Discover more from Letters from an American
August 4, 2023
Army Chief of Staff General James McConville, the 40th person to hold that position, retired today. Because Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) has put a hold on military promotions for the past 8 months, there is no Senate-confirmed leader to take McConville’s place. There are eight seats on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the group of the most senior military officers who advise the president, homeland security officials, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council. Currently, two of those seats are filled by acting officials who have not been confirmed by the Senate.
Politico’s defense reporter Paul McLeary wrote that as of today, there are 301 senior military positions filled by temporary replacements as Tuberville refuses to permit nominations to go through the Senate by the usual process. Two more members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will retire before the end of September.
Politico’s Pentagon reporter Lara Seligman illustrated what this personnel crisis means for national security: “U.S. forces are on high alert in the Persian Gulf,” she wrote today. “As Tehran attempts to seize merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. is sending warships, fighter jets and even considering stationing armed troops aboard civilian vessels to protect mariners. Yet two of the top senior officers overseeing the escalating situation aren’t where they’re supposed to be.”
Two days ago, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in a memo that the “unprecedented, across-the-board hold is having a cascading effect, increasingly hindering the normal operations of this Department and undermining both our military readiness and our national security.” Today he reiterated: “The failure to confirm our superbly qualified senior uniformed leaders undermines our military readiness.” He added, “It undermines our retention of some of our very best officers. And it is upending the lives of far too many of their spouses, children and loved ones.”
Tuberville, who did not serve in the military, likes to say "there is no one more military than me.” And yet, thanks to him and the Republican conference that is permitting him to hold the nominations, we are down two chiefs of staff tonight.
Meanwhile, on July 26, when soldiers took charge in Niger, a country central to the fight against Islamic terrorists and the security of democracy on the African continent, the U.S. had no ambassador there. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was blocking the confirmation of more than 60 State Department officials the same way that Tuberville was blocking the confirmation of military officials.
Paul claimed he was blocking State Department confirmations because he wanted access to information about the origins of COVID, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the department had “been working extensively” with Paul, providing the documents and other information he had requested. “But unfortunately, he continues to block all our nominees.” Paul complained that he had been only given private access, and wanted to “take those documents out.”
As of July 17, the current Senate had confirmed only five State Department nominees. On that day, Blinken wrote to each senator to express “serious concern” about the delays. He told reporters that he respects and values the Senate’s “critical oversight role…[b]ut that’s not what is happening here. No one has questioned the qualifications of these career diplomats. They are being blocked for leverage on other unrelated issues. It’s irresponsible. And it’s doing harm to our national security.”
Ambassadors “advance the interests of our country,” he said, and not having confirmed ambassadors “makes us less effective at advancing every one of our policy priorities—from getting more countries to serve as temporary hubs for [immigrant visa] processing, to bringing on more partners for global coalitions like the one we just announced to combat fentanyl, to support competitive bids for U.S. companies to build…critical infrastructure projects around the world.”
Our adversaries benefit from these absences, not only because they offer an opening to exploit, but also because “[t]he refusal of the Senate to approve these career public servants also undermines the credibility of our democracy. People abroad see it as a sign of dysfunction, ineffectiveness—inability to put national interests over political ones.”
Blinken noted that “[i]n previous administrations, the overwhelming majority of career nominees received swift support to advance through the Senate by unanimous consent. Today, for reasons that have nothing to do with the nominees’ qualifications or abilities, they are being forced to proceed through individual floor votes.” More than a third of the nominees had been waiting for more than a year for their confirmation.
Late on July 27, the day after the conflict began in Niger and the day before the senators left for their summer recess, Paul lifted his hold, tweeting that the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent agency that administers foreign aid, had agreed to release the documents he wanted. The Senate then confirmed career diplomat Kathleen A. FitzGibbon as ambassador to Niger, as well as ambassadors to other countries including Rwanda, the United Arab Emirates, Georgia, Guyana, Ethiopia, Jordan, Uganda, and Italy.
But FitzGibbon did not arrive in Niger before the U.S. government on Wednesday ordered “non-emergency U.S. government personnel” and their families to leave the country out of concerns for their safety.
The attack on our nation by individual Republicans seems to be a theme these days. After yesterday’s arraignment on charges that he conspired to defraud the United States, conspired and attempted to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspired to overturn Americans’ constitutionally protected right to vote, Donald Trump today flouted the judge’s warning not to try to influence jurors. He posted on social media: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”
Prosecutors from the office of Special Counsel Jack Smith tonight alerted the court to Trump’s threat when they asked the court for a protective order to stop him from publishing information about the materials they are about to deliver to his lawyers. They expressed concern that publishing personal information “could have a harmful chilling effect on witnesses” or taint the jury pool by telling potential jurors too much before the trial.