Barack Obama could duck fight over U.S. ambassador to Cuba
“I don’t think it’s useful to confront a situation that may not have a successful completion”, Ben Cardin says.
Nahal Toosi, on Politico
President Barack Obama may be able to quickly remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list, restore some trade with the communist-led island and even establish a U.S. Embassy in Havana. But when it comes to appointing an ambassador to Cuba, at least one top Democrat says the president should bide his time.
Ambassadors require Senate confirmation and a nomination could trigger a potentially bitter fight with 2016 overtones: Two of the senators most opposed to Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — are running for president. It’s also an unnecessary battle, some argue, because the U.S. mission in Havana can be run without an official ambassador, and the lead American envoy there now is well-regarded.
When asked whether Obama should bother to nominate someone, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that while he “ultimately” would like to see a confirmed ambassador, it may take “a little longer” than other aspects of the new U.S.-Cuba relationship.
“I don’t think it’s useful to confront a situation that may not have a successful completion,” Cardin said.
His view is shared by a number of former U.S. officials and Cuba analysts. “I think it’s pretty widely accepted that the Senate would not confirm a nominee to be ambassador right now,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The White House declined to comment on whether it has decided to hold off on formally filling the ambassador’s job or if it is considering any names. For now, the administration is primarily focused on negotiations with the Cubans on re-establishing embassies in each others’ capitals, with talks scheduled to resume Thursday in Washington.
Those discussions cover a range of issues, including how much freedom of travel the diplomats get in each country. Earlier this week, a senior State Department official expressed cautious optimism about Thursday’s talks, saying: “I do think we’re closer than we have been in the past, and I think my [Cuban] counterparts are coming up here with a desire to get this done.”
In mid-April, after holding a historic face-to-face meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro in Panama, Obama announced he was removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Congress has until the end of this month to challenge that, but there’s been no real effort to do so, and it would be a procedurally difficult move.
The Obama administration also has taken steps to ease trade and travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, although only an act of Congress can lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, something unlikely to happen anytime soon.
And according to the State Department, although Congress gets a 15-day notification, there’s virtually nothing it can do to stop the U.S. from upgrading its current mission in Havana — labeled an “interests section’ — to an embassy. That’s partly because there’s no money being requested to make that change.
When it comes to ambassadorships, however, a single senator can severely slow down a nominee’s path to a job. Even during its first six years, when fellow Democrats were in charge of the Senate, the Obama administration faced major backlogs in trying to get its nominees for various positions confirmed.
After Obama announced in December that the U.S. and Cuba would restore ties, Rubio and Cruz were among the most vociferous opponents.
Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has vowed to block any ambassador nominee from coming up for a vote, and his aides said Wednesday his position has not changed.
Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler, meanwhile, said, “It seems doubtful that the White House would nominate an ambassador to Cuba, but if the president does, Cruz would oppose it.”
Forcing Cruz and Rubio to publicly take on a nominee could have some tactical advantages on the political side. For example, many in the GOP support restoring ties to Cuba in part because of the potential boost it could offer to U.S. businesses seeking new trade venues, and alienating the Chamber of Commerce wing is always a risk.
However, the two senators could also leverage the publicity to their benefit, especially during the Republican presidential primaries.
Rubio in particular has been styling himself as a foreign policy hawk. He has been vocal about his disdain for Cuba’s human rights record and his fears that pumping American money into the island will simply strengthen the communist government. During a hearing on Wednesday, he declared that the Cuban government’s “views on human rights are not legitimate, they’re immoral.”
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is one of the most vocal Republican supporters of restoring ties to the island, and of naming an ambassador.
He said that as more Americans travel to Cuba, it is essential that the U.S. have an ambassador there, if only to give added assurances that the rights of U.S. citizens will be fully protected. (On Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a Cuban journalist in Washington for the latest round of talks that Obama “would relish the opportunity to visit the island of Cuba and Havana in particular” in the near future. He did not offer a specific time frame.)
Flake said Obama should go ahead and select someone for the ambassador’s job, but admitted that Cruz and Rubio would likely fulfill their pledges to try to derail the nomination.
“I don’t think they’ll be persuaded, but I don’t think that they will represent a majority in the Senate,” Flake said. “It’s not that we can’t get by, but we’re better off having an ambassador.”
The Obama administration already has come under fire for allegedly giving plum diplomatic posts to political supporters. When it comes to a sensitive posting such as Cuba, it will face pressure to give the job to someone with foreign service experience.
Even if Obama were to tap a career diplomat, filling the Cuba role without a fight in the Senate would require choosing a person with extraordinary, statesman-like stature, said Meacham, who used to serve as a senior staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“You would have to find one who is so overwhelmingly acceptable that it would make people who oppose having an ambassador look foolish,” he said. “I don’t know who that person would be.”
Richard Feinberg, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Clinton administration, said one group that probably won’t be miffed if Obama doesn’t name an ambassador are the Cubans themselves.
“The Cubans would understand,” he said. “The Cubans are pretty sophisticated about inside-the-Beltway politics.”
Sarah Wheaton contributed to this report.
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