypt democracy initiative never had the financial backing it would have needed to succeed, especially in light of the fact that meanwhile, the U.S. was giving Egypt more than $1 billion in military aid.
Actually, Ricciardone had a solution for that as well. In Cairo, he worked with Faiza Abu El Naga, who runs Egypt's Ministry of International Cooperation, to propose a huge new aid endowment for Egypt, under the thinking that by institutionalizing non-military aid to Egypt, democracy promotion could escape the annual tribulations of the often complicated congressional appropriations process. The fight over that endowment continues to this day.
The nomination fight over Ricciardone will likely become a debate over how best to approach Turkey during this delicate stage. For those who want to use the stick, he's destined to be the wrong choice. For those who think carrots are preferable, Ricciardone's extensive knowledge, fluent Turkish, and reputation for getting heavily involved in public diplomacy make him the perfect selection.
"Let's face it, there hasn't been much of an Obama effect in Turkey, so having an ambassador there who can get out among the people could be very useful," Cook said.
When push comes to shove in the Senate, the main question will be whether the Obama administration is willing to make that case and use some of its political capital to push the nomination through. They haven't always been eager to do so, as with the nomination of Robert Ford to be ambassador to Syria. Ford is well-liked by everybody, but the administration hasn't been active in pressing for his confirmation, potentially because it isn't eager to have a public debate about its policy of engaging Syria -- which has yet to show results.
Another Senate GOP aide who is critical of Ricciardone predicted that the administration won't want to make an issue of the Ricciardone nomination and anticipated that if they don't press it, his confirmation process could languish. "We don't need to put up much of a fight because things are moving so slowly anyway," the aide said.
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.