Failure to confirm ambassadors has real costs

Politicians in Washington are fond of saying that partisanship stops “at the water’s edge,” a quote from Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg, who helped Democratic President Harry Truman rebuild Europe in the wake of World War II. But in recent years, our poisonous politics have spilled over into foreign affairs. The starkest example of this is the hold-up of dozens of nominees for ambassadorships.

Republicans have blamed the delay on a handful of poorly prepared political nominees, including an Obama fundraiser tapped to be ambassador to Norway. But that’s not the real cause of the backlog; 42 of the 65 ambassadors awaiting confirmation are career diplomats. The real reason for the long delays rests with the GOP’s decision to stop approving nominees in groups, in retaliation for the Democrats’ decision to eliminate the filibuster for certain judicial nominations.

As a result, the confirmation process has slowed dramatically. Even countries in crisis are not immune. The post of ambassador to Russia stood empty for nearly five months this year, at the height of tensions over Ukraine. Similarly, the position of ambassador to Saudi Arabia sat vacant for five months, as turmoil in Syria and Iraq raged. About two-thirds of all nominees languish for more than a year.


Currently, the United States has no ambassador in Turkey, a crucial player in the bid to combat the radical group ISIS in Syria and Iraq. John Bass, who was nominated in June, is still waiting for the green light to serve. The nominees for ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have been waiting since July. Even if Bass is confirmed soon, there’s a chance that the grilling he received in his confirmation hearing could hurt him once he arrives in Ankara.

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Arizona Republican John McCain reportedly threatened to hold up Bass’s confirmation if the diplomat did not admit on the record that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has begun to “drift towards authoritarianism” by cracking down on social media and changing the constitution. Bass eventually acknowledged that the moves did indeed represent “a drift in that direction.” The reaction in Turkey was swift: Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu shot back that the United States and Europe were “drifting toward authoritarianism.” McCain, who has called for greater cooperation with Turkey against ISIS, shouldn’t go out of his way to make such cooperation more difficult. If he has a serious problem with Bass, he should say so. Otherwise, he should keep his political gamesmanship on this side of the ocean.

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