January 1, 2011

Recess appointment of ambassador to Syria

The author with the Syrian deputy minister of defense in 1994

President Obama took advantage of the recess appointment option and appointed Robert Ford as the American ambassador to Syria. The option allows the President to bypass the normal advice and consent of the Senate by appointing officials to fill positions when the Senate is in recess.

By way of disclosure and background, I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus from 1992 to 1995. I consider myself to be fairly familiar with Syria, the embassy in Damascus and the political relationship between Syria and the United States.

Some thoughts on the appointment.

The ambassador to Syria is always a career foreign service officer, not a political appointee. Political appointees go to the more popular places (read: Europe), or to special countries. For example, Saudi Arabia generally prefers a political appointee. The Saudis believe they are important enough to the United States that they deserve an ambassador who can call the President directly, not go through the bureaucracy at the State Department. I have personally heard an American ambassador to Riyadh attempt to intimidate Defense Department officials with the statement, "You realize, of course, that Bill [Clinton] is in my speed dial...."

We have had diplomatic relations with what is now Syria since before there was a Syria - we had a legation in Aleppo during the Ottoman Empire days; it was established in 1835 (the original sign is displayed in the ambassador's office in Damascus). With the exceptions of a short period in 1957 and again between 1967 and 1974, we have maintained diplomatic relations with Syria.

In 2005 after Syria was accused of complicity (rightly so, in my estimation) in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the United States recalled our ambassador to Washington "for consultations." It is important to note that although we have not had an ambassador in Damascus since then (until the recent recess appointment), we have still maintained diplomatic relations, just not at the ambassadorial level.

The senior State officer at the embassy serves as the Chargé d'Affaires. I think this is a good solution. The Syrians keep their ambassador ('Imad Mustafa, a very effective spokesman and social fixture) in Washington, and with the exception of the ambassador, we have a full embassy staff in Damascus. It is maintaining diplomatic relations while making a principled statement.

Remember what an embassy is. It is not only a venue for our diplomats to represent the United States, but a presence for other departments and agencies of the government. Depending on the country, an American embassy will have attachés and representatives from the Defense Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration, etc., and yes, not surprisingly, the Central Intelligence Agency.

It is no secret that we always have problems understanding what is happening in countries where we do not have a presence. Iran, North Korea, Iraq from 1990 to 2003, Afghanistan between 1979 and 2001 - anyone see a pattern here? No embassy, no reliable information. The ability to put American eyes on a situation is invaluable.

I don't like recess appointments. I realize they are perfectly legal and that every president since George Washington has used them. I prefer to have the debate - do we want to send an ambassador, or do we want to maintain an embassy without an ambassador? I think the Senate should have had the debate, then a vote up or down. If the Senate abdicates its advice and consent obligations, they leave the President no choice but to determine policy on his own.

That said, I think Mister Obama is being naive. From what I have seen so far in his two years in office, he has not figured out how to deal with the Byzantine bazaaris who are the Syrians; thus far they have outmaneuvered him. I suspect that the President believes Syrian President Bashar al-Asad will take this recess appointment as a gesture that the United States wants improved relations and will reciprocate in some manner.

I remain skeptical, since al-Asad will assess it as a sign of weakness. The United States is coming to him. They are rewarding his behavior in Lebanon, continued support for Hizballah, his harboring Palestinian terrorists, etc.

This is not about Ambassador Ford. From what I have read and heard, he's a fine choice. I just would have preferred that we as a country had the debate, that the U.S. Senate would have provided advice to the President and then withheld its consent.

We need an embassy in Damascus; we don't need an ambassador.