Tomorrow all eyes will be on the House as State Department whistleblowers step forward to reveal new details surrounding the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead.
Today, only three senators showed up to the hearing to hear from the nominee President Obama picked to fill Stevens’ place.
“We can never forget Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other American public servants — Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith, and Glen Doherty — who tragically lost their lives in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said at the beginning of the confirmation hearing, which also included the nomination of James Knight as ambassador to Chad.
A career diplomat, Deborah K. Jones is a former ambassador to Kuwait and also served at diplomatic posts in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, and Syria. Obama picked her in March to occupy the post left vacant by Stevens’ death in September, before new information to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee prompted the latest round of hearings.
“The attacks on Benghazi raise questions about how we can best help those serving in our embassies do their jobs and reach outside the wire and still keep our people safe and secure,” Menendez continued.
“That said — we cannot let the events in Benghazi overshadow the slow but positive progress that Libya continues to make in fulfilling the promise of the revolution. … We’ve seen the emergence of an active civil society that remains engaged over how best to move the country forward, an important ingredient for any democracy and there’s no doubt that the U.S. enjoys a certain level of popularity in Libya that we saw in the aftermath of Ambassador Stevens’ death when thousands took to the street against the extremists — and in support of the United States.”
Jones was introduced by her home-state senator, Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who also invoked Stevens’ name in saying it’s important to remember the late ambassador’s work by getting a new person in that position. “I know she is mindful of this important job,” Udall said.
Jones, who said she’s “grateful” to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry “for their confidence and trust,” said she believes one of the reasons “we need to get an ambassador out there” is to lend support to the government in battling militias.
“The Libyan people deserve better than this,” she said, adding support is needed for security, training, disarming militias, and engaging with the Libyans on governance and civil society.
“I feel an urgency to get on the ground and have an ambassador there,” Jones continued. “An ambassador doesn’t wake up without considering security — that just goes part and parcel with the job.”
When ambassador to Kuwait from 2008 to 2011, Jones said, she canceled the yearly Marine ball because of a “combination of factors” that led her to believe it was a security risk. She said she “roused the emir’s brother,” the head of security, and “asked him to swap out all of his guards.”
She said her first plan after landing in Libya would be to do a “terrain walk” with a security officer in Tripoli to assess the situation on the ground.
“What have you done to cause people to send you to Libya?” asked Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), sparking laughter in the room.
“Our daughters are asking what they did to us!” Jones responded, noting that her husband is in Islamabad. “It’s really just to pay for their college, sir.”
Asked by Corker how she would approach diplomatic security in a country where an ambassador’s life was taken just months ago, Jones said the ambassador is the principal security officer at post and has to determine where more security is needed and where people are allowed to go.
“And if you don’t get the answers you need, you pick up the phone and speak to the people who are responsible for that,” she added.
Corker asked if she was underestimating the challenges there, especially in the wake of the weekend’s drama in which armed men laid siege to government ministries in protest of a new law to purge officials from the Gadhafi era. Libya’s defense minister quit in protest of the protests, then was convinced by the prime minister to stay.
“It’s really not a government,” Corker said. “It’s almost remarkable that the country’s functioning.”
“I don’t know that we’ve underestimated,” said Jones. “I know we’ve had a setback these last 8-9 months without an ambassador on the ground… we’ve never won a battle we haven’t shown up for.”
Saying that Libyans will be engaged in achieving security and societal goals — “they have more skin in this game than anyone else and they know that” — the nominee said “we have to be prepared to engage with anyone who is committed to a democratic transition in Libya,” even Islamists who have “eschewed violence.”
“I’m not prepared to rule anything in or out at this stage,” she said when asked directly about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) came into the hearing late to be the only one of seven committee Republicans other than Corker to show up.
McCain cautioned against believing support for Libya “is naive or mistake” as “even the worst dictators can be overthrown and swept into the ash heap of history where they belong.”
“If you’re gonna succeed in Libya you’re going to have to speak truth to power,” he told Jones, adding, “You’re not going to go to Eastern Libya anytime soon, not just because of Benghazi but because it’s no longer in control of the government.”
The senator added that he hopes Jones “strenuously advises” the White House and Kerry on “how to salvage what is a deteriorating situation in Libya.”
Jones said she’s buoyed by the number of emails she received from private Libyans when the White House announced her candidacy “offering their hope for the relationship to continue strongly.”
The Tripoli Post announced her nomination with a gender-centric headline: “US President Obama Names Woman As Libya Ambassador.”
Benghazi wasn’t the only thing on the mind of the nearly empty dais. Menendez asked if Jones would press the Libyan government for more information on 1988′s Pan Am Flight 103 attack, and McCain wanted her to get the remains of American sailors killed in an unsuccessful raid on the Barbary pirates returned for proper burial.
Menendez said the nomination will be on the agenda at the next business meeting of the committee. Jones will likely sail through to the Senate.
“You cannot direct American assistance without an ambassador at the location,” the chairman said. “I believe that it’s imperative to have these nominations move forward.”