US ambassadors flying to Washington despite shutdown

More than 150 US ambassadors are flying to Washington next week for the annual chief of mission conference, even though State Department employees are not being paid as the government shutdown drags on.

The State Department has decided that the conference will go ahead and funding for the diplomat’s travel has already been obligated after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave the green light.

“The secretary has decided to proceed with the global Chiefs of Mission conference January 16-17, 2019, as scheduled, even if we are still in a lapse of appropriations, because it is essential to the conduct of foreign affairs essential to national security,” a State Department official told CNN on Friday. “The timing of this conference is crucial to the safety, security and prosperity of the United States.”

Pompeo wrote to State Department employees Friday confirming the conference would take place. “Bringing together the men and women who lead our overseas diplomatic missions is essential to successfully achieving our unified mission of advancing America’s foreign policy,” he wrote.

Bloomberg was first to report the conference is going ahead.

There are mixed views within the diplomatic community on the conference’s importance to national security. Two former US ambassadors described the meetings as more of a bonding and convening exercise than a national security necessity. Other former ambassadors describe the meetings as “substantive.”

“In those meetings you discuss all issues that are being faced in the region. When I was there we were dealing with ISIS, Syria, Iraq and serious problems with Lebanon and Yemen. We tried to get a sense of where we heading from a policy perspective,” explained Joseph Westphal, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “I think they are absolutely necessary to national security. But the problem is that in some places we don’t have ambassadors.”

New ambassadors find it especially helpful — and this is a point that the State Department considered when they decided that the meetings would go on.

“Given that the Senate has just confirmed 23 ambassadors, this conference is particularly important and timely in helping them get off to the right start as they assume their duties immediately,” explained a State Department official.

The State Department has drawn down their workforce during the shutdown. There will be some strains on the meetings given the drawdown in the workforce at State, a State Department official said. But experts and diplomats who have visited the building over the last few weeks, amid the government shutdown, to discuss issues such as North Korea and Syria, say that the building is operating smoothly.

The conference was first held in 2011 but it did not take place during the first two years of the Trump presidency while Rex Tillerson was secretary of state.

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, welcomed the decision.

“The partial government shutdown complicates the critical work of diplomacy as tough choices must be made about what to stop doing,” she said. “That said, we in the US Foreign Service are determined to maintain the strong global leadership that has kept our country secure and prosperous for decades. Bringing American ambassadors together (for the first time in three years) clearly serves that goal.”

The conference will be held at the State Department and the department says it is working to minimize the cost “as responsible stewards of our taxpayer dollars.”