WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to confirm a retired four-star general, John Abizaid, as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, filling an important diplomatic post that has been vacant for more than two years.
U.S.-Saudi relations are in turmoil after the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor killed by kingdom agents in October while he was in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. That killing has added impetus to a push by Congress to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Khashoggi, who had written critically of the royal.
The Trump administration has struggled to fill many of the State Department's high-ranking positions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed Senate Democrats for stalling the process. Democrats in Congress blame the administration for putting forward unqualified or poorly screen nominees.
"Moving swiftly and efficiently on nominations like this, of which there are many others, is of great importance to our diplomatic stature across the globe," said Sen. Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement after the 92-7 vote. "We should continue in this way with all State Department nominees moving forward," said Risch, R-Idaho.
Abizaid received strong support from lawmakers in both parties, including critics of the administration's Saudi policy.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Abizaid was "a solid choice." Murphy said that "while I strongly disagree with this administration's weak, backwards policy toward Saudi Arabia, I'm glad that we finally have an ambassador on the ground there."
Abizaid was the longest-serving commander of U.S. Central Command, holding that post from 2003 until he retired in 2007. He served in Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S. has been without an ambassador in Saudi Arabia since Joseph Westphal, who was picked for the job by President Barack Obama, left in January 2017.