WASHINGTON, D.C.—Led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel (D.-N.Y.), the senior Democratic members of the Committee, including Rep. Amerish ‘Ami Bera(D.-Calif.), have called on President Trump to immediately nominate an Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, a position that has remained vacant since the advent of his administration two years ago.
In their missive to Trump, Engel and his colleagues, including members of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, which has jurisdiction over matters pertaining to the subcontinent, complained that without a confirmed appointee for the past 28 month, the State Department’s ability to conduct diplomacy and shape policy in a critical region of the world had been severely hampered.
On Jan. 20,2017, when President Trump assumed the presidency, President Obama’s political appointee, Nisha Desai Biswal, who headed the South Asia Bureau at the State Dept. quit this post and since then in the absence of an Assistant Secretary, career diplomat Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the bureau has held the fort, but Congressional sources have contended that without the imprimatur of Assistant Secretary, she doesn’t carry the gravitas of the office.
But these sources have acknowledged that Wells “is a superb diplomat with an enormous knowledge of the subcontinent with decades of experience,” and as once source on the Foreign Affairs Committee told India Abroad, “For the life of me, I can’t understand why the President doesn’t nominate her for the Assistant Secretary post because not only is she a perfect candidate and would she be a shoo-in for Senate confirmation” by the Foreign Relations Committee, “but she is one of the most well-liked and non-controversial career diplomats who’s really led the bureau so ably in the past two years, and has the respect of members both in the House and Senate.”
In their letter, the members wrote Trump that “we are deeply concerned by your failure, more than two years into your term, to name and have confirmed an Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs at the Department of State.”
“The absence of a confirmed official to lead the Department’s efforts at advancing some of American’s most important relationships, including with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has had a demonstrably negative impact on U.S. interests and regional stability in South Asia,” they argued.
The lawmakers reiterated, “The State Department’s lack of senior-level involvement on a variety of matters related to South Asia has been deeply disturbing. From the failure of the Department’s senior officials to engage directly with Sri Lankan government officials during the country’s October-December 2018 constitutional crisis, to the Department’s failure to form a coherent India policy, to the mishandling of the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship in the midst of seeking a peace deal with the Taliban, it is clear that American leadership -- when it is needed most -- is missing in action.”
“We believe that these failures are at least in part the result of not having a confirmed Assistant Secretary,” they added.
While applauding Wells and her team, saying, “We laud the performance of acting officials and career personnel at the State Department who have covered South Asia while there has been no Senate-approved leadership of the Bureau,” the members pointed out that “while acceptable for relatively brief periods of time, having no Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian more than two years into your term is not acceptable.”
The members noted, “We understand that candidates with deep South Asia experience in and outside of the State Department have been considered for the Assistant Secretary position, so it is difficult to understand why it remains unfilled,” and strongly urged Trump “to nominate a qualified individual to fill this critical Assistant Secretary position as soon as possible.”
Besides Engel and Bera, the letter was signed by Reps. Brad Sherman, chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, Dina Titus, Chrissy Houlahan, Gerald E. Connolly, Andy Levin, and Abigail Spanberger.
A time-tested friend of India for more than two decades and one of the co-founders of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Engel, took over the helm of the Foreign Affairs Committee when the Democrats regained the majority in the House in the mid-terms in November.
A fixture at Indian American events and in Congressional hearings and conferences on U.S.-India and U.S. South Asia relations, Engel has always spoken of his involvement in the founding of the India Caucus, more than 20 years ago, recalling of how, “At that time, the U.S. relationship with India focused more on what our two countries couldn’t do together rather than what we could do together.”
But that in recent years, “The U.S. relationship with India is one of our most important, driven by our shared interests and shared values,” and pointed to both countries making progress in several areas.
At hearings, he’s noted that “India now participates in more military exercises with the United States than with any country in the world, and onnce a sticking point between our governments, nuclear cooperation has become the lynchpin of the renewed U.S. India partnership.”
Engel has also emphasized of how on issues like even climate change, India has ratified the Paris agreement and that two-way trade between India and the United States continues to expand, supporting thousands of American jobs, and argued that “India’s ‘Look East, Act East’ strategy to expand economic engagement in Asia aligns closely with our own Asia rebalance.”
“The list goes on and on. From space exploration, to shared concerns in the Indian Ocean region, to economic growth, we’re collaborating on more issues than ever before,” he recently added, and has always emphasized, “Much of this progress is due to our people-to-people ties, rooted in the three-million-strong Indian-American community.”
Engel said, “Thanks to their advocacy and the hard work of dedicated leaders of all political ideologies in both countries, the United States and India are now closer than ever before,” although acknowledging, “But this doesn’t mean that the United States and India will agree on everything. And when we don’t see eye to eye, we need to have honest discussions and work toward good solutions.”