Intel: How the US is filling diplomatic gap with picks for Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya

al-monitor Retired four-star Army Gen. John Abizaid testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be US ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 6, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Apr 3, 2019

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously recommended today that retired Gen. John Abizaid serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia while voting 13-2 to advance Matthew Tueller as ambassador to Iraq, paving the way for their confirmation in the coming days.

While the Abizaid nomination proved noncontroversial, Tueller took heat not for his views on Iraq, but rather for his current role as ambassador to Yemen.

“We got a window into the ineffectiveness of our policy in Yemen when he testified before our committee [on March 6] that it was his belief that Saudi Arabia bore 0% of the responsibility for the civilian deaths that have occurred on the ground inside Yemen,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said ahead of the committee vote. “He did clarify that response in written questions for the record, but our policy in Yemen has been a disaster.”

Murphy voted to advance Tueller’s nomination, but Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted against him.

Why it matters:  The United States still lacks diplomats in key posts throughout the region. And Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for the vacancies.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the committee’s top Democrat, noted that President Donald Trump has yet to nominate ambassadors “to critical countries like Egypt, Pakistan and our close ally Jordan.”

Committee Chairman James Risch, R-Idaho, countered that while Trump has submitted 225 nominees, the committee has only cleared 65% of them.

“President [Bill] Clinton in his first two years sent 274 [nominees] to this committee, 96.3% were confirmed,” said Risch. “[President Barack] Obama in the first two years submitted 247 [nominees] to this committee, 89% were confirmed.”

Menendez in turn noted that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had falsely accused Democrats of holding up the Abizaid nomination on the Senate floor earlier this month. 

“I’m glad we’re going to vote on Gen. Abizaid today, but it took 23 months before the Trump administration bothered to nominate him,” Menendez said ahead of the vote. “It took even longer — two years — before the Trump administration nominated a candidate to be US ambassador to Turkey.”

No Middle East chief:  David Satterfield was picked to serve as ambassador to Turkey in February, but he remains in place as acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs while Trump’s nominee for the post remains blocked in the Senate. The committee once again failed today to advance David Schenker to the position because of a hold from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who insists that the Trump administration first submit a legal justification for its 2017 strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

What’s next?  Trump is slowly but surely nominating candidates to fill the diplomatic void in the region. Just today he nominated career foreign service officer Richard Norland to serve as ambassador to Libya. In the meantime, the full Senate must confirm Abizaid and Tueller before they assume their posts.

Know more:  Learn more about Abizaid’s track record of pushing for engagement with Iran in Pentagon correspondent Jack Detsch’s must-read profile of the former Central Command chief. And be sure to read Congressional correspondent Bryant Harris’ overview of Kaine’s hold on Schenker.

-Bryant Harris  

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