When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, hundreds of Americans were taken hostage by the Iraqi dictator. As the United States joined forces with 38 other nations, including many from the Middle East, Ambassador Frank G. Wisner II moved to protect the thousands of U.S. citizens living in nearby Egypt.
“Many people were severely frightened that their lives, and the lives of their children and their spouses might be in danger,” Wisner said, adding that he organized weekly town hall meetings to quell the community’s fears as the Gulf War waged on. In times of violence or uncertainty, he said, it is an ambassador’s job to ensure the safety of Americans living abroad, and to serve as the link between Washington and their host country.
But those links are as tenuous as ever in a world full of danger and war. More than a year into the Trump administration, 41 embassies around the world lack an ambassador, and the State Department has yet to fill key diplomatic posts throughout the Middle East, including spots in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.
That means most American expats in the region lack a fully staffed embassy ready to assist them. Wisner suggests the situation could leave those living overseas disconnected and U.S. interests underrepresented. “It’s important to have a U.S. ambassador on the ground because it sends a signal that the administration and that Congress is serious about the relationship,” said Gordon Gray III, a former ambassador.
Gray previously served as the American ambassador to Tunisia during the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. “We were well situated because of the connections that we built with civil society, so there was not an anti-American element to it,” he said, but many neighboring states are missing a similar diplomatic presence today.
Although there are qualified chargés d’affaires – foreign service members who temporarily lead operations until an ambassador is formally appointed– in place, Gray said, they lack the same clout as Senate-approved ambassadors.
“They’ll be the first to tell you it’s just not the same,” Gray said. Further exacerbating the problem is the Trump administration’s failure to appoint experts to senior positions at the State Department, he said. Only one of the six bureaus that cover geographic regions, the European bureau, currently has a confirmed assistant secretary.
“At a time where we’ve got troops on the ground, and many in combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and places in Africa, not to have assistant secretaries for those regions is perplexing at best,” Gray said.
Despite concerns from lawmakers and career officials that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is hollowing out the department, the administration has remained firm in its stance that spending on diplomacy should be scaled back. The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 calls for reducing funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by around 25 percent while calling for an increase in military spending.
In an interview with CBS’ Margaret Brennan, Tillerson said that the nomination process for the embassies missing ambassadors is ongoing. “It is not with the same kind of support that I wish everyone had, but our foreign policy objectives continue to be met,” he said. The White House and State Department declined further comment.
Regardless of whether or not this delay is financial or political in nature, Wisner – who served as an ambassador under four presidents to four different countries – said it leaves Washington in a weaker position. Without competent diplomats sharing information from on the ground, he suggested, real and immediate American interests are at stake.
“If Mr. Trump believes, for example, he needs to name Republicans who didn’t oppose him or have questions about him in the campaign, and they can’t find enough of them to fill the positions that he needs to have filled, then he and the country will lose,” Wisner said.
In November 2017, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and John McCain, R-Ariz., released a letter asking Tillerson to reconsider his personnel strategy, concluding that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.” The two senators, who serve on committees dealing with national security, noted concerns about the safety of Americans abroad, managing crises and the diminishing value of diplomacy.
Wisner concluded that the administration’s chances of foreign policy success are lower without ambassadors stationed across the globe.
“Overall, if you have very strong policies and nobody to implement them, you’re going to be deficient. If you have confusing policies with no clear objectives and nobody to implement them, you’re going to be worse off,” Wisner said. “I would say that in many places, the latter is true right now.