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How the Senate Botched the Afghanistan Withdrawal

Lawmakers in the upper chamber deserve blame for their failure to staff the State Department ahead of the unfolding crisis in Kabul.

A close-up of Senator Ted Cruz gesturing with two fingers.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On August 1—two months after the Rose Garden announcement of a legislative “framework” for an infrastructure bill dissolved into more protracted negotiations—Democratic and Republican senators pointed to a bipartisan deal as proof positive that “the Senate can work when given the opportunity to do so.”

Just weeks later, fresh doubts have emerged about whether the Senate’s deep dysfunctions were so easily remedied. Half a world away, another $2.2 trillion American infrastructure projectthe Afghan governmentcollapsed in a heap as the Taliban overran the country in the midst of the U.S. military’s withdrawal. At that dire moment, the Biden administration found itself bereft of much of the staff a president would ordinarily rely on in such a crisis—all thanks to the dithering of the Senate.

More than half a year has elapsed since President Biden took office, but across Foggy Bottom and around the world, State Department posts continue to sit empty—their roles filled by interim staffers. As longtime international affairs journalist Laura Rozen noted last week, the United States has no Senate-confirmed ambassador to Afghanistan; a Foreign Service officer called out of retirement has led the Kabul embassy as chargé d’affaires since January. The U.S. also has no confirmed assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia; acting officials have held that post since President Obama left office in 2017.

The list continues. The State Department lacks confirmed ambassadors to NATO, Pakistan, and Turkey; a director general of the Foreign Service; and confirmed assistant secretaries for diplomatic security, for the Near East, for Europe and Eurasia, for intelligence, for political-military affairs, and for population, refugees, and migration. Through mid-August, in fact, the Senate had confirmed just two ambassadors—leaving the top posts at half of America’s embassies filled by interim appointees. 

What gives? One problem is simple to explain: Compared with other established democracies, the U.S. requires way too many appointees to run the gauntlet of Senate confirmation. More than 1,200 positions across the executive branch can be filled only with the Senate’s assent. That list of positions has grown by three-fifths from 1960 to the presentwhile the number of senators has remained at 100.

Could Biden have sent the Senate a few more nominees by now? Undoubtedly. But as this Wall Street Journal story from May makes clear, there’s been a notable sparsity of confirmations in Biden’s first year as compared with the pace under previous presidents—and Biden isn’t the holdup. The Senate is. 

That brings us to the other problem. The Senate’s indulgent rules permit a single member of the chamber to slow the confirmation process and fritter away the time needed to consider nominees. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ted Cruz, a loud complainer about the competence of the administration’s Kabul evacuation, has spent months using the rules to roadblock Biden’s efforts to fully staff the State Department.

As Politico journalists Nahal Toosi and Alexander Ward explained on August 10—before Afghanistan’s tumble into crisis—Cruz’s histrionics have no connection to the qualifications of any pending nominees. Rather, he’s taken the State Department hostage over a policy dispute:

Nearly seven months since he took office, only 10 of Biden’s State Department nominees have been confirmed. Dozens more, including some 60 would-be ambassadors, face what one person familiar with the situation called Cruz’s “death grip.”... The Texas Republican is blocking State Department nominees en masse because he is upset that Biden waived some sanctions related to Nord Stream 2, a Russian-German energy pipeline project that the United States has long opposed.... Cruz has resisted [administration assertions] that his recalcitrance is damaging to U.S. national interests and national security.

An apoplectic Senator Chris Murphy railed about Cruz’s stunt from the Senate floor a day after the story above: “If every single senator did [this], because every single senator has a policy disagreement that they believe is significant ... then the business of nominations and confirmations would grind to an absolute halt.... That would do much, much more harm to American national security than any concession I might get from the administration.”

It’s a reckless way to run a country, one that leaves the executive branch short-staffed for handling a foreign crisis of the sort it now confronts. The fact that the Kabul evacuation effort recovered from early stumbles to hit a stride makes Senate dawdling no less culpable—Cruz’s nonchalance notwithstanding—for its precarious start.  

The paralysis of the Senate confirmation process makes it grating to watch some Senate Democrats issue calls for accountability and investigations. Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Mark Warner of Virginia, consensus seekers not known for ripping into Republican obstruction, made swift announcements after the Afghan government fell that they intended to scrutinize the Biden administration’s decisions—and promised to “ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for … a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces.” 

Well, we know one impediment to Biden’s preparations: Senate Republicans who threw themselves in the way of the administration’s efforts to staff itself for just such a contingency.

If senators want to investigate elements of the Kabul withdrawal, that’s of course their right. But an honest inquiry also has to confront senators’ own culpability—through their maintenance and indulgence of a broken process for staffing the executive branch.