President Donald Trump is expected to nominate a Levant scholar and former adviser to Donald Rumsfeld to become the top US diplomat to the Middle East, a senior Trump administration official tells BuzzFeed News.
The decision to hire David Schenker, a director at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, would place a political appointee in a position that has been held by career diplomats since the 1990s.
Though it’s rare for a State Department outsider to receive the nomination, Middle East analysts expressed some relief given the urgent need for a nominee to lead the bureau and concerns about other potential candidates for the job.
“David has the benefit of past government experience and has a solid track record of policy research on many of the key issues impacting the region,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank aligned with Democrats.
Following the retirement of career diplomat Anne Patterson last January, the bureau has been without a presidentially appointed leader for almost a year as the Middle East lurched from one political crisis to the next.
The nomination of Schenker, who served as the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant during the George W. Bush administration, would signal some progress in finding nominees for a State Department lacking appointments in key positions.
At the moment, Europe is the only region in the world with a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary leading the bureau. Every other region is run by acting career officials who in some cases don’t have the clout in the interagency process that a Senate-confirmed official would enjoy.
Still, Schenker’s appointment is not exactly imminent.
“Don’t expect an announcement today or tomorrow, but he is expected to be the nominee,” a senior Trump administration official told BuzzFeed News.
Schenker’s research has largely focused on Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and though his views fit reliably within mainstream Washington conservative thinking, he has differed with the Trump administration on some of its policy preferences.
In Lebanon, the initial Trump administration 2018 budget request zeroed out US assistance for the Lebanese Armed Forces. Schenker, however, wrote in August that such a change could be detrimental to US foreign policy.
“Pragmatically speaking, the U.S. assistance is helping the LAF better secure Lebanon against the threat of Sunni Islamist militants,” Schenker wrote. “Perhaps more important, ending the program would be taken as a clear signal by Tehran -- and other states in the region -- that Washington is abandoning its interests and vulnerable allies in Lebanon.”
Gerald Feierstein, a former career foreign service officer, said the “big question” is whether Schenker will have influence in a State Department where the director of policy planning, Brian Hook, has had an outsized role in decision-making.
“In the first year at State, so much of the policy formulation has been in the hands of Brian Hook to the detriment of the regional bureaus who have been cut out of the process,” said Feierstein. “One would hope if they’ve finally made a decision about appointing an assistant secretary, things will go back to the way they used to be.”
One advantage Schenker may have is that his expertise – in Lebanon and Jordan – is one of the few areas where the Near East assistant secretary can have considerable control and ownership over the portfolio. Iran policy, for instance, is largely run out of the Trump White House, while State Department diplomats Brett McGurk and Michael Ratney largely control the Iraq and Syria portfolio.
“Given the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the region, I suspect David will want to focus on engaging key U.S. partners like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and bringing more coherence to U.S. policy,” said Katulis. “Another gap he could fill is giving greater form and substance to the diplomatic and political components of our engagement with countries like Lebanon, where much of the first year debate was focused on the military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces.”