By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
The US Ambassadors to the ASEAN countries rotate every three years or so. For the most part, with the exception of Singapore, they tend to be experienced career foreign service officers. A new class is making its way into the region. They a relatively young group with strong resumes and solid experience. Most have strong ties back to the mother ship – the State Department – and some of worked in the White House and on Capitol Hill too. Together, they will face the challenging assignment of enhancing ties with countries that make up one of the most politically and economically dynamic regions of the world. One that will be the focal point of serious attention from the world’s major powers in the next three years.
Already in place are Harry Thomas in Manila and David Adelman in Singapore. Thomas is a real pro with experience in many parts of the world and serious time in at the National Security Council. He replaced Kristie Kenney. Adelman is a smart, affable and business friendly lawyer from Georgia — he and Robert “Skip” Orr are the only political appointees of this class. He took the reigns from a Bush Administration political appointee named Patricia Herbold.
Those who are confirmed or in the awaiting confirmation after their hearings in the Senate include:
Scot Marciel heading to Jakarta. He was formerly the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia and Ambassador to ASEAN. He knows the ropes and has excellent alignment with his boss Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia & Pacific, Kurt Campbell. He will need it. Indonesia is the anchor of ASEAN, and the relationship that the Obama Administration hopes to transform ala what the Bush Administration did with India. Scot will succeed Cameron Hume who is headed to Afghanistan.
Krisite Kenney is heading to Bangkok to replace Eric John. She will have her hands full as our treaty ally finds itself in the eye of a political hurricane which tragically took 90 lives earlier this year as the army and police cleared protesters from the streets of the venerable capital. Kristie’s last posting was as Ambassador to the Philippines. She will be the first female US Ambassador to Thailand.
Paul Jones will take up post in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to succeed Jim Keith. He is another export from the US Embassy in Manila, where he served very capably as DCM and then Charge’ between the Frank Ricciardone and Kristie Kenney. After Manila he worked with Special Envoy for South Asia Richard Holbrooke — truly earning his stripes. As the US Malaysia relationship experiences a renaissance of sorts, Paul will be a pathfinder.
Karen Brevard Stewart will take over from Ravic Huso in the US Embassy in Vientiane in the Laos Peopled Democratic Republic. She’s returning there. She was posted in Vientiane earlier in her career and she speaks Thai (a language quite close to Lao). She was the US Ambassador to Belarus and an advisor to the Director General of the Foreign Service prior to being nominated.
Skip Orr will take over as the US Ambassador to the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB). He may be the perfect choice. The ADB is dominated by the Japanese, who are still the largest donor to the bank. Therefore they get to name the President and other senior positions. Skip has lived in Japan for many years as a student, professor, political advisor and then in leading positions in the US private sector including for Motorola and his last role, President of Boeing Japan. Skip is also a political appointee. He was active in fundraising for the Obama campaign, particularly among Democratic expats in Asia.
Other key appointees include Indonesia hand Judith Fergin who is headed to be Ambassador to the region’s youngest country, Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) and Nisha Desai Biswal, who is awaiting confirmation as Assistant Administrator for Asia at the US Agency for International Development.
Nominations that are coming but yet to be announced include the new US Ambassador to ASEAN — the first to be based in Jakarta, the location of the ASEAN Secretariat. He will have to share space with Scot Marciel’s team in the US Embassy in Jakarta and must be an uber-diplomat so he doesn’t step on the toes of his fellow chiefs of mission around the region — and the new US Ambassador to Vietnam who will succeed Michael Michalak. It is not clear whether the Administration plans to name a US Special Envoy for Burma as recommended in the Lantos legislation, or try to double hat the US Ambassador to ASEAN with this task.