By Eric Kulisch
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, has earned high praise for the work he is doing trying to keep pressure on the hardline regime of Bashar al-Assad.
He has publicly criticized the regime and conveyed the Obama administration’s position that al-Assad should step down in the face of grassroots demonstrations for a more democratic form of government.
Ford has risked his life to meet with opposition figures and visit cities where protests are taking place in the face of the government’s violent crackdown. Rather than sit quietly in the capital, he has defied Syrian instructions to get permission to leave Damascus and travelled around the country to see the opposition movement firsthand. After visiting Hama, a hotbed for the uprising, the Syrian government placed travel restrictions on him.
During the summer, government loyalists attacked the American embassy and Ford’s residence several blocks away.
In August, Ford attended the funeral of a human rights activist who was killed while in the custody of Syrian security forces.
Recently, al-Assad supporters stoned the ambassador’s convoy as he arrived for a meeting with an opposition leader, then pelted him with eggs and tomatoes and tried to break into the building while he was inside. He was trapped inside for about 90 minutes.
So, why, you might ask, is a foreign policy issue being reported in a business column? Because Robert Ford and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin had two things in common: they are government officials who are actually getting things done in the nation’s interest and they worked under recess appointments that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
That means, barring any change, they will soon leave their posts.
As we’ve documented in this space, Bersin is getting his agency to think outside the box and retool how it interacts with commercial interests and the traveling public. Initiatives implemented or underway include overhauling regulations of customs brokers to bring them in line with 21st century business practices, managing importer compliance on an account basis rather than for each shipment, establishing industry-specific centers of experts to reduce red tape associated with cargo release, simplifying document filing and payment steps, developing electronic manifest capabilities in the new Automated Commercial Environment computer system, enhancing trusted trade programs and supporting the creation of a Border Interagency Executive Committee as a forum for interagency collaboration.
And let’s not forget the important work being done by Eric Hirschhorn, the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for export administration, to help reform the nation’s outdated export control system. After many years of inaction, the Commerce Department has moved rapidly to establish criteria for reform and reached many milestones, including a new license exception designed to speed up trade of certain goods to U.S. allies, and draft regulations to move low-risk and benign items from the more strictly controlled U.S. Munitions List to a commercial list.
He too is a recess appointment who is scheduled, under the rules, to lose his appointment even though his nomination has been twice approved by the Senate Banking Committee.
There are a bunch of other officials that Congress has also refused to confirm, but these three stand out because of how much they have accomplished. Business groups are extremely gratified by the progress Bersin and Hirschhorn, in particular, have made in pushing needed reforms through an entrenched bureaucracy.
These guys are go-getters who have gone the extra mile to tackle huge challenges in contrast to the negative perception many Americans have about bureaucrats or appointees who get cushy jobs as a political favor.
So when the American people get that rare official that actually implements change we can believe in, what happens? Politics gets in the way and the person doing a great job has to hang up his or her hat. In the end, the individual is not the loser. It’s the private sector and American people that will feel the loss in the form of less effective regulations and policy implementation that affect their bottom line, health, safety and security.
Bersin and Hirschhorn are victims of the fact that the Obama administration installed them when Congress was not in session because of Senate foot-dragging on their confirmation. Bypassing the Senate’s constitutional authority to confirm political appointees has ticked off some senators, and Bersin had the additional problem of failing to properly complete some immigration-related paperwork for household workers.
The Senate Finance Committee made clear that it was not pleased by the way the White House handled Bersin’s confirmation, including what it considered a failure to fully disclose details of the paperwork oversight.
Bersin received a frosty reception during his first hearing before the Finance Committee in May 2010, but Chairman Max Baucus left the impression that Bersin was on probation to see if he could deliver on trade facilitation reforms the senator championed.
In Ford’s case, Republicans didn’t want the Obama administration to send an envoy to Syria in the first place, believing it conferred legitimacy on the Assad regime. President Bush pulled his ambassador out of the country in 2006, but Obama felt it was still necessary to engage the Assad dictatorship despite a growing number of disagreements. Republicans threatened to block a vote.
You’ll recall that I said Bersin and Ford “had” some similarities. “Had” is the proper tense of the verb because on Oct. 4 the Senate unanimously confirmed Ford as the permanent ambassador to Syria.
Ford’s outspokenness and actions appear to have convinced Republicans to drop opposition to his appointment.
You’ll also note that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in front of television cameras, publicly urged the Senate to confirm Ford.
“Ambassador Ford has shown admirable courage, putting himself on the line to bear witness to the situation on the ground in Syria. He is a vital advocate for the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people now under siege by the Assad regime. I encourage the United States Senate to show our support for Ambassador Ford by confirming him as soon as possible so he can continue his critical and courageous work,” she said.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has not been made a similar display of support for Bersin. Asked whether the department is trying to advance Bersin’s confirmation, DHS spokesman Matt Chandler provided the following statement:
“The Secretary has actively supported Commissioner Bersin’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate. She believes that Bersin has established a proven track record on border security and trade facilitation during his [eighteen months] of service as Commissioner, and she looks forward to working with the Committee to ensure that he is confirmed before the end of the 112th Congress.”
Napolitano needs to explain how important Bersin is to the goal of making cross-border trade more secure and efficient. By reducing delays and administrative costs, CBP is helping make companies more competitive in a tough economic environment. Perhaps with less pressure on their budget, some companies will be able to hire a few more workers.
Bersin has earned his way off probation.
If the Senate could turn around and confirm Ambassador Ford, surely the Finance Committee and the rest of the Senate can see fit to approve another public servant who has proven his worth.