Opinion: America’s silence by default

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As an American who has just returned from a series of discussions on international relations and America’s role in the Levant and the South Caucuses, I’m left with a sinking feeling.

It was eye-opening to see the discrepancy between America’s vibrant debates at home over the upcoming mid-term elections and virtual silence on U.S. foreign policy priorities in this region of the world. This silence is not because of a lack of U.S. foreign policy, but is rather by default because in each of these areas, America is without an ambassador in key capitals.

Take one of America’s closest historic allies in the region that itself is a rising power, Turkey. At the very moment that Turkey’s “rise” is being felt in its region, the U.S.-Turkish relationship is experiencing one of its most significant periods of turbulence.

Given divergent views on Iran and Israel, and conflicting interests of a newly arrived super-regional versus traditional super power, American foreign policy towards Turkey is in dire need of extensive diplomatic engagement and leadership that is currently lacking given the absence of its highest diplomat in the country. America is missing a critical tool of effective diplomacy, namely a U.S. ambassador in Ankara that can help to communicate and coordinate an already difficult relationship.

Unfortunately, Ankara is not an isolated case. Similarly, in Baku and Damascus, America has been missing key opportunities simply by lack of presence. Having been without ambassadors for too long, hopes for the administration’s nominees being confirmed anytime in the near future are fading along with America’s presence.

Simply having an ambassador in all three of these countries would increase America’s presence without having any real cost for U.S. foreign policy. The ability to engage in real-time, on-the-ground diplomacy would bolster U.S. foreign policy objectives in a way that both Democrats and Republicans can agree upon.

Given the American political calendar, it would be easy to only focus on domestic issues after the mid-term elections and the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, but this could be disastrous for U.S. foreign policies in these regions. As Iran, Russia, and Turkey continue to compete for regional influence, America has been largely absent.

Americans may not be in any mood to talk about or launch bold or new foreign policies in the midst of domestic and economic turmoil, but simply being able to communicate and report back through its ambassadors and using all diplomatic channels and means available to the United States is a winning proposition for all parties.

U.S. domestic politics over the Obama administration’s choices for ambassadors has allowed a resurgent Republican minority in the Senate to create a tenuous international environment for America. This is particularly challenging for U.S.-Turkish relations, resulting in consistent recriminations over how Turkey was “lost” as an ally of the “West” on the president’s watch.

While there are serious foreign policy objectives and concerns to be debated in U.S.-Turkish relations, the fact that the United States has been without an ambassador since June and is likely to not have one until March 2011 at the earliest has only and will only continue to exacerbate deteriorating relations between historic allies.

The contrast of U.S. and Turkish foreign policies in these regions is personified by the active role that Turkish ambassadors, undersecretaries and even foreign minister have taken upon themselves in the Azerbaijan, Lebanon and Syria while the U.S. has only been superficially involved given our lack of permanent representation.

The separation of domestic and foreign politics is increasingly becoming difficult in our interconnected world. As a case in point, the breakdown in Turkish-Armenian rapprochement signed with the 2009 Zurich protocols will only become more critical as a newly elected U.S. Congress once again tackles the contentious Armenian Genocide Resolution that will stir populist-national sentiment in all countries involved.

The spill-over of these dynamics into the Nagarno-Karabah conflict will further push a settlement away at precisely a moment in which America should be taking the lead in prodding along the Minsk Group to take its role seriously while Russia seeks to consolidate its influence in its post-Soviet space.

Elsewhere, the Special Tribunal established in Beirut to investigate Rafik Hariri’s murder in 2005 threatens to explode into civil war at the very moment that the U.S. Congress is talking about pulling funds for the only non-sectarian and unified institution in Lebanon, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Backing down from international promises and responsibilities to America’s partners may sometimes be strategically necessary, but simply abrogating its role in international affairs by default due to the lack of ambassadors is unacceptable for a global power.

Whether Americans like it or not, America is a global player and despite the isolationist tendencies seen recently in campaigns across the country, patriots of all stripes should agree on the need for America’s presence — which at a minimum includes an American ambassador in all posts around the world as soon as possible.

Joshua W. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and fellow at the German Marshall Fund.