Diplomats Seethe at Getting Bumped by Senate Veterans and Widows
“Legislative affairs has left appointees behind with the rest of the Biden agenda,” one nominee was overheard saying this week.
The historic freeze on confirmations for President Joe Biden’s ambassador nominees has finally begun to thaw—and diplomats are livid about it.
“Frankly, we look ridiculous,” said one career diplomat.
“Just absolutely infuriating,” one former ambassador fumed.
“Pissed,” a person familiar with how nominees feel said.
The confirmations on Tuesday would normally be a cause for celebration after a months-long Republican hold on ambassadorial nominees. But career diplomats, already exasperated by the snail’s pace of confirmations, told The Daily Beast that the fact that a pair of former senators and two senators’ widows were given a fast-pass to confirmation is proof that the Senate is playing favorites with former members, while nominations for postings of major diplomatic and strategic importance remain in procedural limbo.
“All four of them are more than qualified to hold the positions for which they’ve been confirmed—that’s not the contention,” the career diplomat told The Daily Beast. “The issue is that there are now 80-plus nominees, many of them extremely experienced and competent foreign service officers, stuck behind them because they didn’t know that marrying a senator was going to factor into their career prospects.”
The four newly minted ambassadors, former Sens. Jeff Flake and Tom Udall as ambassadors to Turkey and New Zealand and Victoria Reggie Kennedy and Cindy McCain as ambassador to Austria and the U.S. representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, respectively, represent 80 percent of Biden’s total confirmed representatives abroad.
The man behind the holdup, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), has vowed to stall nearly every State Department nomination until Biden implements congressionally imposed sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that has already been completed. Until Biden implements those sanctions, which he waived at the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Cruz has promised to use Senate procedure to require hours of debate over each nominee before a vote could be held—which, given the backlog, would eat up the entire congressional calendar.
As a result, there have been only five ambassadors confirmed to an overseas post in 10 months. The average State Department nominee has waited 108 days to be confirmed under Biden, nearly twice as long as the previous administration and four times as long as nominees under President George W. Bush. Nearly 20 of them, all career diplomats, have been on hold for more than six months.
“There is not another major power in the world that would leave the vast majority of its embassies without an ambassador in place for many months,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told The Daily Beast. “The bottom line is that America is made less safe because the majority of our senior national security leaders are being forced to sit on the sidelines due to an unrelated policy disagreement by one senator.”
While the positions that Biden’s nominees hope to fill aren’t sitting empty—vacant ambassadorial positions are minded by interim career foreign service officials “who are doing a fantastic job,” the State Department official said—the diplomatic value of a Senate-confirmed ambassador with a close relationship with the president is currently being squandered.
“As a former diplomat, I worry,” said Miguel H. Díaz, who served as the United States ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012. “We need the chiefs of mission, as well as other officials that need confirmation, in order to carry on the work of the country.”
The lack of an ambassador, who is viewed as the president’s personal representative to the country in which they are posted, risks not only embarrassment for the United States, Díaz told The Daily Beast, but could actually be viewed as an insult to the host nation.
“In some of these places, they don’t like to meet unless it’s the ambassador,” Díaz said. “That’s the reality.”
Meanwhile, Biden will leave on Thursday for his second foreign trip as president, a three-country tour of Vatican City, Italy and Scotland—none of which have yet been able to receive an American ambassador.
The White House sees Cruz’s willingness to lift his wholesale hold on nominees for candidates whose blocking might piss off his Senate colleagues as proof that his stated rationale for the obstructionism is bullshit.
“President Biden is quickly working to restore America’s position on the world stage, and he’s moved swiftly to nominate well-qualified ambassadors who have earned Republican and Democratic support,” White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher told The Daily Beast. “But instead of putting politics aside, Sen. Cruz has led an unprecedented effort of obstruction by blocking dozens of President Biden’s nominees and preventing them from advancing America’s national security interests. It’s long past time for Senator Cruz to get out of the way and let the Senate quickly confirm these national security nominees so they can advocate for the interest of the American people around the world.”
Among the career diplomats who have been stymied by Cruz’s block, the swift confirmation of two ex-senators and two senators’ widows highlights the often testy relationship between career ambassadors, who have spent decades working as diplomats, and so-called “political” ambassadors, who are primarily donors and elected officials who backed the winning side.
“There’s always a little bit of wariness on the career officer side about political appointee ambassadors,” one former ambassador told The Daily Beast. “With a good number of political appointees, they’re not serious about the job because they don’t know what the job is. I myself encountered a good number of political appointees who really didn’t get it, but they were a chief of mission.”
The slate of ambassadors nominated by President Donald Trump, many of whom were “frivolous, willfully ignorant people,” the former ambassador said, only exacerbated the already tense relations between career and political ambassadors. Political nominees are often subjected to hazing-by-jargon by career diplomats during their training, peppered with acronyms for obscure State Department offices and positions that even most bureaucrats wouldn’t know.
“A career officer who is nominated as ambassador is a known quantity,” the former ambassador said. “People know them, they know how to deal with them, whether they’re good or bad. But political appointees are completely unknown.”
Allies of the president say the holdup is about more than just assuring that the United States has representatives abroad to pay for fireworks every Independence Day.
“There are logjams everywhere—judges, U.S. attorneys, ambassadors and political appointees,” said John Morgan, a prominent Florida lawyer and high-level bundler for Biden’s campaign who likely removed himself from contention for an ambassadorship when he told The Daily Beast that he wasn’t sure “what the fuck most ambassadors do all day.”
“Holds for no real reason other than to make his administration fail and anger his donors,” Morgan said. “It ensures failure.”
But Cruz isn’t the only target of nominees’ ire. On Wednesday, one of the most prominent ambassador nominees expressed frustration with the White House’s handling of the situation, laying some of the blame on Biden’s longtime faith in compromise.
“Legislative affairs has left appointees behind with the rest of the Biden agenda,” the nominee said, according to someone familiar with the exchange, “because they’re still operating like this is the Joe Biden Senate of the ’90s.”