Sunday, November 21, 2010

Domestic Wrenches in the Foreign Policy Engine

An Obama administration source was quoted as saying that “the primary impact [of the midterm elections] will be on domestic policy, not foreign policy. But that doesn't mean we in the administration won't face significantly more frustration, delay, and outright pain.”
The administration has already been facing frustration and pain over the holds by various Senate Republicans on a number of key ambassadorial appointments including Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan (yep). While the Democrats have retained control of the Senate, they did not and still do not have the numbers to push through appointments the Republicans are determined to delay.
The US revoked its Ambassador to Syria in 2005 after a Lebanese statesman was assassinated in Beirut which the Lebanese pegged on Syria. Syria has always denied involvement, but were probably responsible. In the 5 years since recalling the Ambassador Syria has moved closer to Iran and various Islamist groups. Shutting off that method of diplomatic communication has not served US interests in the region well. In February President Obama appointed Robert Ford to the position to make a tangible move to engaging Syria. But the process is stalled, with Ford’s confirmation on hold in the Senate.
It seems the problem is a fundamental disagreement about what an Ambassador symbolizes and can do.  The 12 Republican senators who have blocked Ford’s nomination view the appointment of an Ambassador to Syria as a reward. I find that argument to be lacking. Mr. Ford is not some fluff political appointment; he is a career diplomat and most recently served as deputy Ambassador to Iraq. Rather than a reward I see the appointment of a man such as Ford, who has served throughout the region in difficult posts and has been decorated for his hard work, as a smart move. His presence in the country can aid in nudging Syria in a direction more amenable to American interests. It also signals that we take the country seriously. The American Embassy in Syria has a difficult time “getting face time” with senior Syrian officials. An Ambassador would be less likely to be snubbed and left out in the same manner.
The question boils down to whether it is a reward to send an Ambassador to a country we are not too pleased with. But perhaps the real reward for Syria is for the Americans to waste our time floundering, which is precisely what we are doing. Without a high-level presence in their country Syria does not need to address American concerns in the same time and manner they would if we had an Ambassador knocking at their door. We're rewarding bad behavior by ignoring it, rather than sending a tough man to push our agenda.

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