On Wednesday, President Obama sent the nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis to the U.S. Senate for confirmation to be our nation’s first ambassador to Cuba in a half-century.
In a statement released by the White House, the President said of DeLaurentis, a career diplomat who now serves as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, “There is no public servant better suited to improve our ability to engage the Cuban people and advance U.S. interests in Cuba than Jeff.”
Later that day, Senator Marco Rubio, a senior Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement, “President Obama’s Nomination of Ambassador to Castro Regime Should Go Nowhere.”
This surprised no one. In 2014, just hours after President Obama announced his historic breakthrough with Cuba, Senator Rubio stated his strident opposition to the new policy by promising to block the appointment of any ambassador to Cuba. This week he renewed his pledge, by declaring the DeLaurentis nomination dead and calling diplomacy with Cuba “appeasement.”
If Founding Father John Adams were here today, he would be shocked to witness a partisan controversy over something as basic as having a U.S. ambassador in the foreign capital of a nation with whom we are normalizing relations. In his time, Adams served as the first U.S. ambassador to Britain following the end of our Revolutionary War.
It would hardly reassure Adams to learn that Senator Rubio’s stance on ambassadors – and diplomacy – is inconsistent. A day after he denounced the DeLaurentis nomination, Rubio responded to the death of Shimon Peres by praising Israel’s former Prime Minister and President precisely because Peres negotiated with Israel’s enemies:
“He fought for a brighter future for the children of Israel, and in addition to seeking peace with the Palestinians, helped negotiate peace with Egypt and Jordan when most believed it was not possible.”
Today, we concern ourselves not with Rubio’s inconstancy (he also voted to confirm the U.S. Ambassador to China), but with President Obama’s faith in diplomacy and, even more, the choice he is facing given the roadblocks to the DeLaurentis nomination.
In 2007, he was asked (as were the other primary candidates) if he “would be willing to meet with the leaders of America’s most vociferous enemies: Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.” At the time, his answer seemed exotic and politically risky.
Then-Senator Obama answered plainly, as Jon Lee Anderson reminds us, in his recent New Yorker essay, “I would.” He said:
“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] Administration—is ridiculous.” He waited out a round of applause, then continued, “Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic Presidents like J.F.K. constantly spoke to the Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.”
Six years later, President Obama demonstrated respect for Cuba’s sovereignty when he shook President Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa; a year after that he proved that talking to Cuba could realize the national interest in negotiations that opened the door for the two countries to resume diplomatic relations and set Cuban and American prisoners free.
In the fruitful talks that followed, diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba have produced agreements to restore air service, direct mail service, and telephone service, provide for cell phone roaming, as well as cooperation on environmental protection and law enforcement.
Now, the President has taken the long-delayed step of nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years.
This draws the battle lines between a President who wants an ambassador in Cuba to advance the normalization process, and opponents of the nomination, who think it conveys unacceptable legitimacy to the Cuban government. What happens next?
Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes, an architect of the diplomatic opening, sees the path forward clearly. “They’ll put up a fight and we’ll see if we can get him a vote,” Rhodes said. “Hopefully we can. If not, we wanted to set the precedent that governments nominate ambassadors to Cuba. And it’ll be evident over time that it’s self-defeating to just deny us the resource of an ambassador.”
But if Congress fails to act on DeLaurentis’ nomination, he need not take one for the team in defeat. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments, employing his presidential power to make appointments, albeit temporary, when his nominations faced what the Washington Post called “a wall of Democratic opposition.”
It was by a recess appointment that conservative firebrand John Bolton came to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and his fellow Cold Warrior, Otto J Reich, became Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for a provisional period in Bush’s first term.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Bush made 30 recess appointments during the period between a national election and the next year, while Congress was not in session. Those appointments last for a year. If the Senate doesn’t vote to confirm his nominee, President Obama can take the same step that President Bush took to appoint Mr. DeLaurentis as our ambassador.
Making a recess appointment to give our man in Havana ambassadorial status would be controversial. Congress can use the trick of not adjourning to deny the President a chance to make recess appointments. There’s precedent for that, too.
What’s clear is that Jeff DeLaurentis is a great diplomat who has performed extraordinary service as the U.S. and Cuba have begun to rebuild relations after decades of deep enmity. His appointment is worth fighting for; if not in an up-or-down Senate vote, he’d be a slam dunk after the lame duck. Either way, we suspect John Adams would be pleased.
This week in Cuba news…