By G. Lincoln McCurdy*
November 2, 2010, The Congress Blog - Turkey is a significant political and economic actor that has played a crucial role in the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Europe in the last decade. The country is a valuable ally to the US and NATO in maintaining peace and stability as we deal with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aggressive rhetoric from Iran, and the omnipresent threat of international terrorism. It is also home to an incredibly rich culture, a thriving economy, and a dynamic, young population.
Yet the U.S. Embassy in Ankara has been without a leader since July, when Ambassador James Jeffrey departed the country to become the new Ambassador to Iraq. Four months later, there is still no Ambassador to Turkey, and if recent Senate machinations continue, we may have no leadership in Ankara until 2011. When Congress returns for the lame duck session in November, the Senate must resolve this impasse.
This absence comes at a particularly unfortunate time as we deal with pressing issues that affect not only the US-Turkey partnership, but also regional peace and stability. The presence of a US Ambassador in a critical allied country like Turkey, which is undergoing significant internal changes this year, is indispensable to maintaining a close dialogue and a strong and mutually beneficial relationship. Leaving this position unfilled is sending the wrong message to Turkey.
The Administration put forth a strong and qualified candidate in Ambassador Francis Joseph Ricciardone Jr., who has a resume that includes service in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey, as well as serving as head of an anti-terrorism international taskforce at the State Department. He was nominated on July 1, 2010 and confirmed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 3. Ambassador Ricciardone's intimate knowledge of the region and the most vital foreign and security policy challenges the US faces today, plus his prior experience as Deputy Chief of Mission in Ankara, would make him a highly effective US emissary. Yet, while his detractors have never presented a strong case against his qualifications, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) has held up his nomination since August, with no sign of change on the horizon.
Similar Senate action leaves us also dangerously underrepresented in Azerbaijan, where we have not had an ambassador for more than 15 months. A major energy producer and friend of the United States in a strategic neighborhood, this Muslim-majority Turkic nation was recently praised by President Obama for its support for the US mission in Afghanistan and the fight against international terrorism. However the President's nomination of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza for the ambassadorial post is stalled in the Senate, although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed Bryza on September 21.
Two Senators, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), blocked this highly qualified diplomat by echoing the contrived objections of the Armenian National Committee of America, which the Washington Post called a "particularly noxious lobby" that opposes the nominations of Bryza and Ambassador Ricciardone. The Post called out both senators for pursuing "craven election-year pandering at the expense of the national interest," and warned that their actions "risked US interests."
When the Senate reconvenes for the post-election lame duck session in early November, it should heed the words of the Wall Street Journal, which declared that "Mr. Ricciardone deserves an up-or-down vote on the floor, as do other nominees . the Senate's confirmation powers aren't supposed to be an excuse to indulge the pet causes of individual members." I believe that, given the chance, a large majority of the Senate will support these qualified public servants.
Unless the Senate acts, or at the minimum demand that the Administration nominate new candidates immediately, it will be months before the US is properly represented in the capitals of Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Wall Street Journal is correct when it notes that, "Azerbaijan and Turkey are important American allies in a tough neighborhood, and the U.S. needs good ambassadors there."
We cannot afford to squander the lame duck session in November. Our foreign policy in a critical region is hobbled so long as the Senate sits on its hands and leaves vacant ambassadors' offices at the US Embassies in Ankara and Baku.
G. Lincoln McCurdy is the president of the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), an educational charitable organization based in Washington, DC. TCA's primary objective is to educate the general public and other interested parties.
*McCurdy is a former diplomat who served as U.S. commercial attaché in Turkey.