WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s choice of former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake to be the next ambassador to Turkey was “risky” – but is still likely to win confirmation, analysts said.
Flake, a Republican never-Trumper with no formal diplomatic experience, is likely to face some tough questioning from both sides in the Senate for the job in Turkey, a key ally in the Middle East.
But experts say he also still has a lot of goodwill from former Senate colleagues who can be expected to support his nomination.
“He has a lot of friends in the Senate. A lot of these people who will be voting for his confirmation are his former colleagues,” said Will Todman, a fellow in the Middle East program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think, in particular, centrists from both parties are likely to support him.”
Flake is the second Arizona Republican nominated to an ambassadorship in less than a month by Biden. In June, he tapped Cindy McCain – also a sharp critic of former President Donald Trump – to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations’ Agencies on Food and Agriculture.
Todman said Biden’s choices of Flake and McCain serves as “important signaling that he does have this commitment to bipartisanship.”
Both Flake and McCain, the widow of former Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, have sparred with Trump since before he was elected president in 2016.
Trump’s opposition forced Flake to decide not to seek re-election to the Senate in 2018. In 2020, both Flake and McCain joined a long list of establishment Republicans who said they not only opposed Trump, but would vote for Biden, a Democrat.
“History will show that in the dark days of President Trump, we experienced a very close call for the survival of our American project,” Flake wrote in a Washington Post editorial on Jan. 19, the day before Biden’s inauguration. In it, he referred to the “malign incompetence that defined the last presidency,” overseen by “an unsteady executive.”
Flake’s confrontational history with Trump is likely to come into play at his Senate confirmation hearings, analysts say.
Flake is “extremely unpopular among the senators who remain very close with President Trump,” Todman said. That was echoed by Michael Hechter, foundation professor of political science at Arizona State University.
“Flake has obviously carved out a position in his party that’s a fairly lonely one now,” Hechter said.
But it’s not just Trump supporters who will question Flake’s nomination. “More progressive Senators might question his suitability for this role,” Todman said.
“President Biden is taking a risk with nominating someone who does have less diplomatic experience and certainly doesn’t have the regional experience that recent ambassadors have had,” Todman said.
Unlike some political ambassador appointments that are “nice pre-retirement gigs … being ambassador to Turkey is not that,” Todman said. “This is a tricky, tricky posting.”
Flake has experience in international relations and chaired the Africa subcommittee of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. As both a senator and House member, he pushed for “ending the embargo to Cuba, which is something very few people in his party supported,” Hechter said.
But Flake has no formal experience in the Foreign Service. By contrast, the current ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, has decades of experience with the State Department and years of postings in the Middle East.
“The ambassadorship to Turkey is a key position since Turkey plays an increasingly strong role in Middle Eastern politics,” Hechter said. “The Middle East is an area that’s going to have a lot of contention in the years to come.”
But Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, both Democrats, both quickly came out in support of Flake’s nomination.
“Jeff’s nomination comes at a critical time, when America needs thoughtful statesmanship in Turkey. I look forward to supporting his nomination, and I know he will make us proud,” Sinema said in a prepared statement.
Kelly called Flake “the right choice for this job, and I know he will once again serve our country with distinction.”
Hechter said that while this nomination means Flake “has thrown in the towel on his political career,” an ambassadorship could “open certain kinds of other possibilities down the road for him, even if they’re not within the Republican Party.”
While the Turkey job is “a challenging post,” Hechter said, it’s one he thinks Flake “might do very well in.”
Todman would not predict what the post could mean Flake’s long-term plans, except to say that this nomination “is not him riding off into the sunset.”
But Flake has to get confirmed first. The nomination, announced Tuesday, was officially sent to the Senate Thursday.
“I think there will be some senators who throw softballs and are very keen to confirm a former colleague and a friend in many cases,” Todman said. “There are others who are really going to push on the lack of regional focus and expertise, and I think they will question the wisdom in appointing someone like that.”
– Cronkite News reporter Rob Winder contributed to this report from Phoenix.