The Senate confirmation scandal is a liability to US foreign relations
The delay in confirming President Biden’s nominees for positions in the State Department and USAID has already caused immeasurable harm to our national security. That is easier to assert than to prove. Yet, there is a highly plausible case to be made that an absence of leadership at key political levels has contributed to damage done to our international standing.
There is an unprecedented number of presidential appointments being stymied by senators who are holding nominations under the threat of a filibuster in a fruitless attempt to influence policy. They will fail in what they say is their goal (one wants to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, a bargaining chip in the strategy now being employed to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the other has called for the resignation of the secretary of State). As they persist, they are weakening our responses to crises and disabling the administration’s efforts to conduct a viable foreign policy. That may be their intention and, if so, that is reprehensible.
Why you may ask is it so important to have presidential appointees in place a year after the inauguration of a president? Why can’t professional foreign service officials provide the leadership needed?
I have been both a career professional and a political appointee, and this is my take.
Career officers are supposed to be apolitical; they aren’t always, but they are most effective when they remain that way. Their professionalism and institutional knowledge are invaluable. They are a vital balance wheel on the ship of state. They are also human, and, in general terms, they are looking for a political framework within which they can contribute their knowledge and ingenuity.
Political appointees to leadership positions at State and USAID also bring professional knowledge to bear — sometimes from a different realm — but they are usually well attuned to the policy positions of an administration. Many provided advice during the presidential campaign and contributed policy ideas that were embraced by the candidate and his most senior aides. They have no need to search for a framework as they contributed to it. Their job is to lead in the implementation of it.
The top echelon of the administration’s team— Secretary Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman and Administrator Samantha Power — are experienced, tested leaders, but they are operating at a major disadvantage. They need trusted acolytes that can amplify their influence over the thousands of dedicated people in their charge.
As the administration moves to counter the diabolical chess moves of Vladimir Putin and the threat posed by the autocratic alliance of Putin and China’s Xi, pundits ponder the impact of previous missteps. They are used by our foes to undercut the administration’s effort to reengage constructively and to shore up alliances.
George Packer in the Atlantic describes with sad and colorful anecdotes the messy evacuation and the “betrayal” of many of our Afghan allies. The administration is held accountable as it should be, but it is also true that it inherited some real poison pills, some of which could have been countered if appointees had been in place.
For example, Afghans who had worked with our government were eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). A relatively small number had received them or were in the system, but the previous administration’s anti-immigrant White House (Stephen Miller) made the process so onerous it was near impossible to gain approval for an SIV. That became disastrous for a huge number of at-risk Afghans in the final hours.
One cannot expect a secretary of State to be in the weeds of the visa process, but he was blamed by many for the outcome, including by the senators who had denied him the staff needed to get the job done. An appointee with knowledge of the obstacles imposed might have already eliminated them.
Another embarrassing undiplomatic moment involved the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia, an arrangement that abrogated a deal France and Australia previously had made. The French government was furious and even pulled its ambassador back to Paris to underscore its bruised feelings.
At the time of that announcement, there was no U.S. ambassador to France and the assistant secretary for European affairs had been in the job for less than a month. Had there been a competent and informed ambassador in place the secretary most likely would have been amply warned of the implications of announcing the deal before informing the French. In the end, the president of the United States had to personally apologize to the president of France for the “clumsy” way that the matter was handled, saying the deal “was not done with a lot of grace.”
After four years of an administration that went out of its way to be undiplomatic, the career service inherited by the Biden administration was demoralized and decimated. Many senior professionals cashed it in and retired. That just made the appointment of a new leadership team even more important. Reengaging with a skeptical world was not going to be easy. Even a complete team would have found it a challenge.
We are fortunate to have outstanding people in the highest ranks of State and USAID. They are supported by a solid yet depleted career corps. That is not enough. The Senate should do its job and prevent a minority of two from blocking the president’s nominees. The national security of the United States is being compromised by senators employing the pettiest of politics.
J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He was a career foreign service officer, dean of Professional Studies at the Foreign Service Institute, and served in three presidentially appointed positions: assistant secretary of State for Congressional Relations, undersecretary of State for Management and administrator of USAID.