Local is Global: how the TVA board impacts America’s Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication

Bartholomew Sullivan, a reporter with the 150-year old Memphis paper Commercial Appeal, wrote a couple of interesting articles on the fight between Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) on the Republican to Democrat ratio of the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority.  What seems to be a minor squabble, at least to those outside of Tennessee, is having a global impact and yet goes under-reported. 

Bartholomew reported back on May 1 that Sen. Alexander’s nomination for the TVA board, Memphian Bishop William H. Graves is being held up by Sen. Reid.  Sen. Reid believes there are too many Republicans on the board already.  While Bishop Graves is a registered democrat, he “votes independent” and “served as Shelby County co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election effort in 2004.”  Further, Bishop Graves, the first black to sit on the board since 1933, already served a term, making this a renomination, after a 2006 nomination — and successful appointment — by President Bush in 2006.

Last week, however, the issue wasn’t resolved between Senators Reid and Alexander.  According to Bartholomew, after a carefully crafted unanimous consent on a slate of nominations was worked out in the Senate, at about 11p Thursday night (May 22) Sen Alexander put a hold on one of Sen. Reid’s nominations that started a tit-for-tat:

As the Senate was about to confirm a slate of nominees by unanimous consent late Thursday, Alexander put a hold on the nomination of Ikram Khan to the Institute of Peace. In response, Reid put a hold on the Bush administration’s nominee to fill the vacancy at the top to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The result stalled confirmation of what a Reid spokesman said was as many as 80 nominees and which Alexander said was “a handful.”

“Senator Reid was shocked and disappointed that Senator Alexander torpedoed a carefully crafted package last night that included the expedited confirmation of a desperately needed Housing secretary,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. “Senator Alexander’s actions left 80 people twisting in the wind last night.”

In his floor speech after the Alexander hold, Reid said the action affected several military and 18 ambassadorial appointments over “some inconsequential appointment” to the TVA.

As of now everything’s on hold pending the Senate’s return from Memorial Day recess next week.  The impact of delaying the ambassadorial appointments will vary by post and by nominee.  The same is probably true for the military nominations, although sans the part about favoritism (hopefully). 

Interestingly, the only one reporting this is Bartholomew. 

Bartholomew points out another important position that is left vacant pending Senatorial squabbling: the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development.  The best time to leave this vacant is not while the U.S. is going through a mortgage and housing crisis.  But local politics can also be global. 

In the slate of 80 are some important positions, including some 18 ambassadors.  This includes some well-qualified career people, as Pat Kushlis points out, with critical assignments: Ambassador John Beyrle to Russia and James Cunningham to Israel.  I couldn’t get the list from Sen. Reid’s office today to check if the confirmation of General David Petraeus to CENTCOM command was also held up (his D.C. office was closed and his Carson City office didn’t have the list). 

While the House amends the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 (see Part I, Part II, and Part III) in clumsy, disjointed, but well-intentioned attempts fix America’s public diplomacy and strategic communication the Senate plays games.  In addition to preventing Beyrle and Cunningham and others from taking their posts, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs also remains vacant. 


But as a reader pointed out in a comment on a related post, this is par for this position.  From the beginning of Bush Administration through today, May 27, 2008, this office has been vacant 40% of the time.  As of today, it has been vacant for 164 days. 

While the Defense Department under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sets a course for the next President, State and State’s public diplomacy remains without leadership.  While the Defense Department explores what changes are required to adapt to 21st century information age struggles that may or may not include things that go boom and may or may not be won with things that go bang, including commissioning various projects to explore strategic communication and public diplomacy (some overlapping), the State Department and Public Diplomacy / Public Affairs sits relatively idle, without a senior champion. 

Of course, having an Under Secretary won’t fix everything.  There is a reason the office has been left vacant for 1073 days out of a possible 1607, including a lack of support from the most senior levels and not fully appreciating the value and role of information.  The former may or may not be fixed by leaving the office vacant — ideally it would as the office holder would become the necessary civilian champion for America’s global information activities.  The latter will be fixed by having somebody in the office who understands the value of information and mobilizes others to do the same. 

I’m sure neither Senator Reid nor Senator Alexander are thinking about the global picture here as they understanding if unfortunately play local politics.  With luck, all will make-up after the recess and the slate will be approved next week.

However, as it is, the United States remains under-equipped, ill-prepared, and dangerously behind the curve in the contemporary and future conflict environment.  In the past their tiff would have had little effect, today the battle over who sits on the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority will result in unintended consequences for the national security of the United States.  Local is now global. 

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