Photo: Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs; former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell; Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations; and Ambassador R. Barrie Walkley inaugurating the new U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan on Independence Day, July 9, 2011.
For years, South Sudan has been one of the few bipartisan foreign policy priorities of the White House and Congress. Successful U.S. foreign policy led by both the Bush and Obama administrations, with heavy Congressional backing, ended Sudan's long-running civil war and played a major role in birthing the world's newest nation of South Sudan in 2011. The creation of South Sudan was marked as a "win" in the complex world that is U.S. foreign relations. As early as 2010, it was clear that Obama administration had already begun thinking that way despite the numerous obstacles that still stood in the way.
The creation of South Sudan may be the biggest and least known U.S. foreign policy achievement since the turn of the century, but that doesn't mean that the people of South Sudan secured the peace they had earned after years of brutal war. Following South Sudan's declaration of independence in July of 2011, the world's newest nation quickly began to unravel amidst government corruption, power plays in the ruling party, and a lack of international effort to stave off a looming political catastrophe.
There are numerous reasons why South Sudan plunged into it's own civil war after decades of bloodshed with successive Arab-dominated governments in Sudan's capital of Khartoum. Many were preventable, some were not. Certainly the new conflict shows that the United States does not have infinite influence abroad, but that does not mean that there was nothing the United States could have done to prevent what has become one of the worst catastrophes in the world.
No Ambassador | No Progress
In August of 2014, about 8 months after South Sudan's civil war began with a bloody day in Juba, U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Susan Page resigned her post. The vacancy came at a critical time for the conflict in South Sudan. International efforts to end the crisis were already faltering amidst cries for U.S. leadership from activist and South Sudanese diaspora groups. Since Ambassador Page resigned, the conflict and humanitarian crisis it has caused have only worsened.
Ambassadors serve a critical role in conflict situations worldwide, especially in the early days and months when U.S. influence and diplomatic adrenaline are kicked into high gear. They are the link between the top levels of the U.S. government and the key players in a conflict. One would think that a new Ambassador would be sent in to replace Ambassador Page considering the deteriorating situation in South Sudan and pressure on the U.S. government to once again take a leadership role.
So why has the seat been empty since Ambassador Page left almost 10 months ago?
The answer boils down to something that sounds pretty ridiculous, and that's because it is pretty ridiculous: Senate leaders have not taken the time to schedule a vote on President Obama's nominee for the position.
President Obama did his part on September 17, 2014 when he nominated Mary Catherine “Molly” Phee for the post of Ambassador. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave her their stamp of approval on May 21, 2015. If she’s confirmed by the full Senate, it will be the first ambassadorial post for this career Foreign Service officer, who has a long resume as a diplomatic professional.
Over two million South Sudanese have been displaced, approximately 40 percent of the country is estimated to be facing hunger, and analysts estimate that at least 50,000 civilians have died. And those are conservative numbers. Not having an Ambassador at the embassy in Juba to lead U.S. diplomatic efforts is only compounding these issues. Not having an Ambassador because no one will take the time to schedule a vote makes it even worse.
So What Needs To Happen?
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid need to schedule a vote ASAP. If approved, then-Ambassador Phee could begin working towards getting U.S. diplomatic efforts in South Sudan back on track. This is a bipartisan issue with a bipartsian solution that can no longer wait.
The lack of a permanent top diplomat in South Sudan has hindered the United States' ability to remain engaged in a sustainable way and only increased the challenges faced by the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan. A new ambassador won't be a silver bullet, but without an ambassador there will be no opportunity for progress.
If you agree that the lack of a scheduled vote shouldn't keep the United States from helping to achieve peace in South Sudan, please tweet the following throughout the day: