- The Washington Times
Thursday, January 20, 2022

President Biden has failed to nominate anyone for several strategic ambassadorships a full year into his term in office, with some glaring embassy vacancies leaving key U.S. allies without a strong American voice and increasingly vulnerable to Chinese and Russian influence.

Resolving a long standoff with congressional Republicans, the administration has managed to place ambassadors in Beijing and Moscow. The Senate has confirmed another 54 ambassadors, 10 more than President Trump had by the end of his first year.

Still, the White House hasn’t nominated anyone for such sensitive posts as South Korea or Saudi Arabia. Ukraine, at the center of a raging controversy with Russia that has sparked talk of war, does not know who will be Mr. Biden’s choice as envoy to Kyiv.

Seasoned career Foreign Service diplomats are holding down the fort in those countries as well as in the Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, Kazakhstan and others with ambassador vacancies. But by failing to fill the top jobs in key embassies, critics say, Mr. Biden has stumbled on one of the signature promises of his administration.

Roughly a month after arriving in office, Mr. Biden declared that “America is back” and he would restore key foreign alliances that Democrats claimed were severely strained by the Trump presidency and the failure to practice basic diplomacy.

Still, some accuse Mr. Biden of being the one who has left allies out in the cold, with the vacancies in South Korea, which is dealing with the spiraling North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threat; the Philippines, a treaty ally facing a widening naval standoff with China; and Ukraine, a fledgling democracy staring down a Russian military invasion.

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“I thought the Biden team said diplomacy was back. Looking at the vacancies and weakness of [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken’s team, I’d say it’s on its back,” Richard Grenell, who served as ambassador to Germany, special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, and briefly as acting director of national intelligence under Mr. Trump, quipped in an email to The Washington Times.

Mr. Grenell has been a consistent critic of Mr. Biden’s foreign policy. He said on social media that Mr. Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and others in the administration have presented a “weak” response to threats by adversaries such as China and Iran.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen claimed responsibility this week for carrying out a drone attack on oil facilities in the United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally and counterterrorism partner with no U.S. ambassador.

Peter Rough, a senior fellow with a special focus on Europe at the Hudson Institute, said career Foreign Service officers are fully capable of keeping an embassy running as the charge d’affaires when an ambassador post remains formally unfilled. But he noted that a White House-appointed ambassador carries a cachet and authority that can be critical in trying times.

“Oftentimes, these appointments are of persons who can get on the phone and get through to the president or the secretary of state,” he said.

The failure to nominate an ambassador to Seoul — the post has been vacant since Mr. Biden took office a year ago — is a source of frequent discussion and angst in the South Korean press. Analysts question whether the lack of an ambassador signals U.S. unhappiness with South Korean policies.

“I think it is very disappointing that the Biden administration has yet to appoint an ambassador to South Korea. There have been unnecessary holdups in the Senate to confirm nominees, but that is no excuse for not nominating someone,” U.S. Naval War College professor Terence Roehrig told the English-language Korea Times last month. “I doubt it’s any sort of payback for U.S. disappointment with any South Korean policy position, but it is very disconcerting given the administration’s efforts to revitalize U.S. relations with allies and partners.”

The White House brushed aside criticisms that the failure to fill key diplomatic posts is impeding the administration’s ability to help certain countries stand up with America strategically. This week, Mr. Biden announced four more nominations, including prominent Democratic donor Jane Hartley, who was ambassador to France under President Obama, to the traditionally plum assignment of ambassador to London.

Defending the record

Administration officials blamed Republicans and defended Mr. Biden’s record when pressed on why it has taken so long to nominate and confirm diplomats for several key strategic posts overseas.

“We have nominated 91 ambassadors since taking office, which puts us right on track with where our predecessors were,” said one White House official, who spoke only on the condition of not being named in this article.

The official, who noted that Mr. Trump made only 64 nominations and had only 48 confirmed during his first year in office, said “GOP obstruction” is to blame for having only 58 Biden nominees confirmed.

The comment was a reference to a hold that Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, placed on a slew of diplomatic confirmation votes last year to force a recorded vote on a measure to overturn the administration’s decision not to try to impose sanctions on the now-completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline bringing Russian natural gas directly to Germany.

Mr. Cruz’s hold was supported by other Republicans who have expressed concern that the pipeline will expand Russian influence in Western Europe by broadening Moscow’s control over European energy sources.

It was only after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, struck a deal giving Mr. Cruz a vote that the Texas Republican dropped his hold on the ambassador nominations.

The full Senate rushed 50 nominations to confirmation in late December, including Biden administration ally and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan.

Some foreign policy insiders say Mr. Biden’s troubles are part of a larger negative pattern: It has taken longer and longer for every administration of the past 20 years to get embassy slots filled in Washington’s increasingly partisan atmosphere. The Biden White House noted that President Obama got 82 ambassadors confirmed during his first year in office and President George W. Bush got 93 confirmed.

P.J. Crowley, an assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Obama administration, said the process of screening ambassador candidates has become “more intensive, and the Senate confirmation process has become more attenuated.”

He said COVID-19 has limited the work and socializing ambassadors can do even in their assigned countries.

“What is unique about this cycle is the ongoing pandemic. More diplomatic work is being done virtually, both from Washington and through embassies,” Mr. Crowley said. “All government systems are operating in unusual ways. Every variant pushes back to the point where things return to something closer to normal. This affects everything, including bringing political appointees into government.”

Lingering concerns

Such realities have done little to ease concern over the absence of ambassadors to some far-flung but strategically vital outposts. The absence can be glaring in unexpected places. Consider Kazakhstan, a relatively stable and low-profile Central Asian nation that shares lengthy borders with Russia and China and is a key hub for U.S. oil companies in the region.

Fuel price protests this month exploded into a national revolt against the Kazakh government. Houston-based Chevron, which boasts on its website that it is “Kazakhstan’s largest private oil producer,” briefly reduced its production during protests, political chaos and intervention by Russian military forces that put the country in global headlines throughout the month, with no ambassador on the ground to defend U.S. interests.

Kazakhstan is a place where we have major investments,” said the Hudson Institute’s Mr. Rough.

“These are not small irrelevant countries,” said Mr. Rough. “We have a confirmed ambassador to Austria, which is nice and all, but you’d think that we’d have a confirmed ambassador to South Korea by now.

“Not nominating an ambassador leaves partners hanging,” he said, asserting that the whole nomination, confirmation and arrival process for a U.S. ambassador is a major event in many countries.

“The ambassador is the centerpiece of the U.S. presence in these countries,” Mr. Rough said. “It’s noticed when the process doesn’t happen.”

The U.S. has no ambassador to Qatar, one of the world’s top natural gas producers and home of Al Udeid Air Base, widely regarded to host the most strategically significant American military outpost in the Middle East.

Nor is there one in Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Middle East’s monarchies and one of the world’s top oil-producing nations, which is seen to be on the fence about whether or not to join the U.S.-promoted Abraham Accords normalization of relations between Arab nations and Israel.

Mr. Biden has in some ways followed Mr. Trump’s lead on Saudi Arabia. Although Mr. Trump made Riyadh the destination of his first foreign trip, he waited nearly two years before nominating an ambassador. The same could be said of South Korea. Mr. Trump allowed 17 months to pass before nominating an ambassador.

With regard to Ukraine, Mr. Blinken announced during a visit to Kyiv this week that a nomination for an ambassador would be “forthcoming very shortly.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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