Missing ambassadors: U.S. lacks top representatives in half of Mideast

It is damaging US interests – and Russian influence is growing, former US envoy Dan Shapiro said.

By
March 1, 2018 05:16
4 minute read.
(Front R-L) JORDAN’S KING Abdullah II, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, US Presiden

(Front R-L) JORDAN’S KING Abdullah II, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, US President Donald Trump, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo during Arab- Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in May 2017. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

 
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The US is woefully underrepresented throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Libya, Morocco and Sudan there are no US ambassadors.

And the US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates may be leaving soon.

Besides Israel, “that’s almost every major US ally and significant country in the region,” says former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

The unprecedented number of missing ambassadorial appointments mean that Washington lacks a team in place in the region to advance US interests, coordinate between countries and improve partnerships.

It also means that the Russians are stepping into the vacuum.

How did this happen? In Turkey, ambassador John Bass concluded his term in October 2017 and Philip Kosnett became the chargé d’affaires. In Egypt, where a presidential election is about to take place, Thomas Goldberger has been chief of mission since June 2017.

According to an August 2017 article at Foreign Policy, Donald Trump’s administration pushed out ambassador to Jordan Alice Wells at the request of the kingdom due to disagreements regarding the Iran nuclear deal. The US is now represented in Amman by Henry Wooster, a career foreign service officer who is chargé d’affaires.


 
The diplomatic vacuum is also growing in the Gulf. In Qatar, which has been in the midst of a major dispute with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE since last June, there has been controversial turnover at the embassy. Ambassador Dana Shell Smith left in June 2017. In May, she had expressed displeasure with the Trump administration, tweeting, “it is increasingly difficult to wake up overseas to news from home, knowing I will spend today explaining our democracy and institutions.”

In July, the US State Department named William Grant, former deputy chief of mission in Israel, to Doha. Several months later Grant was gone and Ryan Gliha was named as the new chargé d’affaires. This is tremendous turnover in a country that hosts a major US military base.

In Riyadh, ambassador Joseph Westphal, a former undersecretary in the US Department of the Army in the Department of Defense, left his post when Trump took office. There were rumors in Saudi Arabia that Trump supporter David Urban might be appointed in the summer of 2017. However, chargé d’affaires Christopher Henzel is the top US representative to this key US ally. Henzel was formerly the director of the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs at the State Department.

It is thought that Ambassador Barbara Leaf, who has served in the UAE since 2014, will leave her post soon, emptying yet another key position with a US ally.

In Arab Africa, the US also lacks top representatives in Libya and in Sudan. Sudan is important because of its relationship with Egypt and the spread of terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Libya, home of an ongoing civil war is important for security in North Africa.

It is a transit point for migrants headed for Europe, a center of abuse of those migrants and also a state that ISIS would like to put down roots in again. Although the US has an ambassador in Algeria, in the key US ally of Morocco Washington is represented by Stephanie Miley who has been acting as the chargé d’affaires since January 2017. Businessman David Fischer was nominated by the administration in November but has not been confirmed.

SHAPIRO, who joined the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University as a visiting fellow in 2017 after he left his ambassadorial role, says the lack of appointments is significant. He says there are two possible explanations: “One could be an intentional effort to weaken the State Department and narrow relationships down to the White House and counterparts in those countries, which is an ineffective way to manage [relationships].”

The other possibility, he says, is that it is a sign of incompetence in managing the appointments process. “In either case it is damaging US interests.”

Shapiro points to current Ambassador to Israel David Friedman as an example of why the administration should want to have other similar ambassadors who work to advance Washington’s agenda and US interests and strengthen partnerships. “When you have such an ambassador it is beneficial, and when you don’t you can’s get as much done.”

The lack of ambassadors throughout the region means that the US cannot effectively follow up on its strategy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently made a whirlwind visit to the Middle East, traveling to Cairo, Amman, Kuwait, Beirut and Ankara. Who will follow up on his agenda? Shapiro asks.

“It’s much harder without an ambassador and the White House should care about this.”

It is also in Israel’s interest that there be high level US representatives in key neighboring states, as well as in the Gulf.

“When I was ambassador I was in touch with counterparts in Arab countries coordinating thing that benefit Israel’s security and manage regional tensions and crises,” recalls Shapiro.

The Trump administration has been accused of being dismissive of diplomacy and Tillerson has been portrayed as seeking to reduce the diplomatic footprint. Reports indicate that many foreign service officers feel demoralized and the State Department has been described as “gutted” under the current administration. Trump has relied on the Pentagon to drive policy in Syria and Iraq.

But as Shapiro notes, the Pentagon can’t do everything. “There is always a diplomatic component that helps advance the same goals.” He argues that one consequence of the missing ambassadors is that Russia will expand its influence in the region and its presence will grow in traditional US allies.

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