Without a sitting ambassador the halls of the US Embassy in Reykjavík aren’t as glamorous as they once were; the light doesn’t reflect as brilliantly off the windows and even the guard’s smile seems a bit wan. It’s been six months since Carol von Voorst quit her post and the extended ambassadorial absence hasn’t gone unnoticed—instead, it has fuelled an intricate rumour in which Iceland and the US have been squabbling since January; a rumour centred around a diplomatic misstep known as the Order of the Falcon incident.
The Order of the Falcon incident started out innocently enough: On April 8, 2009 the office of President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced to the then US Ambassador van Voorst that she was being awarded the Order of the Falcon, the highest recognition of the Icelandic state. During her drive to the ceremony, however, van Voorst received a surprising phone call. There had been a clerical mistake —a mix-up of sorts: van Voorst wasn’t being awarded anything at all. She was, however, invited to proceed to the ceremony regardless. Van Voorst drove on. President Grímsson later added insult to injury while trying to explain the confusion when he clarified to van Voorst that the Order was only awarded to those who were deemed worthy.
While this much of the story is verifiably true—Kastljós and The Iceland Review were among those to report on it—online and word of mouth gossip allege that the mishap was a calculated snub; a diplomatic slap in the face by the Icelandic government in return for not receiving a presidential invitation to Obama´s inauguration ceremony earlier that year. After the Order of the Falcon fiasco, the theory goes, the US government decided to return the insult by withdrawing its ambassador indefinitely.
Kathy Eagan, the Acting Deputy Chief of Mission and the Public Affairs Officer of the US embassy, refutes the rumour entirely. Ambassadors are appointed by the President of the United States, which means that during election years all ambassadors are obligated to offer a letter of resignation. As soon as an ambassador resigns, the process of finding their replacement begins. Nominees work their way up through the State Department before being handpicked by the White House. The White House then sends the candidate’s resume to the receiving government for a separate approval process. Once the foreign government agrees, the White House declares its nominee and sends them through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where they face a Senate vote. It’s only after the Senate consents that a nominee can properly call him or herself an ambassador.
Connan, the ambassadorial barbarian
Carol van Voorst was assigned a standard three-year appointment as the US ambassador to Iceland in January of 2006. Although her time was up in January 2009, van Voorst extended her stay until April 30, long enough to endure the Order of the Falcon affair. Sometime in May, Eagan says, the US embassy in Iceland was informed that the Department of State had launched a selection process for a new ambassador. News soon surfaced that President Obama had chosen a nominee: a certain Robert S. Connan. Reykjavík vetted the candidate and signalled their approval. Then, shortly before his approval before the US Senate, Connan declined the ambassadorship for personal reasons.
The selection process was re-launched. Hustling an ambassador through the process can take months; in an election year with so many new appointees, the process takes longer still.
“We don’t just want a body, we want the right person,” Eagan says. The internal and post-White House processes can take 3–5 months each, she says. In the meantime Eagan assures that the embassy continues to function smoothly.
“There is nothing unusual in this situation. Twenty-two posts around the world are currently without an ambassador. We once went for a year without an ambassador in Australia.”
The US relationship, Eagan insists, is as strong as ever. And as for the missing invitation?
“All sitting ambassadors and their spouses in Washington DC were invited to the inauguration. That’s the way it’s usually done and that’s the way it was done this time.”