As a country that considers itself the preeminent global superpower, the United States has dozens of embassies around the globe, led by Senate-confirmed ambassadors, who lead diplomatic teams who advance our interests abroad.
At least, that is, in theory.
In practice, President Joe Biden's administration has a grand total of two ambassadors currently doing diplomatic work on behalf of the nation: Ken Salazar is serving as U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Linda Thomas-Greenfield is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That's it. As of now, nearly nine months into the new administration, that's the entire slate.
The problem is not that the White House is uninterested in dispatching ambassadors to represent us abroad; the problem is the broken U.S. Senate and the willingness of some Republicans to abuse the system. The editorial board of The Washington Post made the case yesterday that this is a terrible time for the United States "to be shorthanded in foreign affairs," but that's precisely where we find ourselves.
[T]he nation is severely short-staffed, thanks to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has put a hold on dozens of nominations that have reached the Senate floor, including seven ambassadors and top State Department and Agency for International Development officials, by refusing to grant unanimous consent to confirm them.... [W]e are getting a hollowed-out Foreign Service and ambassadorial corps.
As a substantive matter, the Texas Republican disapproves of a natural gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2, which is admittedly controversial for a variety of reasons. But Cruz's tactics are hardly proportionate to the concerns. As the Post's editorial added:
Mr. Cruz is putting sand in the gears of government and displays an indifference to the hard work of maintaining U.S. leadership abroad. U.S. ambassadors, both political and career, serve as eyes and ears of the nation and are critical to carrying out U.S. priorities and policy. So are the assistant secretaries of state and other officials awaiting confirmation. Damaging the diplomatic capabilities of the U.S. government hardly seems like a smart way to make a point about a foreign policy issue.
Unfortunately, Cruz isn't the sole source of the problem. As we discussed a month ago, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri also announced plans to block presidential State Department and Pentagon nominees unless a series of officials resign in response to the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan — an issue on which the GOP senator has been largely incoherent for months.
This is not an academic exercise. As The Daily Beast recently summarized, "If an enemy of the United States wanted to decapitate America's national security leadership, they could hardly do a better job of it than Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have by blocking scores of top nominees, leaving critical positions unfilled by the men and women the president of the United States has selected for those jobs."
The article quoted Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president for research at the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks appointees, who said, "That this is not more of a scandal is scandalous. The broken and deeply politicized Senate confirmation process made our country less safe then — the 9/11 attacks spotlighted that. It has worsened significantly since that time and it makes us less safe now."
The 9/11 reference was of particular interest. As regular readers know, when the 9/11 Commission investigated the attacks, it identified a series of problems and missteps that helped make the terrorism possible, including an underappreciated personnel issue: Throughout the early months of the Bush/Cheney administration, there were vacancies in key national security positions requiring Senate confirmations.
It's impossible to know whether the attacks could've been prevented by qualified officials serving in these posts, but the point the 9/11 Commission hoped to make wasn't subtle: National security and foreign policy vacancies can be dangerous and policymakers should take steps to avoid them.
Twenty years after the attacks, the United States finds itself facing similar conditions. The New York Times reported last month, "Only 26 percent of President Biden's choices for critical Senate-confirmed national security posts have been filled, according to a new analysis by the Partnership for Public Service." For comparison purposes, note that 57 percent of key national security positions were filled ahead of the 2001 attacks.
It led Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut to argue that Cruz "is putting politics over country," adding that no other senator in American history has blocked so many important foreign policy nominees at once.
As a procedural matter, Cruz and Hawley are in the minority and cannot actually defeat every relevant Biden nominee on their own. But by abusing the chamber's absurd rules, the Republican duo can force Democratic leaders to jump through a series of time-consuming hoops to confirm qualified nominees that the Senate has traditionally advanced in an efficient manner. At the same time, the more the governing majority is forced to clear these procedural hurdles, the less it's able to do other legislative work.
None of this befits a nation that expects to be taken seriously on the international stage.