ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we're going to talk about a glaring absence in the secretary of state's Middle East tour. Of the nine countries Secretary Pompeo was visiting this week, five don't have a Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador. We're talking about countries that are crucial to U.S. foreign policy like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Richard LeBaron spent decades as a diplomat mostly in the Middle East, and he's now with the Atlantic Council. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
RICHARD LEBARON: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Begin by explaining why it matters whether any given country has a Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador or not. The White House often says that, in these countries, a highly qualified career diplomat is serving as acting ambassador. So what's the difference?
LEBARON: Well, Ari, there are several factors at play. I think it's good to keep in mind that ambassadors are the president's personal representatives. They're appointed by the president, given consent by the Senate, and the absence of them just removes a tool for any president's foreign policy. Secondly, when there's not an ambassador in place, sure, there's a very capable staff at our U.S. embassies. And I've been a charge, so I don't want to diminish the importance of a charge in the field.
SHAPIRO: Charge is the term of art for the acting ambassador, the career diplomat.
LEBARON: Yes, it is. And that's the person who is in charge when no ambassador's around. But that person almost inevitably doesn't have quite the influence of an ambassador because he or she is not the president's personal representative. Thus, the host government tends to look upon that person as a lesser interlocutor. And that person may not have the same level of access to information and to people as a sitting ambassador. So that's really important.
SHAPIRO: So let's take a specific example - Saudi Arabia. There's been a lot of U.S.-Saudi diplomacy about the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, about the war in Yemen. In that specific example, how might things go differently if there were a Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador in that post?
LEBARON: Well, I think one thing that might be different is that an ambassador would be able to interpret for the Saudis just how seriously we take some of these irresponsible actions by the Saudi government. If he has or she has the authority of the president behind them, that might make the Saudis take another look at some of these policies. I can't guarantee that. And much of the relationship with the Saudis is directly with Washington. But I think it does make a difference to have an empowered representative of the president on the ground, not only to represent his views but to inform the president and the secretary of state of what's going on at the highest levels of government in Saudi Arabia.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell how much of this is a result of the White House failing to nominate people versus the Senate not acting to confirm people once they're nominated?
LEBARON: Well, I don't want to assign blame, but the administration is two years in. So it seems to me that there are a disproportionate number of vacancies. And it reflects, I think, a certain attitude on the part of the president that he doesn't need help. That's unfortunate because there are - these ambassadors are perfectly willing and able to help him succeed in his policy.
And I would add that this is a president who wants the United States to do less in the Middle East. And in that case, ambassadors need to do more because they need to convince other countries in that region to take on more of the burden themselves. So there's a role here that's unique to this administration as well.
SHAPIRO: This problem started when Rex Tillerson was secretary of state, and Pompeo was asked about it during his confirmation hearings. He said he would address the large number of vacancies. Why do you think that hasn't happened?
LEBARON: Well, I think secretaries of state tend to get caught up in policy matters. And he lacks some of the key appointments in the State Department that would help facilitate the appointment of ambassadors. But I can't really assign blame. I think it's just a matter of putting a priority on the matter of getting a full representation abroad.
SHAPIRO: Ambassador Richard LeBaron of the Atlantic Council, thanks for joining us today.
LEBARON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.