WASHINGTON — The disappearance of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi after visiting a Saudi consulate in Turkey has thrown the large number of diplomatic vacancies under President Donald Trump into the spotlight — notably in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It's a gap the administration says it has been trying to fix but with limited success.
Khashoggi's case and the fact that there are no American ambassadors in either Ankara or Riyadh have prompted concerns about dozens of unfilled senior State Department positions almost two years into Trump's presidency. And, those concerns have sparked an increasingly bitter battle with Congress over who is to blame.
Aside from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Trump has yet to nominate candidates for ambassadorial posts in 20 nations, including Australia, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, Singapore and Sweden. At the same time, 46 ambassadorial nominees are still awaiting Senate confirmation, prompting angry complaints from the administration and pushback from Democratic lawmakers.
A number of ambassador positions to international organizations also remain unfilled as do 13 senior positions at the State Department headquarters, for which five have no nominee.
It's unclear if high-profile issues like Khashoggi's disappearance suffer from neglect in the absence of an ambassador. Indeed, Turkey freed American pastor Andrew Brunson on Friday after repeated complaints and sanctions from Washington. But the management of day-to-day diplomatic relations can languish without a personal representative of the president present.
The difference between having an ambassador in country or having only a charge d'affaires running an embassy is a matter of degree but can be substantial, according to Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Non-ambassadors can have trouble getting access to senior officials and may not be viewed as the legitimate voice of the president or his administration.
"It's a lot harder when you're not the presidential appointee and you don't have Senate confirmation," he said. "An ambassador is the personal representative of the president. A charge is the representative of the State Department."
In addition to problems with access, some countries may resent not having an ambassador posted to their capital, Neumann said.
"Countries may get grouchy without an ambassador and that may affect relations," he said. "Without an ambassador, there is a greater chance of misunderstanding and greater chance you aren't able to persuade them to do something we want."
"There are real, direct impacts of not having these people confirmed," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month, making the case for the Senate to act quickly. Those remarks set off a war of words with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was singled out by Pompeo for blame.
"I want every single American to know that what Sen. Menendez and members of the Senate are doing to hold back American diplomacy rests squarely on their shoulders," Pompeo said. He later maintained that Senate Democrats are blocking more than a dozen nominees "because of politics" and are "putting our nation at risk."
Menendez fired back, accusing Pompeo of politicizing the process and blaming confirmation delays on the unsuitability of candidates for certain posts and the Republican leadership for not calling votes on the others. He also slammed the administration for failing to nominate candidates for critical posts.
"We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated," he noted wryly, adding that some nominees had been or are currently being blocked by Republicans.
Two cases in point: The nominee for the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, a career foreign service officer, was forced to withdraw earlier this year after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he would do everything in his power to stop the nomination. The career diplomat nominated to be ambassador to Colombia is being blocked by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Pompeo responded by again blaming Menendez for holding up more than 60 nominees and using them as a "political football." ''We need our team on the field to conduct America's foreign policy," he said.
Perhaps as a result of the sparring, the Senate late Thursday did vote to confirm several ambassadorial nominees, including those to Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Suriname and Somalia.