No US ambassador to strategic ally India for nearly 2 yrs. Why Senate’s blocked Biden

New Delhi: The position of US ambassador to India has been lying vacant for nearly two years due to the Senate stalling the appointment of President Joe Biden’s pick for the post Eric Garcetti.

Of 20 ambassadorial nominees who are awaiting confirmation from the Senate, Garcetti’s case has been pending the longest 16 months, according to ThePrint’s analysis of data from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the US Foreign Service.

Experts have previously pointed out that the record-long vacancy comes at a time when India-US relations are reaching their “most critical phase”, and, from America’s perspective, a long-term view of the strategic relationship was needed.

Despite Democrats gaining a slim majority in the upper house in the recently concluded US midterm elections, a former diplomat ThePrint spoke to was not optimistic about Garcetti’s nomination being confirmed. 

Some predict that there could be a ‘rollover’ of more Chargé d’Affaires until the end of the presidential term in 2024, given that Washington has appointed five such interim envoys to New Delhi since former US ambassador Kenneth Juster’s departure in January 2021.

Garcetti, who was officially nominated in July 2021, has seen his nomination stalled in the Senate over allegations that he was aware but did not take action against one of his former aides accused of sexual harassment and bullying. The former LA Mayor, however, has repeatedly denied these claims. 

The possibility of Biden withdrawing Garcetti’s nomination and putting forth a new name also seems unlikely. On 15 December — a week after Democrats won a majority in the Senate — the White House said Garcetti’s nomination was a “priority” and that it would continue to support him. 

Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, however, argues that the nomination “has lost a degree of priority”.

“With the kind of delay in nomination that has already occurred, one supposes that it has lost a degree of priority. The more it gets delayed the less time the appointee would have in Delhi. It takes six months for appointees to find their feet and with the timetable of presidential elections, the appointees may themselves have second thoughts about being able to do justice to their job,” Sibal told ThePrint.

“It is possible we may see a roll over of Chargé d’Affaires,” he added.

Also Read: US appoints another new interim envoy for India, but no full-time ambassador for past 22 months

Which countries have pending nominations?

According to AFSA data, there are 20 countries whose US ambassadorial nominees are pending confirmation. These include: Azerbaijan, The Bahamas, Barbados, Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Ecuador, Guyana, India, Kuwait, Maldives, Montenegro, Niger, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea & Vanuatu, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, UAE and Zimbabwe.

A table of US ambassadorial nominations to 20 countries that are pending before the Senate as of 23 December, 2022. | Illustration: Ramandeep Kaur

Unlike all other nominations that were announced this year, Garcetti’s is the only one that’s pending since 2021.

India is also the only Asian country on the pending list. Meanwhile, Pakistan officially gained a US ambassador in April this year, Sri Lanka in February, Nepal in October and Bangladesh last December. 

Data from AFSA also shows that there have been no nominations to 15 countries, which include: Italy, Haiti, Gabon, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Croatia, Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Micronesia, Palau, Solomon Islands and Syria.

Therefore, there are a total 35 countries where the post of a US ambassador is vacant.

This week, the Senate confirmed two long-pending ambassadorial nominations — Lynne M Tracy to Russia and Elizabeth Frawley Bagley to Brazil.

Also Read: US calls India ‘ally’ in National Security Strategy, terms China ‘competitor & Russia ‘threat’

What is the procedure of approving a nomination?

According to Article II Section 2 of the US Constitution, the president nominates ambassadors, civil officers, ministers, consuls, and judges “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate”. This means that the nomination must be confirmed by a vote in the Senate.

Senate committees are the bridge between the two. After the president announces a nomination, the nominee is scrutinised by relevant Senate committees. For ambassadorial nominees, it is the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  

The committee holds public hearings which require nominees to appear in person. They then report a nominee to the Senate with a recommendation to approve, not to approve or without recommendation. The committee also has the power to not report a nominee to the Senate, essentially killing the nomination.

If the committee provides a recommendation to approve the nominee, it then goes to the Senate where a vote will be held. A majority vote is required for confirmation of the nomination.

In a recent editorial, the Washington Post pointed out that due to Republican Senators stalling nominations in the Senate, the average time to confirm one of Biden’s nominees (103 days) is more than double what it was for George W. Bush’s nominees (48 days).

It also partially blamed Biden for not announcing any nominees for some countries to the point where several posts that “aren’t technically open still have former president Donald Trump’s picks serving”.

Why has Garcetti’s nomination been stalled?

In Garcetti’s case, the Senate committee had approved his nomination to the Senate in January this year. However, a vote in the Senate has not yet been held due to blocking of the nomination by Republican Senators. Some Democrats in the Senate have also been “hesitant” about the nomination, reported the LA Times.

Former diplomat Vijay Nambiar argues that despite Democrats winning a 51-49 majority in the Senate, Garcetti’s nomination could continue to see delays.

“It’s important to remember that Garcetti’s nomination was stalled not just because of concerns on the Republican side, but because of concerns in his own party too. In my opinion, we will continue to see some delay in the confirmation of his nomination despite this slim Democratic majority in the upper house,” he told ThePrint.

Asked if New Delhi will have an ambassador by the end of Biden’s presidential term in 2024, Nambiar seemed pessimistic.

“The China challenge and the Ukraine war has made India all that more important to the US. The Americans know that despite the absence of a US ambassador in New Delhi, the bilateral relationship is going strong. I think they’ve taken comfort in that. But I don’t think New Delhi is prepared to accept that as yet,” he said.

In a CNN interview on 12 December, Garcetti — whose tenure as LA mayor recently came to an end — remained optimistic about his nomination.

Asked when he will be confirmed by the Senate, Garcetti said: “I’ve stopped doing the guessing game of the when, but I feel quite optimistic. I have good support from Republicans and Democrats who recognise this is a critical position.”

(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)

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