Afghan crisis reveals broken US confirmation process
'The entire process is broken,' Biden transition official. ‘We never had a normal transition and had to play catch up…Now Cruz is holding everyone… And there’s no end in sight.’
If you want to know if the US government and Congress can move fast when they want to on appointments during a crisis, consider this: Shortly after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, career foreign service officer Laura Kennedy remembers getting a call: Could she be ready for a confirmation hearing to be US ambassador to Turkmenistan, a front line state to Afghanistan—in two hours.
“Congress can act when it needs to,” Kennedy, now a board member of Foreign Policy for America, and who retired from the State Department in 2015 after nearly forty years of diplomatic service, told me today. “I got a call from the Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations: ‘Can you be ready to ride up to the Hill for a confirmation hearing—in two hours.’ I wrote a statement on a piece of paper. The process normally takes a month. I had my hearing. I was voted out by the full Senate within 24 hours.”
The Congressional Record of September 14, 2001 indicates that Kennedy was among five State Department nominees confirmed en banc that day, after a public confirmation hearing on September 13th. The others were John Negroponte to be US Ambassador to the UN, Marcelle Wahba to be US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Ronald Neumann to be US Ambassador to Bahrain, and Patrick Kennedy to be US Ambassador for UN Management and Reform.
(The Congressional Record indicates that then-Sen. Chris Dodd, who had missed the September 13 SFRC nomination hearings because of the birth of his daughter, asked that his concerns about Negroponte’s candor with the committee about human rights abuses that occurred in Honduras during Negroponte’s tenure as ambassador there in the 1980s be entered into the Congressional record, which it was.)
Kennedy’s nomination was reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 4, 2001, had her nomination hearing September 13, was confirmed by the full Senate on September 14, was sworn in as ambassador a week later; and presented her credentials in Turkmenistan on October 5, 2001-- less than a month after the twin towers fell.
I was struck in the past few days of crisis surrounding the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and subsequent rush to deploy thousands of U.S. military forces to Kabul to conduct an emergency evacuation of thousands of American citizens, Afghan translators and other vulnerable Afghans and allied citizens that there is no similar sense of common urgency between Congress and the administration over the staggering number of unfilled senior US government posts, in particular at the State Department.
Despite the emergency and risk to thousands of lives, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) apparently persists in having a blanket hold on all State Department and USAID nominees, allegedly to protest the Biden administration not issuing sanctions on German entities involved in the construction of the Nordstream II pipeline. The Biden administration has said that more than 90% of the pipeline from Russia to western Europe was completed by the time it took office.
There is no confirmed US Ambassador to NATO, for instance. There is an acting Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, who came out of retirement in Jan. 2020 to serve as the charge d’affaires at the embassy in Afghanistan and who has been working heroically out of the Kabul airport in recent days to assist the evacuation. There is also no confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration; Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs; Assistant Secretary of European and Eurasian Affairs; Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs; Assistant Secretary for international organizational affairs; Assistant Secretary for Intelligence; Assistant Secretary for international security and nonproliferation affairs…no confirmed Director General of the Foreign Service. The list goes on and on.
Indeed, seven months into the Biden administration, only a dozen senior State Department posts have been confirmed, by my count of the status of nominations tracked by the Partnership for Public Service. They are Secretary of State Tony Blinken (confirmed Jan. 26), Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (confirmed April 13); US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield (confirmed Feb. 23); Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon (confirmed March 18); Under Secretary of Arms Control and International Security Affairs Bonnie Jenkins (confirmed July 21); Undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights Uzra Zeya, (confirmed July 13); Undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment Jose Fernandez (confirmed Aug. 6); Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland (confirmed April 29); Assistant Secretary for consular affairs Rena Bitter (confirmed Aug. 9); and assistant secretary for diplomatic security Gentry O. Smith (confirmed Aug. 9); as well as US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar—as of August 11, the only confirmed Biden nominee to be ambassador to another country.
Another fourteen senior State Department nominees have been favorably reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the full Senate but await confirmation votes—which are being blocked by Cruz. Among them: Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Mary Catherine Phee, Assistant Secretary for conflict and stabilization operations Anne A. Witkowsky, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs Daniel J. Kritenbrink, Assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs Lee Satterfield, Assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried, Assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs Todd Robinson, Assistant secretary for international organization affairs Michele Jeanne Sison, Assistant Secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs Monica Medina, Assistant secretary for political-military affairs Jessica Lewis, Assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration Julieta Valls Noyes, Assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, Assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs Brian A. Nichols; Chief of protocol Rufus Gifford; and US representative to the UN for management reform Chris Lu.
More than two dozen senior State Department nominees have had their nominations referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but still await confirmation hearings. Among them: the nominees to be State Department Legal Advisor, Sarah Cleveland; Under Secretary of State for Management nominee John R. Bass—deployed by the US government this week to Afghanistan to try to manage the massive evacuation effort underway following Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban; Assistant Secretary for arms control, verification and compliance nominee Mallory Stewart; Assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor nominee Sarah Margon; Assistant secretary for economic and business affairs nominee Ramin Toloui; Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research nominee Brett M. Holmgren; Assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation nominee C.S. Eliot Kang; Assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs nominee Barbara Leaf—a former US Ambassador to the UAE and veteran diplomat; the nominee to be Director general of the Foreign Service Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat; the nominee to be US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith—NATO which has a major role in Afghanistan; the nominee to be US ambassador to the Organization of American States Francisco Mora; the US representative to the international civil aviation organization C.B. Sullenberger, III; the US Ambassador to the European Union nominee Mark Gitenstein, US ambassador nominee to the OECD Jack Markell, US ambassador nominee to the OSCE Michael Carpenter; US Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate; US rep to the UN Economic and Social Council Lisa Carter; Special presidential representative for nuclear nonproliferation Adam Scheinman; US representative to the UN organizations in Geneva Bathsheba Crocker; US ambassador to the UN Agency for Food and Agriculture Cindy McCain; and the nominee to be US Ambassador at large for international religious freedom Rashad Hussain.
Amid the backlog, the Biden administration has yet to submit nominations for several other State Department posts, including counterterrorism coordinator, Inspector General, and undersecretary for public diplomacy
“We are not operating at the top of our game,” a former senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told me, referring to the US government. “Even where there are great career people in acting positions, we are not at full strength…In order to be doing that, we need to be fully staffed, in the department, and out in the posts around the world.”
The former senior official noted that in one way or another, all posts around the world are going to be dealing with the fallout of the Afghanistan decision. “It is impacting how allies see us,” the former official said. And it’s not the only crisis in the world.
Last week, before the Senate broke for August recess, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and member Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) appealed on the Senate floor for unanimous consent to confirm over 30 foreign policy nominees whose posts are crucial for US national security. And they warned that the U.S. would not be prepared for a foreign policy crisis.
“In the nearly 30 years I have been working on foreign policy, we have never faced such a confluence of global challenges,” Menendez said on the Senate floor last week—a couple days before Kabul fell to the Taliban. “We have the tools to confront these challenges…But we cannot do that when we do not have empowered diplomats and development professionals in place to do so.”
“I share this paralyzing fear that Sen. Menendez expressed that something awful is going to happen without the kind of personnel that every president needs on post to do the job,” Sen. Murphy said on the Senate floor Aug. 11—it turned out, quite presciently. The Taliban soon entered the Afghan capital, and the US on August 12 began rushing thousands of US troops to Kabul to undertake a massive evacuation mission.
“We are talking about dozens of key national security posts that are left vacant because of the decision of one senator,” Murphy continued.
Cruz has subsequently postured over the Afghanistan crisis, but apparently has not lifted his hold to enable confirmed US officials to be in position to help assist the evacuation process or the fallout the US government is experiencing at other posts. Among the officials the US deployed this week to Afghanistan —former US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, who is awaiting confirmation to be under secretary of state for management. “Thousands of Americans in Afghanistan are in acute danger and trapped behind Taliban lines,” Cruz lamented in a press statement today.
“The entire process is broken,” one person involved in the Biden transition, speaking not for attribution, said.
“Biden was slow to announce people because well, we never had a normal transition and had to play catch up,” the transition official said. “And there was covid and the economy to tackle…When he finally announced nominations, we discovered the vetting system was broken and needed to be better…Trump didn’t vet people. And government was broken from the Trump years so nothing worked as it should…..Now Cruz is holding everyone and forcing floor votes that Schumer doesn’t want to waste time on … And there’s no end in sight.”
Correction (08/24/2021): US Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield, confirmed in 2019, remains at US Embassy Ankara and is indeed confirmed. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there was no confirmed US ambassador to Turkey.