US: Republican obstruction of Biden’s Africa team begins to crumble

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 24 September 2021 09:50

President Joe Biden in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US Congress this week has finally released its hold on the President Joe Biden administration’s nominee to lead Africa policy at the State Department after months of obstruction, paving the way for long-delayed decisions on key priorities even as the president’s ambassadorial picks remain in limbo.

The Senate voted 58-25 Thursday evening to set up a final vote next week to confirm Mary Catherine “Molly” Phee as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, nearly five months after her nomination. She is one of dozens of State Department nominees held up by a pair of Republican senators who object to Biden’s policies on Afghanistan and Russia.

Phee’s pending confirmation invigorates an Africa bureau that had been without a Senate-confirmed leader since Tibor Nagy stepped down when the new administration took over on 20 January. Since then Robert Godec, a former US ambassador to Kenya and Tunisia, has been serving in an acting capacity with limited ability to shape policy.

“When you’re just the acting assistant secretary, what you basically do is you’re running on momentum, dealing with any emergencies that come up,” Nagy tells The Africa Report. “There are a lot of people in acting capacities, waiting for the permanent people to come in. And that is compounded by the fact that there’s a whole bunch of ambassadorial nominations that are hung up.”

Phee was nominated on 29 April but is only now getting approved because Senator Ted Cruz (Republican-Texas) has been slow-walking diplomatic appointments in a bid to force the Biden administration to block Russia’s gas pipeline to Germany. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has also recently joined the fray, vowing to force time-consuming Senate votes on many nominees unless Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin resign over the handling of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Africa staffing choices delayed

With Phee in place, Africa watchers expect a clearer picture of how the State Department responds to President Biden’s promise to prioritise democracy and human rights on the continent while encouraging “mutually respectful engagement.” That starts with key staffing decisions that have been put off until now.

“There are a lot of appointments that people [were] waiting for her to be confirmed to hear about,” says Cameron Hudson, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and a veteran of the White House National Security Council, the State Department and the CIA.

Among these is the Number 2 Africa position at State to replace Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, who has been nominated to serve as US ambassador to Togo. The Africa Report can exclusively report that Ervin Massinga, a senior adviser in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs whose past assignments include  serving as Deputy Chief of Mission in Khartoum, is the chosen Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs.

The position of special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan is another one to watch following Ambassador Donald Booth’s retirement at the end of last month. Phee herself served as the United States’ second-ever ambassador to South Sudan in 2015-2017 and will likely have a keen interest in a country that went from US foreign policy success story to bloody debacle within a few short years.

The Biden administration has shown early indications that it will make the Sudans a priority, including naming a special envoy for the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile the latest addition to the US Agency for International Development’s Africa bureau, Deputy Assistant Administrator Travis Adkins, has been assigned to cover Sudan and South Sudan. And John Godfrey, the State Department’s acting counterterrorism envoy, is reported to be in the running to serve as America’s first ambassador to Sudan since the US broke off relations in 1996 over Khartoum’s support for Al Qaeda.

Likewise the United States has been without a special envoy to deal with violent extremism in the Sahel since President Trump’s pick J. Peter Pham stepped down on Jan. 20. Pham previously served until March 2020 as special envoy for the African Great Lakes, another unfilled position.

“There are some big questions as to whether or not we’re going to have those positions continue to be filled and we just don’t know,” Hudson says. “I’ve asked State these questions and they keep on saying well, we’re waiting for [Phee] to be confirmed.”

Ambassadors to Africa in limbo

America’s diplomatic ground game is another area where Senate obstruction is being acutely felt, notably in Africa.

As of this week the Senate had only confirmed two ambassadors, Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve at the United Nations and Ken Salazar to serve in Mexico. Dozens more have been waiting, sometimes for months, for congressional action that would not normally require a full Senate vote if no one objects.

The delays have sparked cries of outrage from the US diplomatic community, the State Department and Democrats in Congress. Cruz and Hawley insist they’re just using the tools at their disposal to hold the administration to account.

“We should be ashamed of holding the record for the longest delay in fully equipping the State Department and USAID to pursue the foreign policy, development and national security interests of the United States,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said last month. “Some members of this body call on the one hand for assertive American leadership on the global stage and at the same time they hold up these critical positions.”

Among the blocked nominations are 19 ambassadors to African countries. In five of these (Algeria, Cameroon, Guinea, the Republic of the Congo and Somalia) the US is currently represented by charges d’affaires ad interim, who lack the prestige and authority of full ambassadors.

The Senate also has yet to confirm the State Department’s top official for Near Eastern Affairs, a position that covers the five North African states of Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Barbara Leaf, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, was nominated for the position on 29 April.

Meanwhile the Biden administration itself has been slow to name new envoys to several key African countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Morocco, after political appointees chosen by President Trump stepped down with the change of administration in January. The delays risk breeding resentment at a time when the Biden administration is eager to turn a new page in US-Africa affairs after perceived disinterest from Donald Trump.

“Ambassadors really are the ones that are key on the ground,” Nagy says. “Countries feel disrespected if they don’t have a full, confirmed US ambassador.”

Pending ambassadorial nominations for Africa

Source: US State Department/US Senate

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