John Kerry
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John Kerry

Vacant State

Politics | Months into a second term, the Obama administration is dragging its feet on crucial diplomatic appointments

Issue: "Boy Scout dilemma," May 18, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry has fulfilled the high-profile role of his new position—namely meeting abroad with foreign leaders—since taking office Feb. 1, but he’s largely ignored a less-heralded duty of the top U.S. diplomat. Many key State Department positions remain unfilled in late April, and at least one member of Congress has taken notice.  

“They’ve had five months to vet these people,” Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., told me, comparing the situation to the movie Home Alone. Wolf, co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission—and one of the top Washington advocates for war-torn countries like Sudan and South Sudan—has gone out of his way to make sure Kerry is aware that no one is filling the important role of special envoy to Sudan.  

“We will have a special envoy as fast as we can get one,” Kerry, making his first appearance before Congress, pledged to Wolf during an April 17 House Foreign Relations Committee hearing. But as Wolf points out, the administration knew since December that 77-year-old Princeton Lyman was vacating the position in March, and Wolf even suggested a Democratic replacement. In a Feb. 12 letter to Kerry, Wolf recommended former Sen. Russ Feingold for the special envoy to Sudan, noting the proven benefits of an influential appointment from outside the State Department: President George W. Bush in 2001 appointed former Sen. John Danforth, who eventually facilitated an end to the country’s civil war. 

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Sudan advocacy groups struck a similar tone in a joint letter to Kerry on April 9: “We urge you to support the immediate appointment of a Special Envoy with sufficient political stature and experience to command the respect of Sudanese and South Sudanese officials,” they wrote. The organizations also took the unusual step of preemptively petitioning the White House not to appoint former ambassador Tim Carney, who many believe is too friendly with corrupt leaders in Khartoum but may be in consideration. 

Wolf again sounded the alarm on April 11 when he submitted a statement to the Congressional Record drawing specific attention to the situation in Sudan, where he said people are still dying in ethnic violence every day. Then-candidate Barack Obama pledged in 2008 not to “turn a blind eye to slaughter” in Sudan, but he’s paid scant attention to the African country since taking office, Wolf wrote. He also criticized White House policy: “Much blood has been shed, and yet inexplicably this administration has embraced a policy of engagement marked by conciliatory outreach to Khartoum, including the prospect of debt relief for a genocidal government, and a perverse sense of moral equivalence in dealing with South Sudan and Sudan.” 

It doesn’t help that the position of Kerry’s assistant secretary for African affairs is also vacant. Johnnie Carson, who was criticized for downplaying the threat of radical Islam, retired in March, and Donald Yamamoto has stepped into the position on a temporary basis. Stateside Christian advocates believe Yamamoto, a devout Catholic, would be good for a solid approach to Africa at a time when radical Islam has forced militant conflict in Mali, Nigeria, and elsewhere. But it’s unclear whether the administration is considering making him permanent, or how much he would speak out on behalf of persecuted Christians if he were to assume the post. 

Gayle Smith, director of President Obama’s National Security Staff, is also a candidate to replace Carson. She worked at the liberal Center for American Progress and in the Clinton White House, but Nigerian-American human-rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe told me Smith understands Islamic extremism and would be an improvement over Carson, whose policy he called “atrocious.”  

Other key State Department positions without permanent appointees include: assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs (since February), assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (since March), special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (since December), and the Diplomatic Security Bureau (since Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya). 

It’s possible a power struggle between Kerry and the Obama administration—rumored to have campaign staff it wants at State—is partly to blame for the many vacancies. The message sent abroad, however, is that high-ranking State Department positions responsible for day-to-day diplomacy aren’t very important. 

Nowhere was that message more evident than at Margaret Thatcher’s April 17 funeral. With the U.S. ambassadorship to the United Kingdom vacant—and former presidents busy elsewhere—Britain’s greatest peacetime prime minister was laid to rest without a currently elected or appointed U.S. official in attendance. 

“There are a number of names of qualified people who could fill these positions,” Wolf said. “If the White House would like to give me the authority, I would be happy to fill them.”


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