Recess Appointments and The Politics of Diplomacy

Six months after his nomination to the post, Francis J. “Frank” Ricciardone is finally the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey — one of half a dozen recess appointments announced last week by President Barack Obama.

Umit Enginsoy, of the Turkish news site Hurriyet, seems to be one of the only journalists to have noticed that, had Obama waited a few more days — until  2011 — to make these recess appointments, the four ambassadors could have served until the end of 2012 before requiring Senate confirmation. (Recess appointments last until the end of the subsequent calendar year.) Since Obama made these appointments in the waning days of 2010, the diplomats will have to secure the confirmation of the full Senate by the end of 2011, or their diplomatic posts may once again be vacant.

As it is, the president’s move has been assailed by Republicans and neoconservative ideologues. The Obama administration most likely did not want to make matters worse by squeezing in half a dozen recess appointments — four of them diplomats — on the holiday weekend prior to the official opening of the 112th Congressional session on Jan. 3rd (although neither chamber will even be sworn in until Jan. 5). Though weekend appointments most likely would have been valid, since Obama himself announced fifteen recess appointments on March 27, 2010 — a Saturday.

While Obama’s decision to make before-year-end appointments shortens the potential terms of the diplomats at their postings, the long delay in their Senate approval owes to special interests, politics, and ideological attacks from neoconservatives and their allies.

When Obama named Ricciardone as the top U.S. envoy to Ankara on July 1, his confirmation by the Senate was expected to be routine. A career diplomat who speaks fluent Turkish, his first assignments were to Ankara and Andana when he entered the U.S. Foreign Service 32 years ago. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee interviewed Ricciardone on July 20, and his appointment was approved to go before the full Senate. With confirmation imminent, Ricciardone’s predecessor, Amb. James Jeffrey, left Ankara at the end of July, preparing to become the U.S.’s top diplomat to Baghdad in mid-August.

But on August 5, when the Senate unanimously confirmed 27 of Obama’s ambassadors, Ricciardone was not on the list. By the time the names were brought forward for a voice vote, neoconservative pundits and their allies had been attacking Ricciardone for weeks. Über-hawk Elliott Abrams blamed Ricciardone, who had served as Ambassador to Egypt between 2005 and 2008, for both the growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and for the failure of democratization and political reform in Egypt, telling The Cable’s Josh Rogin:

“Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy.”

Speaking to Rogin, Danielle Pletka, Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), also went after Ricciardone, questioning his loyalties: “Now is not the time for us to have an ambassador in Ankara who is more interested in serving the interests of the local autocrats and less interested in serving the interests of his own administration.”

After the August 5 vote, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) took up the anti-Ricciardone banner, placing a hold on any further Senate consideration of Ricciardone’s nomination. Parroting Abrams and Pletka, Brownback expressed doubts that Ricciardone would  be “tough” enough on the Turkish government, or capable of reversing what  Brownback called a “Turkish tilt toward Iran and away from Israel.”

As Laura Rozen of Politico reported, Brownback sent a letter on June 12, 2002, lavishing praise on Ricciardone’s diplomatic skills and thanking him and his staff for their professionalism in the fight against terrorism. While Ambassador to the Philippines, Ricciardone played a key role in the attempt to secure the release of two Evangelical missionaries captured and held for over a year by the Abu Sayyaf organization.

“I pushed hard for your confirmation because I knew in my heart that you would do a great job representing America’s interests,” Brownback wrote. He added. in a hand-written note under his signature: “Thank you so much Frank! You have done wonderful work!”

Nevertheless, Brownback’s stubborn and single-handed block of Senate consideration of Ricciardone’s nomination remained in place until the end of the 111th Congress, even after his Nov. 2 election as governor of Kansas.

When Sen. John Kerry, outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,  breezed into Ankara as part of his Middle East tour in November, urging Turks to play nice with Israelis, he apologized for the delay in appointing a U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

“I tried very, very hard to get an ambassador chosen before we left for recess in October,” Kerry told Turkish journalists. “We had one or two senators who blocked it. This is not the U.S.’s position, this is politics at home and we were trying to break through it. I will go back next week and I am going to speak to those senators. I will try to secure a nomination, if not I will personally recommend to the president that he make a recess appointment.”

But Kerry and the Turks both knew the possibility that Ricciardone might receive a “recess appointment” during the congressional lull in October and November had already been pre-empted by a deal reached by Democratic and Republican senators. A little known and rarely used procedural manoeuvre — twice weekly pro forma sessions, during which the Senate’s presiding officer gavels in and out in a deserted chamber — kept the Senate technically in session but without the ability to get anything accomplished. This stripped Obama of his power to make  recess appointments just before and after the 2010 election.

Had such a deal not been made, Senate Democrats said in their own defense, Senate Republicans could have forced the president to repeat the entire process of nominating each of the 110 pending presidential appointees, including executive and judicial positions, and diplomatic ones like Ricciardone. The agreement allowed for the possibility of Senate confirmations during the “lame duck” congressional session,” which began in mid-November and ended last week before Christmas.

The day before the President’s recess appointments were announced, Turkish news sources were doubtful that Ricciardone’s nomination would be able to move ahead. Once the new session of Congress opens on Jan. 3, Obama will have to begin the nomination process of all pending nominees who are subject to Senate ratification at square one.

On Wednesday, while on vacation in Hawaii, Obama announced that six long-delayed nominees whose appointments were being held up in the Senate would be receiving recess appointments. including four ambassadors. Ricciardone was one of them. The Turks have their U.S. ambassador at last. Ricciardone plans to take up his long-awaited post in Ankara in early January.

As Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly points out, all four of the ambassadors who received recess appointments were considered fully qualified by the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had approved their nominations and sent them to the full Senate. All had been kept from taking up their diplomatic posts by unilateral actions on the part of one or two senators who prevented appointments from reaching the Senate floor for the votes that would have confirmed them. (Benen’s detailed deconstruction of Washington Post “Right Turn” blogger Jennifer Rubin‘s claim that these recess appointments were in any way “controversial” is well worth a read.)

Action on the nomination of career diplomat Robert Stephen Ford, who Obama designated to be the first U.S. Ambassador to Syria since President George W. Bush vacated the post in 2005, had been blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) since the beginning of May. Benen points out: “Republicans didn’t object to Ford, per se, but didn’t want the post filled at all. The administration insisted that having an ambassador to Syria was integral to U.S. diplomacy in the region.”

The appointment of another career diplomat, Matthew Bryza, as Ambassador  to Azerbaijan had been blocked by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are fiercely protective of the interests and sensitivities of the pro-Armenian lobby ANCA. In a recent letter published in the Washington Post, Menendez accused Bryza of denying there was an Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turkey in 1915. Menendez considers Bryza too favorably disposed toward Azerbaijan and Turkey, making him  by definition anti-Armenian.

Obama’s choice to post his legal adviser on ethics, Norm Eisen, in the Czech Republic has been held up by Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). Grassley blames Eisen for the  firing of Inspector General Gerald Walpin in June 2009, the details of which have absolutely no bearing on his qualifications to be the top U.S. envoy to Prague.

While Turks seemed pleased that Ricciardone’s ambassadorial appointment went through, neoconservatives lost no time in disparaging it. AEI’s Michael Rubin told Hurriyet‘s Ilhan Tanir that recess appointments tended to be “lame ducks” whose one year terms were rarely extended because senators didn’t like presidents using the tactic: “Turkey might want a serious American representative with weight in Washington, but what they got is a controversial has-been who, at best, will be home before the year is out.”

Tanir also quoted Jamie Fly, executive director of the newly-founded and highly ideological Foreign Policy Initiative, as stating, “It is disappointing that President Obama made this recess appointment given Ambassador Ricciardone’s track record in previous posts. We need an ambassador in Ankara who will stand up for U.S. interests even when they conflict with Turkey’s desires. Ricciardone has shown himself unable to manage similarly difficult challenges in the past.”

Chas Freeman, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and a retired diplomat who edited the entry for “Diplomacy’ for the current edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, strongly disagrees. “Frank Ricciardone is a diplomatic professional who speaks Turkish and who has managed embassies in the very challenging circumstances of the Philippines, Egypt, and Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to represent our country in Ankara,” he told LobeLog in an e-mail interview. “It’s not the job of ambassadors, even American ambassadors, to act as viceroys or to direct the internal affairs of the countries to which they are accredited. Nor can the United States promote democracy in countries where U.S. policies are deeply resented and expect not to have to deal with elected governments that reflect that resentment.”

Expect this battle to re-emerge when the current term of recess appointments expires.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Once again Ms. Cohen provides us with interesting inside baseball on a fairly obscure yet important matter.

    As to the small issue: yes, weekend appointments would have been valid (at least in the opinion of this unabashed constitutional “expert”). Obama should have shown more guts and made the appointments in Jan. 1 or 2. As so often he sought to be nonconfrontational — heaven forbid anyone should have the slightest reason to insinuate that he’s an “angry black man.” On the other hand, he may perceive, as Clinton did, that he just needs to give the Republicans enough rope and they’ll hang themselves. I certainly look forward to the antics the 112th Congress is almost certain to provide.

    As to the large issue: at what point do we throw up our hands and confess that nothing can be done about the Israel first bias in American politics? By the time the pendulum swings it’ll be too late. In my family we are actually entertaining, more or less seriously, the idea of moving to Canada or even returning to Britain, the land of our ancestors. And we’ve lived in this country since the 1630s; fought in virtually every American war up to and including Vietnam.

  2. RE: “Über-hawk Elliott Abrams blamed Ricciardone, who had served as Ambassador to Egypt between 2005 and 2008, for both the growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and for the failure of democratization and political reform in Egypt” – Marsha Cohen
    MY COMMENT: I am certainly no fan of Mubarak (or his regime), but Elliott Abrams makes him look pretty good by way of comparison! In fact, Elliott Abrams almost makes the Muslim Brotherhood seem sympathetic. So much for the London School of “Economics” and Harvard Law!!!
    FROM JUAN COLE 12/11/10: We now have the full text of the May 19, 2009 cable giving background in preparation for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to President Obama at the White House. This is the one where he said Iraq basically needs strong man rule.
    But the cable is full of other insights:
    1. Mubarak boycotted the Bush administration, starting in 2005, declining to make an annual trek to Washington. He only resumed the custom after Bush was out. He was furious at Bush’s public shaming of him for lack of democracy in Egypt.
    2. “Mubarak viewed President Bush (43) as naive, controlled by subordinates, and totally unprepared for dealing with post-Saddam Iraq, especially the rise of Iran’s regional influence.”
    3. Mubarak opposed the holding of the Jan. 2006 elections in the Palestine Authority that brought Hamas to power
    SOURCE –

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