HONOLULU: President Barack Obama on Wednesday bypassed Congress to name the first US ambassador to Syria in nearly six years, part of his Middle East engagement drive criticized by Republican opponents.
Obama took the controversial step of forcing through the appointments of Ambassador Robert Ford and five other officials while the Senate — which normally needs to confirm nominations — was out of session.
A senior administration official traveling with Obama on vacation in Hawaii justified the recess appointments, which came despite talk of cooperation with Republicans in the waning days of the last Congress.
"All administrations face delays in getting some of their nominees confirmed, but the extent of Republican obstruction of Obama nominees is unprecedented," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus after Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in February 2005 in a bombing blamed on Syria.
Obama announced his desire to put a new ambassador in Syria in 2009 and named Ford in February this year, advancing his policy of reaching out even to adversaries of the United States.
The administration sees Syria as a crucial link in diplomatic efforts to negotiate peace in the Middle East and has hoped to step up intelligence cooperation with Syria.
But Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who will head the House Foreign Affairs Committee next month after her party swept mid-term elections, accused Obama of offering concessions to a country that is "destabilizing" Lebanon where it backs the Hezbollah.
"Making underserved concessions to Syria tells the regime in Damascus that it can continue to pursue its dangerous agenda and not face any consequences from the US," the Florida lawmaker said.
"That is the wrong message to be sending to a regime which continues to harm and threaten US interests and those of such critical allies as Israel," she said.
But Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Ford can make clear to Syria "that there are consequences for their actions, good and bad."
"I think we’re better off with many difficult countries when we’re in their face, not when we ignore them," he said.
Mohamad Bazzi, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said: "If the United States only sent its envoys to friendly or compliant countries, there would be far fewer US embassies in the world."
While criticizing the appointment, Republicans have not questioned the qualifications of Ford, a veteran diplomat in the Arab world who has served as ambassador to Algeria and held senior posts in the US embassy in Baghdad.
Obama also rammed through the appointments of US ambassadors to Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Czech Republic and two other administration officials.
Republicans had opposed the nomination of Francis Ricciardone to be ambassador to Turkey, saying he was too soft on promoting democratic rights during a previous stint as ambassador to Egypt.
On the domestic front, Obama appointed James Cole to be deputy attorney general. The Justice Department’s number two position has been vacant for nearly half a year as Republicans prevented a vote.
Republicans have grilled Cole over his views on treatment of terrorism suspects as well as his role as an independent consultant to AIG before the insurance company collapsed and received a government bailout.
The Obama administration official said that the six nominees had waited on average 114 days for a vote in the Senate.
Obama had 79 nominees pending when Congress adjourned last week and has now made 28 recess appointments, according to the official.
At the same time in his tenure, former president George W. Bush had made 23 recess appointments and had six nominees awaiting a vote, the official said.
Under controversial rules, individual senators can hold up nominations at will to show dissatisfaction.