Next month, the United States will host dozens of African leaders in Washington. But unless something changes before then, we will still be without confirmed ambassadors in 14 countries on the African continent, including in such strategically important nations as Niger, Cameroon and Sierra Leone.
This is not only an embarrassment, it is a security issue. Yet nominations to fill the positions continue to be held up in the Senate for no good reason.
As retired generals, we can testify to the importance of coordinating America’s military presence abroad with its diplomatic initiatives. In turbulent times such as these, it is vital to national security that ambassadors are in place and working closely with military leaders.
National security should never be a partisan issue. During our years of service, we worked with diplomats appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents. And both military personnel and diplomats were able to put aside partisanship in order to advance American security interests.
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Unfortunately, the Senate has strayed from this tradition of nonpartisan cooperation on matters of diplomacy as it drags its feet on confirming ambassadorial appointments. Currently, more than 40 U.S. embassies around the world, including those in critical Latin American, Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries, are without ambassadors. South Korea has no U.S. ambassador, nor does France. Turkey, which is dealing with a serious refugee crisis stemming from the civil war in its neighbor Syria, is without a U.S. ambassador.
The situation is dealing both a symbolic and a practical blow to America’s strategic interests around the globe. As chiefs of mission, ambassadors serve a crucial leadership role in building and maintaining diplomatic and military relationships abroad. Military leaders frequently depend on an ambassador’s support in forging cooperation with America’s partners and in encouraging important allies to develop their military and strategic capabilities. Ambassadors are crucial to facilitating exchanges of vital information and equipment.
Ambassadors also lead the interagency “country teams” in the nations to which they are assigned. Key decisions regarding security assistance, foreign military sales and intelligence cooperation rest in the ambassador’s hands. U.S. ambassadors have negotiated final agreements on security partnerships and on tens of billions of dollars in foreign military sales. They have successfully lobbied foreign governments to provide troops, material and economic assistance in a long list of conflicts and peacekeeping operations involving U.S. military forces.
There is, of course, an order of succession in the absence of an ambassador. But rank matters. When it comes to overseas protocol, no institutions are more rigid and status-conscious than foreign militaries. Take it from a couple of generals: Building the strategic partnerships that help the U.S. fight terrorism, address crises and secure the safety of American troops stationed around the globe frequently depends on high-level engagement between U.S. ambassadors and heads of state in the countries they serve. There is simply no substitute for a chief of mission.
The absence of an ambassador signals to a host country that it isn’t a U.S. priority and that it is unworthy of a direct and official representative of the president. These are dangerous messages to send, to allies and enemies alike.
Recently, Democrats and Republicans have traded charges and countercharges about the long delays in confirming ambassadors. But there is no doubt that the problem stems from a polarized and broken Senate confirmation system. Senators need to put aside partisan political squabbles over such things as filibuster rules and perform the duties their constituents expect from them.
Many of the nominees for ambassador positions are career diplomats as opposed to political appointees. A start to dislodging the logjam would be to confirm those appointments quickly. Just as many high-level military appointments are confirmed en bloc, so too should career diplomats awaiting confirmation be approved with one simple vote.
That isn’t to say, of course, that the Senate shouldn’t move to confirm all of the nominees. Presidents of both parties have always appointed a mix of career foreign service personnel and political supporters to ambassadorships. But starting with the career diplomats might get things moving.
As Republicans and Democrats have said over the years, political differences end at our shores. It is time for Senate Republicans and Democrats alike to prove that these are more than empty words. It is time for them to revisit the oath of office they took when they were sworn in, and to faithfully discharge the duties of their office. It is time for them to approve our ambassadors and restore the stature of our foreign missions.