US State Department’s top Middle East official confirmed by US Senate

By Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24
June 6, 2019

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed on Wednesday the appointment of David Schenker as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.

Schenker is highly-regarded in the field, and he served in the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration as Levant country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Washington, welcomed Schenker’s confirmation in a tweet, describing him as “a well-known and respected expert on the Middle East,” as she added, “We look forward to welcoming you to Kurdistan.”

The position of top US Middle East diplomat has been vacant since Donald Trump took office. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first Secretary of State, was criticized for being aloof and distant, and he simply failed to make appointments.

After Trump replaced Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State was quick to make appointments, but the Senate was slow to confirm them.

In particular, Sen. Tim Kaine (D, Virgina) put a “hold” on Schenker’s nomination, because he wanted an explanation from the Trump administration regarding the April 2018 missile strike on Syria, which the US conducted, along with the UK and France, in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Kaine demanded that the White House provide him the legal justification for that attack. It was unwilling to do so, and the result was a year-long stand-off in which the position of senior Middle East diplomat remained unfilled.

Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and now a Senior Fellow at Soran University, joined in endorsing Schenker’s appointment, describing him to Kurdistan 24 as “extremely capable.”

Davis noted that even in the best of circumstances, with knowledgeable officials in senior positions, the Middle East is a difficult region.

Indeed, Kaine’s Virginia constituents even began to complain about the hold that he had placed on Schenker’s nomination. Writing in the Alexandria Times, Jameson Cunningham, of Americans for a Free Syria, called on Kaine to “let David Schenker go.”

“We need the State Department fully staffed with competent experts to handle” the region’s many challenges, Cunningham affirmed.

The extended vacancy in the position of Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs allowed lower-ranking officials to “manipulate the situation,” Davis explained.

Iraq was not a top US priority under Tillerson, and the lower-ranking officials were able to expand their turf, assuming responsibility for formulating US policy on Iraq. Although the Trump administration was much tougher than Obama on Iran, they continued the Obama-era posture of conciliating Iran in Iraq.

Mithal Alusi, a former Iraqi parliamentarian and a Sunni Arab of strong liberal convictions, speaking last November to a Washington audience, strongly criticized “the people who represent your country in the embassy and Mr. Brett McGurk” for their accommodation of Tehran’s steadily growing influence in Iraq, particularly that of Qasim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Schenker’s appointment, however, reflects the decisive end of that policy, as does the appointment of a new US ambassador to Baghdad, Matthew Teuller, whose new position was confirmed by the Senate last month.

Teuller was previously US ambassador to Yemen, where he had to deal with Iranian backing for the Houthi rebels there. He is fully cognizant of how Iran uses proxies to establish a presence and expand its influence.

Indeed, Washington’s KRG Representative recently hailed Teuller as well, tweeting, “A pleasure to meet Matthew Teuller as he begins his assignment as the new US Ambassador to Iraq,” while she affirmed that his “experience in the Middle East and Europe will no doubt stand him in good stead” in his new post.