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9 July 2014, Gateway House

Awaiting an American ambassador

The U.S. has not yet appointed a new ambassador to India. But this absence of urgency is less a ‘signal’ to India and more a result of factors such as a backlog of appointments awaiting approval in the Senate and candidates unwilling to accept the post only for the remaining period of the Obama administration

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The Obama administration has yet to nominate a new ambassador to India three months after Nancy Powell resigned from her post. Given the backlog of ambassadors still to be confirmed in the U.S. Senate, it may be a while before an envoy arrives in India.

Americans who track India-U.S. relations have noted the apparent lack of urgency in the White House in sending a new envoy to New Delhi. A charge d’affaires, Kathleen Stephens, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, has been appointed to hold the position in the meantime. But the vacancy in New Delhi is especially surprising in light of the current difficulties in the bilateral and Washington’s avowed desire to strengthen the partnership.

The absence of a U.S. ambassador will be felt in the busy diplomatic calendar ahead—the fifth Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue is scheduled for July-end, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Washington in September.

But if it is any solace, nominations of U.S. ambassadors to 28 countries, including Norway, Qatar, Vietnam, and New Zealand are awaiting confirmation in the Senate. A quarter of all ambassadorial appointments for Africa are also stuck. That’s because Republicans want to punish the Democrats who control the Senate and have changed Senate rules to prevent filibusters of Obama appointees. Now the Republicans are preventing any procedural shortcuts to allow the Senate to clear a large number of appointees.

The only appointments that did go through last month were of ambassadors to Iraq and Egypt, only because the situation desperately demanded the confirmations.

That doesn’t hold true for India, which falls somewhere between the truly important and the desperately urgent. On the bright side, India does enjoy bipartisan support and it is unlikely that the Republicans will be petty and block a good appointee. But first the White House has to nominate someone before they can join the long queue for Senate confirmation.

Former ambassador Nancy Powell left New Delhi in the wake of a diplomatic storm over Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat stationed in New York, who was arrested and strip-searched by U.S. authorities over allegations made by her housemaid about wages that allegedly violated U.S. labour norms. The Indian government held Powell ultimately responsible for the fiasco, which led to a complete breakdown of trust between the bureaucracies of the two countries.

Kathleen Stephens, the charge d’affaires, has been in New Delhi since June, while the search continues for a suitable permanent candidate—an ambassador specifically named for India and confirmed by the Senate, who will have more influence both at home and in India.

A few names made the rounds immediately after Powell’s resignation—USAID chief Rajiv Shah, former deputy defence secretary Ashton Carter, and an influential Washington lawyer close to the Clintons, Rich Verma—but so far they have remained just names. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defence, is seen as the ideal choice by India-watchers because of his expertise and ability to drive the defence relationship—one of the more promising aspects of bilateral relations. But he is reportedly not keen on the job.

The absence of a U.S. ambassador to an important country such as India is inevitably read as a “signal” even though none may be intended. The Obama administration’s appointees have been disappointments. The last two ambassadors to make a difference—Robert Blackwill and David Mulford—were both appointed by the Bush administration.

Why is there little enthusiasm for the position of envoy to an important bilateral? Especially, now that India is out of the “nuisance” zone and on an uptick with Washington? Mostly, it is a matter of timing. In trying to find the right candidate for India, the White House is faced with the classic Washington conundrum— those who want the job may not be ideal while those the administration wants do not want the job because of the relatively short remaining tenure of the Obama administration.

Since U.S. ambassadors serve under the command of the president, they resign their positions when a presidential term ends. Even under the most optimistic scenario, that will mean only a two-year term for the next envoy to India. With lengthy vetting procedures, and given that a Senate confirmation will take a few months, an ambassador can arrive in Roosevelt House only by the end of 2014.

Non-foreign service nominees generally are loath to dislocate themselves from cushy jobs to undergo a gruelling process only to serve a short time abroad. The fact that relations with India need some real hard work and astute diplomacy in the current phase can be an additional deterrent. “Why bother?” is a normal reaction before contemplating dislocation for the family.

The White House has lately been embarrassed by the choice of its political nominees as ambassadors because some of them showed a clear lack of knowledge during Senate hearings about the countries to which they were named. The nominees for Norway, Argentina and Hungary flubbed badly as Republican senators quizzed them about the current situation in those capitals.  None of them spoke the language of the country they were going to and one of them called a party in the ruling coalition in Norway a “fringe” element.

But all of them had raised significant amounts of money for Obama’s re-election. India has traditionally been spared American moneybags as ambassadors—the country has been assigned either career officers or astute political appointees ranging from professors to state governors to future senators such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Hopefully, Obama will continue with tradition in India’s case.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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