US delay in appointing envoys to Africa, Middle East creates strategic void: Experts

US senators' sluggish approval of Joe Biden's diplomatic nominees gives advantage to US rivals in Africa, Middle East, warn analysts.

US delay in appointing envoys to Africa, Middle East creates strategic void: Experts

Delays in the US Senate in approving ambassadors nominated to many African countries will create strategic voids that will be filled by other regional players at Washington’s expense, experts are warning.

Eleven months since President Joe Biden took office, the Senate has delayed the approval of more than 20 ambassadors to represent the US in Africa and the Middle East, as well as many due in other regions.

Faith Mabera, a senior researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, a foreign policy think-tank in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, told Anadolu Agency that the delay erodes the quality of bilateral or multilateral engagements.

“Neglect or parochialism on the part of the US will create strategic voids which have been and will be filled by more opportunistic regional or global players,” Mabera said.

She said, for instance, the some have argued stagnant US policy in Africa has opened a space for China to expand its imprint and position itself as the partner of choice for many African states.

“Similarly, American retrenchment from the MENA region [Middle East and North Africa] left room for more assertive states such as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Russia to play a bigger role in shaping the regional order and safeguard their various strategic interests, such as Libya and Syria,” she added.

On a recent trip to Indonesia, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said senators’ sluggish pace confirming President Biden’s diplomatic nominees is hampering foreign policy and national security.

According to official figures, only 16% of Biden’s appointees have been approved to date, showing that the current Senate has been slower to approve nominees compared to previous administrations.

Mabera also believes the delay in appointments speaks to some kind of triage in the State Department in which foremost attention was given to what were arguably considered priority issues or priority areas.

“This is hardly surprising, given the current era of geopolitical competition, the declared pivot to Asia, simmering tensions between the US and China and between the US and Russia,” said the senior policy researcher.

Mabera added that politics has played a part in delaying the approvals, citing Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who vowed to slow the approval of Biden’s ambassadorial nominees until his administration imposes congressionally mandated sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, built to allow Russia to deliver natural gas to Germany.

There could also be concerns about some nominees’ records and qualifications that need to be verified by the Senate, which could take time, she added.

‘Master manipulators’ sought

But Mustafa Mheta, a senior research fellow and head of the Africa Desk at the Johannesburg-based think-tank Media Review Network, claimed that regardless of the wrangling with the Senate, the US interests reflected in its ambassadors, from former US President Donald Trump to Biden, show little change.

He said the Senate is looking for “master manipulators” to be approved as ambassadors, to see people appointed, he said, lacking any respect for the leadership on the African continent.

“These are people who will be able to function as opposition parties when they are [actually] supposed to be diplomats,” he said.

Asked what he thinks of Biden’s Africa policy, he said: “Biden's policy towards Africa is pathetic, to say the least. I wonder if he has a clear policy for the continent. It is mired in the master/slave kind of relationship.”

“This explains why many African countries are moving over to China, where they find some form of respect. Trump or Biden, US policy is the same,” he added.

He also claimed that Africa is seen as less important to the US.

“Delay or no delay in sending their envoys to Africa and the Middle East, nothing will change the way they will do their thing, and no African or Middle East country can do anything about it,” Mheta said.

“The US only needs Africa when they want its resources, which they set the price on when they want to buy. So as far as they are concerned, Africa can wait until they make a move,” he said, adding that the same can be said of the Middle East.

Shift in US-Africa policy

However, Mabera argued that Biden’s Africa policy or approach is somewhat different from that of Trump.

“Going by remarks made by Secretary of State Blinken during his three-nation tour last month and Biden’s speech to the Africa Union’s 34th summit earlier this year, there seems to be a shift at least at the rhetorical level,’’ she said.

Mabera reckoned that there will be a sense of continuity over stock issues such the promotion of democracy, development programs, trade and investment, and peace and security issues such as fighting terrorism.

She said the difference between the current and former heads of state will be mostly in terms of posture and modalities of engagement, perhaps based more on a partnership of equals, high-level engagement, and frequent and regular multilateral or bilateral dialogue.

“Of course, all this remains to be seen – whether the walk will match the talk,” she added.

Hüseyin Demir