White House sidesteps Congress opposition and appoints ambassador to Czech Republic

Norman Eisen

After a gap of near two years, the US is finally going to install an ambassador in Prague. The White House got around objections in Congress to its nominee by taking advantage of the fact that it is not in session just now.

The now near two year long gap since the last US ambassador to Prague packed his bags and left in mid-January 2009 is the longest period in the last two decades that the post has been left unfilled.

The ever lengthening absence of a US ambassador began to become embarrassing with foreign affairs experts worrying that it undermined relations between the Czech Republic and probably its most important foreign ally. The question was raised by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his October visit to Washington.

Barack Obama, photo: Štěpánka Budková
Czech sensitivities have been high after the abandonment of plans for an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic as part of President Barack Obama’s reset of relations with Russia. The anti-missile shield was supposed to anchor US involvement in the region.

So news in June that the president had nominated a close advisor to the vacant post was greeted with some enthusiasm. But the choice of ethics advisor Norman Eisen came up against opposition in Congress, especially from one mid-west Republican, Senator Charles Grassley.

Norman Eisen
Eisen, a Harvard-educated lawyer who studied with Obama, came under fire amid claims he misrepresented his role in the sacking of another Obama White House official. That resulted in the nomination being blocked in October and somewhat surprisingly being unblocked on Wednesday. Expectations had been that the president would take the more orthodox route of either putting Eisen forward again and waiting for approval or finding another candidate.

This was the reaction to the latest news given to Czech Television by the Czech charge d’affaires in Washington, Daniel Koštoval .

Daniel Koštoval, photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs
“We are quite delighted that President Obama has taken this strong step because not having an ambassador, whatever the country, is a limiting factor in developing two-way relations between nations. Norman Eisen is a very close collaborator with President Obama. They studied together. He is a lawyer who has mainly dealt with ethical issues. He also has roots in the region. His family originated from Poland and the Czech Republic.”

Wednesday’s move by the White House to install Eisen in the face of Congress opposition is an unusual but not unprecedented move. Three other ambassadors were appointed under the same formula along with Eisen on the same day amid growing White House frustration at Congress obstruction.

But such a move gets around Congressional approval rather than removing it entirely. The White House and Eisen will still need to get the Congress onside over the next year. Cases of the Congress recess being used twice over for the same appointee are virtually unknown.