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Amid Senate gridlock, ambassador positions remain unfilled

Many gaps in nation’s diplomatic presence

“I don’t think there’s a single senator sitting there trying to punish our diplomats, but that’s the impact. Countries wonder whether we mean what we say about the strength of the relationship when we don’t even send them an ambassador,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.

AFP/Getty Images/file 2014

“I don’t think there’s a single senator sitting there trying to punish our diplomats, but that’s the impact. Countries wonder whether we mean what we say about the strength of the relationship when we don’t even send them an ambassador,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.

WASHINGTON — As fighters affiliated with the self-declared Islamic State roll across the porous Turkish border into Syria, the United States has a problem: It has no ambassador to Turkey.

As the Ebola virus rages in Sierra Leone, the United States has no ambassador there. And as North Korea poses a nuclear threat, the United States has no ambassador in South Korea.

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Nominations for the posts are among dozens languishing in the Senate, many for months. The would-be ambassador to Sierra Leone, for example, has been waiting more than 400 days for an up-or-down vote. Veteran diplomats say the Senate’s persistent gridlock over domestic matters is hurting the United States on the world stage.

The number of nominees awaiting confirmation now stands at 55 out of 226 positions, about one-fourth of all ambassador-ranked posts. For the vast majority of nominees who have been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and are awaiting a full vote in the Senate, the average wait has been more than seven months, according to State Department statistics.

Some of President Obama’s nominees have been major campaign donors who have looked ill-prepared in confirmation hearings. But most awaiting Senate action are career diplomats.

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Unlike years past, when political clashes have held up small groups of nominees for brief periods, the current stand-off is more widespread and long-lasting, preventing all but a trickle of nominees from getting a vote.

“It really makes a joke of us abroad,” said Charles A. Ray, a former ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe who spent 30 years in the foreign service. “Having the Senate literally block ambassadorial positions really sends a negative signal to countries we have relationships with. It makes them think that relationship doesn’t matter to us much.”

Several former diplomats and specialists say they have never seen the level of across-the-board objections to career foreign service employees that has plagued the Senate for the past nine months.

Democrats, who hold the majority in the Senate, thought they would speed up confirmation for all of Obama’s nominations to judgeships, Cabinet jobs, and diplomatic posts when they made a controversial rules change in November. The change, dubbed the “nuclear option,” allowed the Senate to proceed with debate on most nominations with 51 votes instead of 60, denying Republicans the opportunity to block nominees indefinitely with a filibuster.

But even with those changes, any senator can still drag the process out by forcing several days of procedural hurdles and debate for each nominee. And some Republicans, upset that Senate majority leader Harry Reid changed longstanding Senate rules, have done just that, while blaming Reid for exacerbating ill will between the parties.

The closest-known parallel came in 1995, when Senator Jesse Helms, the late North Carolina Republican, single-handedly held up 20 to 30 nominees in committee over several months in hopes of forcing structural changes at the State Department. (That dispute differed from one two years later in which Helms blocked Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld’s nomination to the post in Mexico.)

The procedural nature of the current delay only fuels international embarrassment, making it difficult for American diplomats to make a case for representative democracy, specialists say.

“People in other countries, they are not interested in the intraparty squabbles in Washington,” said Joseph S. Nye Jr., former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. “They’re interested in whether the United States can pursue its national interest in dealing with their country in a serious way. And if you can’t even confirm an ambassador to the country, that calls it into question.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement to the Globe that “it’s maddening to know we’re tying our hands behind our back.”

“I don’t think there’s a single senator sitting there trying to punish our diplomats, but that’s the impact,” he said. “Countries wonder whether we mean what we say about the strength of the relationship when we don’t even send them an ambassador.”

In recent months, it has often taken a crisis to confirm an ambassador. Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, noted on the Senate floor that it took a downed Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine to win approval for an ambassador for the International Civil Aviation Organization in July.

The ambassador to Chile was approved just in time to spend his first day on the job just as Vice President Joe Biden was arriving. The ambassador to Qatar was approved only after five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay were released to the country in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban.

Just before the Senate left on a five-week recess on July 31, Menendez tried to win full Senate approval for a slate of 25 career diplomats. But Senate rules allowed a single senator, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, to effectively block the approval by forcing hours of debate for each nominee. Enzi explained that he was objecting to Democrats’ rules change in November.

“This is the procedure that the majority set up,” Enzi said on the floor. “And the majority are going to be stuck with their decision to delay people, thinking that they could speed them up and take away some of the minority rights. So I object.”

It was only through last-minute negotiations, and a late-night vote, that the Senate approved the ambassador to Russia, whose process was expedited because of the singular importance of the country. The others, all career diplomats, remain in limbo.

Republicans blame Reid for the delays.

“Rather than filling vacant embassies to alleviate the national security concerns raised by Secretary Kerry and others, the majority leader — who controls the Senate floor — has chosen to spend much of the Senate’s time on confirming judges,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Donald Stewart, spokesman for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, called Menendez’s action a “stunt” and said the Senate has moved nominations on Obama’s priority list, including for Egypt, Iraq, and Kuwait.

Reid’s spokesman, Faiz Shakir, said McConnell’s lack of cooperation on most nominations has rendered approving larger batches effectively impossible, because of the time it would take under Senate rules.

Those left waiting for a vote include John Bass, a career diplomat nominated for the Turkey post. In his absence, the United States sent a fill-in — Jess L. Baily, the chargé d’affaires for the embassy — as Turkey inaugurated its president in Ankara on Thursday.

“The Turks, I’m sure, took notice and, I’m sure, read into it political messages, intended or not,” said the prior ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., who grew up in Medford and Malden and spent 36 years in the foreign service. He said he delayed his retirement in April by several months in hopes of maintaining seamless leadership.

More important than the ceremony, he said, is having someone on the ground who can engage the new government and private sector leaders — carrying the authority of the president and Congress — in a country that is a key strategic and economic ally.

“Our diplomacy is as important to our national security as our military operations, and the Senate would never consider delaying the nominations of generals,” Ricciardone said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at noah.bierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.
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