At least five U.S. embassies could begin the New Year without an official ambassador at the helm, due to the ongoing feud between the State Department and the Senate over several ambassadorial nominees and secret Senate holds.
As of Jan. 1, if Congress doesn't act by the end of the year, there will be no U.S. ambassador in Russia, India, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, and Azerbaijan. Three of the current ambassadors at those posts (Czech, El Salvador, and Azerbaijan) were placed there by President Barack Obama through recess appointments that expire at the end of this month, but face stiff opposition in the Senate and may not be confirmed for their posts. The nominee for the fourth (Russia) is being held up by GOP senators over issues not related to his qualifications for the job. The India ambassador slot is vacant now and nobody has been nominated to fill it.
U.S. ambassador to Moscow John Beyrle will leave Moscow this month and return to the United States, multiple administration officials confirmed. Obama has nominated National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul to replace him, but McFaul's nomination is being held up in the Senate by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who wants the administration to give Congress assurances that the United States will not share sensitive missile defense data with the Russian Federation. Several other senators may also emerge to oppose the McFaul nomination, several Hill sources report, not due to any personal objections to McFaul, but due to their unhappiness with Obama's reset policy with Russia.
Eight prominent conservative foreign policy experts wrote to Obama today to ask the administration to strike a deal with Kirk in order to facilitate McFaul's confirmation and avoid having a vacancy at the top of the Moscow embassy.
"Time is short if Dr. McFaul is to be in Moscow before the New Year. In the aftermath of the deeply flawed Duma election, it is imperative to have Dr. McFaul's voice heard in Russia as soon as possible. We urge you to work with Senator Kirk's office in order both to protect our national security and to expedite Ambassador-Designate McFaul's confirmation," wrote Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Bruce Jackson, Robert Kagan, David Kramer, David Merkel, Steve Rademaker and Randy Scheunemann.
The same group wrote a letter last month praising McFaul as a good choice for ambassador to Russia. Conservatives are torn between their desire to see Congress push back against Obama's Russia policies and their support for McFaul personally.
Another U.S. ambassador nominee that has a lot of conservative support is Norm Eisen, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic. Eisen was sent to the Prague as a recess appointment because of objections by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IO). Grassley is still upset over the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a position where he oversaw government programs such as AmeriCorps.
Eisen, the former White House ethic czar, was a key figure in the controversy and defended the White House's actions. He also made the case to Congress that Walpin was unfit for his position, writing in a letter to senators shortly after the sacking that Walpin "was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve." Walpin called those allegations "absolutely amazing."
Grassley, along with Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), has never dropped the issue of Walpin's firing. Grassley's shop contributed heavily to a joint House-Senate report released last November they say alleged not only that Walpin's firing was handled improperly, but also that Eisen misled Congress about the matter.
A slightly different group of conservative foreign policy hands wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Committee heads John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) today to urge them to push the Eisen confirmation process forward.
"Ambassador Eisen's appointment was already delayed after his initial nomination in 2010, leaving us without an ambassador in Prague at a key moment in U.S.-Czech relations. The absence of an ambassador in 2012 would again send the wrong message to our Czech allies," the experts wrote. "While we support the prerogative of senators to raise concerns about presidential nominees, we believe that in this case, the importance of having an ambassador in Prague as well as Ambassador Eisen's record over the last year should ensure his speedy confirmation."
letter was signed by Fly, Jackson, Scheunemann, Rick Graber, Stuart Levey, Michael Makovsky, Clifford D. May, John
O'Sullivan, Gary Schmitt, Kurt Volker, and Ken Weinstein.
The Cable reported last week that Mari Carmen Aponte, the currently serving U.S ambassador to El Salvador, might have to come back to Washington at the end of the year because her re-nomination process is facing a huge amount of pushback from Senate Republicans.
Aponte's initial nomination to be ambassador to El Salvador was held up last year in an effort led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who was demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who allegedly had ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation at the time. She wasn't confirmed, but Obama sent her to El Salvador via a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year.
DeMint shows no signs of backing down and Aponte was barely approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a 10-9 vote that fell along party lines.
Another U.S. ambassador who may have to pack his bags this month is Matthew Bryza, Obama's envoy to Azerbaijan. His nomination was being held up last year by two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are seen to be representing the Armenian voting constituencies unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.
The U.S. Azeris Network (USAN), an Azeri diaspora group, has started a public awareness campaign to push for Bryza's confirmation.
"Armenians are working to get Bryza [to] return to America in January 2012, seeking thereby to paralyze the mission of the US ambassador to Azerbaijan and to show that the Armenian lobby has a veto in relation to who will be the next U.S. ambassador to Baku," USAN said in a statement on Tuesday.
Former Ambassador to India Tim Roemer left his post in June for family reasons. The Obama has yet to nominate anyone to replace him in New Delhi.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.