WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has postponed a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Moscow after a Republican congressman held up the decision over an unrelated funding issue.
While Michael McFaul, a member of Obama’s National Security Committee and his top Russia adviser, has previously enjoyed the backing of both Democrats and Republicans, his nomination was expected to become an avenue for Republicans to express general opposition to the White House’s Russia policy.
Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington think tank, says that the delay comes down to partisan politics — which is not surprising, as the 2012 presidential election season approaches.
“I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not about [McFaul]. Comments from both sides of the aisle — not just now, around the hold, but when he was first nominated and even before he was nominated, when the indication that he would be nominated leaked out — have been broadly positive about him,” Rojansky says.
“Where they’re negative is about the ‘reset’ and about the Obama administration. It gets political. We’re going into political silly season and it’s not surprising that this, too, will be held hostage.”
Foreign Relations Committee member Senator Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee) raised the objection ahead of the planned November 15 vote on McFaul’s nomination, insisting that the Obama administration provide assurances on funding for nuclear modernization.
A spokesperson for the senator said in an e-mailed comment to RFE/RL, “Senator Corker is working to ensure that the U.S. funds the necessary modernization of our nuclear weapons and complex as outlined by the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] to ensure the safety and reliability of our nuclear deterrent.”
The spokesperson did not specifically mention McFaul.
Questioning The ‘Reset’
In late 2010, the Obama administration persuaded a number of Republican lawmakers, including Corker, to support the new START nuclear nonproliferation treaty with Russia by pledging $85 billion over the next decade for maintaining and updating the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The administration considers the treaty to be the centerpiece of its policy of “resetting” relations with Moscow, which hit a low point under former President George W. Bush.
However, an unprecedented budget shortfall and the need for cost-cutting in Washington have since raised doubts that the pledged nuclear-modernization money will be allotted.
Corker’s home state of Tennessee is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which works on isotope production.
The senator’s objection, which is likely not the only one among Republican committee members, was enough to convince the committee to cancel the meeting where the vote was scheduled to be held.
Committee Chairman John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts) told Reuters he expected to resolve the problem and reschedule the vote soon.
But if McFaul’s nomination does pass a committee vote, it may run into more roadblocks on the floor of the Senate, where Republicans might take the opportunity to voice their criticism of the “reset” — of which McFaul is considered the primary architect.
“What I’ve heard and read indicates that these guys [Republican congressmen] are willing to go to the mat,” Rojansky says. “They’re willing to use all the leverage they have, and that might mean either delaying the confirmation to the point that it becomes impracticable and gets withdrawn and puts it to the president to either invest more political capital in this than he wants to, or give up, or they simply vote it down. They potentially have the numbers to do that.”
Keeping Pressure On Moscow
A number of Republican senators have accused the Obama administration of ignoring Russia’s actions in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, undermining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, bending missile-defense plans, and downplaying Russia’s disturbing human rights record for the sake of improved bilateral relations.
The Obama administration has maintained that the “reset” seeks cooperation with Russia on certain areas — such as nuclear nonproliferation, Iran sanctions, and support for NATO troops in Afghanistan — without diminishing U.S. concerns about Russia’s behavior in others.
In testimony last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, McFaul said that as ambassador, he would look to continue that approach, as well as boost U.S. support for Russia’s beleaguered civil society.
“I think we stick to our policy, which is to say we’re going to engage with the Russian government on mutual interests and in parallel and at the same time we’re going to engage — and I hope, if confirmed, to be a part of this as ambassador — to deepen our engagement with Russian civil society,” McFaul said.
“And we’re not going to allow some false trade that says, ‘Because you’re dealing with us on issue X in the government channel, you can’t do this with Russian civil society.'”
The Obama administration has also supported Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. A number of senators, however, see graduating Russia from Soviet-era trade restrictions would amount to rewarding Moscow as it continues to violate its citizens’ rights.
The website of “Foreign Policy” magazine reported that a number of Republican senators also wanted the November 16 meeting to include a vote on the pending Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act of 2011, which would ban visas for and freeze the assets of some 60 Russian officials connected to the lawyer’s torture and death in jail.
Magnitsky died two years ago today.
In July, the U.S. State Department imposed visa bans on a number of the officials named in the legislation in a move that some analysts say was meant to appease lawmakers and prevent damage to the “reset” caused by the bill’s passage.