Israel war: Senate Democrats flag dozens of vacant national security posts in Middle East

Israel war: Senate Democrats flag dozens of vacant national security posts in Middle East

October 09, 2023 06:57 PM

Senate Democrats and the White House are urging Republicans to move rapidly to confirm nominees to vacant top national security positions across the Middle East as the United States attempts to coordinate a response to Hamas’s attack on Israel that has quickly escalated into war.

Israel’s military was caught flat-footed on Saturday as hundreds of fighters affiliated with Hamas, a terrorist group based in Gaza, carried out a multipronged attack in the southern part of the country that resulted in the deaths of roughly 700 Israelis. Israel declared war on Sunday, and the army called up about 300,000 military reservists.


The conflict has now thrust the Middle East back into the forefront of U.S. national security, putting the spotlight on the fact the U.S. has no confirmed ambassadors to Israel, Egypt, Oman or Kuwait. Additionally, the State Department’s top counterterrorism envoy position has been vacant for more than two years. The assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor has not been filled at all during the Biden administration. The U.S. Agency for International Development has not had a top official in the Middle East for almost three years.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is urging Republicans to confirm a full diplomatic team in the Middle East as soon as possible.

“This is an all hands on deck moment in history, and the administration needs a Senate-confirmed American diplomat present in every capital in the region as soon as possible,” he said in a statement on Sunday. “Now is not the time for politics. The Senate should confirm those awaiting votes the day we are back in session, and immediately schedule committee hearings to expedite the confirmation of the remainder.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), another member of the Foreign Relations committee, stressed the importance of filling the ambassador posts in multiple countries in the region as soon as possible.

“I think this means it is more important than ever that even as Israel is looking to come together politically, to strengthen their defense forces, that we, in the Senate and in Congress, need to also come together to confirm an ambassador to Israel. An ambassador and several other Gulf states in Middle Eastern states where we don’t currently have ambassadors,” Coons said during an interview on CNN Monday morning.

Coons also emphasized Lew could be confirmed next week, “in a matter of weeks.”

In early September, President Joe Biden nominated former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to be his next ambassador to Israel. The position has been vacant since July when former Ambassador Thomas Nides stepped down.

Lew is an Orthodox Jew who served as former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and as treasury secretary. He also served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under former President Bill Clinton, where he worked on multiyear funding for Israel and provided funding for Israeli missile defense systems. He also was involved in helping to craft and enforce the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama years, which could be a tough pill to swallow for some GOP senators.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to hold a hearing for Lew as early as Oct. 18, according to several people familiar. The Senate is not in session this week.

Lew’s appointment could still face headwinds from some Senate Republicans who have been critical of the administration’s policies toward Israel. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Tim Scott (R-SC), members of the Foreign Relations Committee, have been some of the most outspoken critics of the Biden administration’s policies on Israel and Iran and likely would highlight Lew’s work on the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal.

Biden nominated Herro Muswtafa Garg to serve as the next ambassador to Egypt in March, but she has not yet had a hearing or been confirmed. Lisa A. Johnson, nominated to be the next ambassador to Lebanon, was reported out of the committee favorably in early June but has not yet been confirmed. The position is not currently vacant, as Dorothy Shea is currently serving. Ana A. Escrogima, nominated to be the next ambassador to Oman, was reported out of the committee favorably in early June but has also not been confirmed. Karen Sasahara was nominated to be the next ambassador to Kuwait and has been reported out of the committee favorably at the end of April but still has not been confirmed. The lack of confirmations can be traced back to what some describe as a broken process, where nominees are known to be stuck in limbo for months or even years.

“The United States’s diplomatic regional relations are seen as an important aspect of ameliorating this terrible situation, ” said Max Abrahams, a professor of political science at Northeastern University. “This war could foreseeably expand into a regional war, which would involve directly Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, maybe Turkey, Qatar, Iran.”

“Being understaffed at a time like this is a major disadvantage,” Abrahams said.


These empty positions are being managed by lower-ranking officials in acting capacities, but experts emphasize ambassadors often have more legitimacy and access.

“The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is playing catch up in trying to respond to the biggest conflict the Middle East has seen in years,” said a former State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This conflict will likely involve many countries, and not having these key positions in place is not helpful in understanding the situation on the ground and formulating the most effective response in the region.”