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US foreign policy

In a rare move, Biden taps two career diplomats for senior State Department roles

Some of the embassies that remain without a US ambassador are the United Kingdom, UAE, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, Japan, Israel, India, Germany, France, Bahrain and Afghanistan

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US President Joe Biden announced Friday his intention to nominate career diplomats to become regional assistant secretaries - a move welcomed by members of the State Department after political appointees were favored for senior positions.

Career diplomats who hone their skills in the Foreign Service have become discouraged in recent years as the number of political appointees picked to head senior posts has increased, past and current State Department members said.

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Assistant secretary positions, which are considered just under the secretary of State, are typically split between political and career appointees when a new administration takes office.

During his first trip to the State Department as president, Biden told Foreign Service members, “You are the heart and soul of what we do as a country.”

This was interpreted as a sign to boost the morale of those sidelined by the Trump administration's political appointees and an effort to encourage new applicants.

But since taking office, Biden’s has filled most of the senior positions with political nominees or former career diplomats who served under the Obama administration and later retired.

Wendy Sherman, a key part of the Obama team that negotiated the now-defunct Iran nuclear deal, is awaiting confirmation to become the deputy secretary of State. Victoria Nuland, a retired career foreign service officer, has been nominated to be the third-highest ranking State Department official.

Barbara Leaf, former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates under Obama, was appointed as the senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council. But recent reports suggest she will be moved over to head the Near Eastern Affairs bureau at the State Department, the top US diplomat for the Middle East.

Another example is the expected appointment of Jeffrey Feltman as Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa. Feltman was a foreign service officer for more than 25 years but retired in 2012.

Friday’s announcement that two career diplomats were nominated to head the East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau and the Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau provided a sense of optimism to the Foreign Service members.

Daniel Kritenbrink was nominated to serve as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, while Brian Nichols was selected to serve as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. The third nominated was Brett Holmgren to serve as an assistant secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. Holmgren is not a State Department career diplomat.

One senior career diplomat who has served as the US ambassador to several capitals abroad said the overall approach for those waiting to be appointed was now “wait and see.”

Tim Lenderking has been one of the few career diplomats given a top post by Biden after he was tapped to be the president’s special envoy for Yemen.

Ricardo Zuniga, another career member of the Senior Foreign Service, was recently appointed to become the special envoy for the Northern Triangle.

Biden overlooked career diplomats for other posts, such as the deputy assistant secretary (DAS) for Israel and Palestinian Affairs and special envoy for Iran. The US president also nominated Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a retired career diplomat, to be the next US ambassador to the UN.

And with ambassadorships vacant in major capitals worldwide, it remains to be seen whether Biden will opt to fill them with career diplomats or political appointees. Some of the embassies that remain without a US ambassador are the United Kingdom, UAE, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, Japan, Israel, India, Germany, France, Bahrain and Afghanistan.

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