Still Waiting, Mr. President…

Judith McHale, expected Undersecretary Nominee (Photo from State Department Web Site)

Judith McHale, expected Undersecretary Nominee (Photo from State Department Web Site)

From the highest echelon of professional sports teams to the youngest recreation league, coaching and staff changes take place at an often blinding speed. Nearly every time, an interim coach is named. No professional sports team, despite their collective experience and expertise, is ever asked to call its own plays on the football field, or organize its own line changes on the ice hockey rink. And, in the few times that a firing takes place without a coach waiting in the wings, it is in the slowest stages of the sport’s off-season.

 In public diplomacy, though, as in all aspects of foreign relations and international affairs, there is no off-season, no time for anyone to rest on their laurels and step away from the task at hand. The team of Foreign Service officers and public diplomacy experts representing the United States and its values (while simultaneously discrediting the message of our enemies) has been asked to operate without an undersecretary to report to since the departure of James Glassman on January 19th. The lack of even a public nominee, much less a scheduled confirmation hearing, says three potential things about the President and Secretary of State:

o       that Public Diplomacy is not actually a priority of the Obama administration, and that Hillary Clinton doesn’t even believe her own rhetoric about “smart power”,

o       that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton naively think that they can somehow handle public diplomacy operations on their own,

o       and/or that the President and Secretary of State cannot multi-task in their current jobs.

While whispers that Judith McHale will be tapped for the position have existed for weeks on end, the lack of a formal nomination is deeply disturbing. Something, therefore, must be done. The health and wellness of the United States’ image, credibility and security depend on a consistent and focused approach to public diplomacy, and if the President and his Secretary of State will not nominate an Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, someone within the federal government must accept that responsibility.

For this reason, it is evident that the country needs legislation that requires the chair of the senate committee relevant to the executive department to select an interim nominee to serve in the position (pending confirmation of the senate committee) for a period of sixty days if the President fails to put forth his or her own. From that point forward, if the president fails to nominate a replacement, that nominee would then be moved forward to the general senate for confirmation as the official undersecretary, deputy, or, heaven forbid, cabinet-level secretary.

Granted, the Obama vetting process has likely become more intense than any in history following a series of embarrassing retractions, and Matt Armstrong has noted that President Obama is not the first President to allow the position to go unattended. However, undersecretary positions at cabinet level positions should not be left for a more politically salient time. We need not look further than the struggles undergone in the treasury department, then wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the remarkable diplomatic pressures placed on the United States every day to know that these appointed positions are crucial to the health and wellness of the country.

If Hillary Clinton is the manager and Barack Obama the General Manager of an American baseball team, the lack of an undersecretary for PD is like not having a third-base coach. Obama can outline the goals, and Clinton can put together whatever strategy she wants, but without someone standing on the base path between third and home, no player will know how and when to execute the strategy so crucial to the success of the team. If the President won’t, then Senator Kerry must.


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