The confounding case of the missing U.S. Ambassador to Iceland
I recently attended the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavík’s annual American Independence Day celebration, a lively event with great music, a delicious American-style buffet, a host of accomplished people and an abundance of patriotic spirit. As I scanned the mingling crowd, I recognised several highly-distinguished Icelandic guests, including former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and newly-elected Reykjavík mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson. However, as the evening wore on, I realised that one important American figure was noticeably absent from all the festivities: Robert Barber, President Obama’s nominee to replace Luis Arreaga as U.S. Ambassador to Iceland.
When I returned home later that evening, I did some online investigation. Wasn’t Barber nominated for this vital position last year? Why is it taking so long for him to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate? Is this delay simply the result of bureaucratic inefficiency, or are lawmakers within the Senate playing partisan games and using America’s relationship with Iceland as a means of scoring political points and gaining political leverage? Regardless of the exact reasons for Barber’s protracted confirmation process, American policymakers should, from this point on, prioritize their nation’s invaluable partnership with Iceland and vote swiftly to restore the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavík to full working order.
Barber’s Long, Bumpy Road From Nomination To Confirmation
President Obama formally announced Robert Barber’s nomination for U.S. Ambassador to Iceland on October 29, 2013. His selection for the position initially drew criticism from Republicans because Barber, who has never been to Iceland, was a prolific fundraiser for Barack Obama during his 2012 re-election campaign (he raked in a hefty total of 2.9 million USD for the incumbent president). Outside of his political activities, though, Barber is an accomplished attorney with degrees from Harvard and Boston University who works as a managing partner at a Cambridge law firm. Barber is clearly a political appointee with little experience in foreign affairs, but his prodigious law career and fundraising prowess suggest that he is a capable professional and leader with the potential to make a significant, positive impact on U.S./Icelandic relations.
At the same time Barber was chosen for the top diplomatic post in Iceland, President Obama also named his controversial selections for vacant ambassadorships in Hungary and Norway: television producer Colleen Bradley Bell and CEO of Chartwell Hotels George Tsunis. Both Bell and Tsunis made national headlines in the U.S. when they bungled their confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Bell struggled, and ultimately failed, to name a single commercial interest the U.S. has in Hungary, while Tsunis made a series of humiliating gaffes, claiming that Norway has a president (Norway is a constitutional monarchy) and mistakenly characterising members of Norway’s majority coalition in parliament as “fringe elements” who “spew hatred.” Barber emerged from the hearing relatively unscathed, but the other appointees left not only the members of the committee but also the American public completely stunned and underwhelmed, likely causing considerable delays in all three nominees’ final confirmations.
The Politics Of Postponement
Prolonging the approval of ambassadors, especially those who are not career diplomats, is not an unusual occurrence. In fact, it is a long-standing tradition within American politics. Both Republicans and Democrats have stalled confirmation votes in the past not only to curry favour with their parties’ bases but also to enact political retribution. Just recently, the Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid, took to the Senate floor to address this issue, heaping his Republican colleagues with scorn, accusing them of jeopardizing America’s economic and national security interests abroad by leaving “gaping holes” in the country’s diplomatic “frontlines.”
In his speech, Reid noted that thirty ambassadorial nominees are currently awaiting final authorization by the Senate, including critical posts in Vietnam, Bosnia, and over a quarter of all African nations. He went on to accuse Republicans of blocking these crucial votes as “payback for rule changes instituted by the Senate” (Democrats, who hold a slight majority in the upper chamber of Congress, recently banned the act of filibustering).
Petty squabbles and partisan politicking aside, the need for a permanent representative of the United States in Iceland is becoming more and more apparent, as the two nations are close partners in business, trade, and the battle against climate change.
In The Meantime…
The absence of Iceland’s U.S. Ambassador certainly reveals the sad state of American politics, but the embassy staff in Reykjavík continue to faithfully execute its duties, undeterred. Until Barber is confirmed, Chargé dé Affaires Paul O’ Friel has assumed administrative command of America’s diplomatic mission in Iceland, as procedure within the U.S. Department of State dictates. All embassy functions have continued as scheduled, and Iceland and the U.S. remain strong allies who willingly collaborate on economic and social matters pertinent to both nations.
However, American politicians’ stubborn refusal to approve the nation’s backlog of ambassadorial nominees continues to send a tacit message of indifference to the rest of the world, an unfortunate situation that will hopefully be resolved soon. If you are an American living in Iceland, there is something you can do to help: send a letter to your senator back home, imploring him or her to bring Barber’s confirmation up for a vote. Tell them America’s long-standing relationship with Iceland is not a political bargaining chip: Iceland is an esteemed partner and ally in commerce, world affairs and the fight for human rights that should be respected, not ignored.
Elliott is currently earning an M.A. in English literature at the University of Iceland.