The delay in confirmation President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray Slams Biden Administration Following Community College Funding News Biden Says States Are Easing ‘Likely Premature’ Mask Mandates‘s nominees for positions at the State Department and USAID has already done immeasurable harm to our national security. It’s easier to say than to prove. Yet it is entirely plausible that the absence of leadership at key political levels has contributed to damaging our international position.
There are an unprecedented number of presidential nominations blocked by senators who hold nominations under threat from a filibuster in an unsuccessful attempt to influence policy. They will fail in what they say is their objective (one wants to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a bargaining chip in the strategy currently employed to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the other called for the resignation of the Secretary of State). By persisting, they weaken our responses to crises and neutralize the administration’s efforts to pursue a viable foreign policy. This may be their intention and, if so, it is reprehensible.
Why, you may ask, is it so important to have presidential appointees in place a year after a president’s inauguration? Why can’t professional foreign service officials provide the necessary leadership?
I’ve been both a career professional and a political appointee, and that’s my perspective.
Career officers are expected to be apolitical; they are not always so, but they are more effective when they remain so. Their professionalism and institutional knowledge are invaluable. They are a vital pendulum on the ship of state. They are also human and, in general, they seek a political framework in which they can contribute their knowledge and their ingenuity.
Political appointees in state and USAID leadership positions also bring professional knowledge—sometimes from a different field—but they are usually well suited to an administration’s political positions. Many provided advice during the presidential campaign and contributed policy ideas that were embraced by the candidate and his most senior aides. They don’t need to look for a framework since they have contributed to it. Their job is to lead the implementation of it.
The top tier of the administration team – Secretary Antoine BlinkenAntony BlinkenThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – More blue states are letting mask warrants expire The possibility of war looms over the Korean Peninsula The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – War worries, funding splurges, warning bomb MOREnational security adviser JakeSullivanJake SullivanOvernight Defense & National Security—Top Commander Speaks Out on Afghan Evacuation White House Says It Will Hold Houthis Responsible for Attack on Saudi ArabiaAssistant Secretary Wendy Sherman and Administrator Samantha PowerSamantha PowerForeign’s foreign aid is at a crossroads – here’s the way forward Harris bets on new Honduran president to revive Central America policy – are experienced and proven leaders, but they operate at a major disadvantage. They need trusted acolytes who can amplify their influence on the thousands of dedicated people under their care.
As the administration acts to counter the diabolical chess moves of Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich PutinMacron refused Russian COVID-19 test ahead of Putin meeting, didn’t want to give Moscow his DNA: Report Russia sanctions talks are at an ‘impasse’ as time is running out China renders sanctions against Russia moot MORE and the threat posed by the autocratic alliance of Putin and the Chinese Xi, experts reflect on the impact of previous missteps. They are being used by our enemies to undermine the administration’s efforts to constructively re-engage and consolidate alliances.
George Packer in the Atlantic describes with sad and colorful anecdotes the disorderly evacuation and the “betrayal” of several of our Afghan allies. The administration is held accountable as it should be, but it is also true that it inherited real poison pills, some of which could have been countered if named people had been in place.
For example, Afghans who had worked with our government were eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). A relatively small number had either received or were in the system, but the previous administration’s anti-immigrant White House (Stephen MillerStephen Miller Midterm primaries could be key to balancing Senate These people were subpoenaed by Jan. 6 panel Kayleigh McEnany delivered text messages to Jan. 6 panel: MORE report) made the process so onerous that it was nearly impossible to get an SIV approved. This has become disastrous for a large number of at-risk Afghans in the past few hours.
A Secretary of State cannot be expected to be in the weeds of the visa process, but he has been blamed by many for the outcome, including senators who denied him the necessary staff to to do work. An appointed person familiar with the barriers imposed might have already removed them.
Another embarrassing and undiplomatic moment involved the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia, an arrangement that abrogated an agreement France and Australia had previously reached. The French government was furious and even brought its ambassador back to Paris to emphasize their hurt feelings.
At the time of this announcement, there was no American ambassador in France and the assistant secretary for European affairs had been in office for less than a month. If there had been a competent and knowledgeable ambassador in place, the secretary would probably have been amply warned of the implications of the announcement of the agreement before informing the French. Ultimately, the President of the United States had to personally apologize to the French President for the “clumsy” way the matter was handled, saying the deal “wasn’t done with a lot of Grace”.
After four years of an administration that strove to be undiplomatic, the career service inherited by the Biden administration has been demoralized and decimated. Many senior professionals have cashed in and retired. This just made the appointment of a new management team even more important. Re-engaging with a skeptical world was not going to be easy. Even a full team would have found it difficult.
We are fortunate to have exceptional people in the highest ranks of the state and USAID. They are backed by a strong but exhausted career corps. It’s not sufficient. The Senate should do its job and prevent a minority of two from blocking the president’s nominees. The national security of the United States is compromised by senators employing the meanest policy.
J brian Atwood is a Visiting Scholar at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He was a career foreign service officer, dean of professional studies at the Foreign Service Institute, and served in three presidentially appointed positions: assistant secretary of state for congressional relations, assistant secretary of state for management, and administrator from USAID.