To get his ambassadors, Obama may need to travel to some rough places

President Obama in The Hague March 25. (Photo: REUTERS/Toussaint Kluiters/
President Obama in The Hague March 25. (Photo: REUTERS/Toussaint Kluiters)

President Obama may have learned Wednesday how to finally break through the months-long Senate logjam on his ambassadorial nominations: he or Vice President Biden must travel to the countries where nominees would be headed.

Problem is, they often won’t be going to  pleasant Western Europe countries like England, Spain or Germany, but rather to grittier or diplomatically dicey or even occasionally dangerous spots like Yemen, Kuwait, Albania, Timor-Leste, Sierrra Leone, Niger or Colombia.

The Senate Wednesday afternoon confirmed Joe Westphal, a political appointee and former assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia — just in time, maybe,  to get there  when Obama visits on Friday. (He was nominated in November.)

Earlier this month, career foreign service officer Mike Hammer was confirmed to his post in Chile — just a few days before Biden went there for the inauguration of a new president. (Hammer was nominated back in June.) And, a week later, political appointee Tim Broas, nominated in July,  was confirmed for the Netherlands — in time for Obama’s arrival there this week.

But while they, and a handful of others, have passed through to confirmation,  40-some ambassadorial nominees remain caught up in the fallout of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s “nuclear option” in November, when the Democrats eliminated filibusters on most nominees.

Furious Republicans countered by forcing cloture votes on nominees, a move that ties up the Senate floor for hours and has reduced confirmations to a trickle.

Nearly 30 percent of the approximately 145 Obama nominees twisting slowly above the Senate floor are for ambassadorships. And while clueless political fundraiser-nominees have received much media attention lately, about half of those 40 ambassador jobs are to be filled by career foreign service officers, many of whom have been confirmed before by the Senate for overseas posts.

The ambassadorial nominees have been held hostage for an average of over six months in the stand-off between Reid and the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The focus of Republican indignation is naturally focused on political nominees. But the career foreign service folks, who have served both Republican and Democratic presidents, have been caught up in the partisan brawling.

Unless that changes, Biden may want to keep his bags packed.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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