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Diplomats hail Nancy Powell's nomination as US envoy to India

January 19, 2012 14:29 IST

If confirmed, Nancy Powell will be the first woman ambassador to India, but some have questioned if she would have the ear of the President unlike a political appointee. Aziz Haniffa reports from Washington DC.

When the United States senate returns from its recess next week, the senate foreign relations is expected to expeditiously take up President Obama's nomination of career diplomat and longtime South Asia hand Nancy Powell to be the next Ambassador to India. It is likely to confirm her so that she can be ensconced in Roosevelt House in New Delhi by February end and relieve charge d'affaires Peter Burleigh -- a veteran diplomat – who has been holding the fort since last June with the departure of Ambassador Tim Roemer.

Erstwhile career diplomats and former senior administration officials in interviews with hailed President Obama's nomination of Powell, 64. However, some sources have expressed concern about whether she would have the ear of the President, unlike a political appointee close to the President.

Sources told that Obama had first tapped former US Senators Charles 'Chuck' Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and now chairman of the Atlantic Council - a Washington DC think-tank, and Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, now 78, and living in retirement for the post to succeed Roemer.

But both Hagel and Sarbanes, who were once members of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and much respected by their colleagues, and likely to have confirmed without much difficulty, had refused the offer.

Following the refusal by Hagel and Sarbanes -- both close friends of India -- the White House, in no mood to get into a battle with Republican senators of the Foreign Relations Committee with a political appointee, had decided to ride it out with Burleigh till the end of the 2012 presidential elections.

However, following angst in many quarters, including in Delhi, that the non-appointment of an ambassador for nearly six months could be perceived as a dissipation of the priority accorded to India by the White House, the State department had pushed for the appointment of Powell.

If confirmed by the senate, which is expected to be a formality, Powell would be the first woman ambassador to India and also the first career diplomat to occupy Roosevelt House since 2007 when Frank Wisner completed his term as only the sixth career diplomat posted to Delhi among the 22 US envoys since 1947.

Nancy Powell had earlier served as ambassador to Pakistan (2002-2004), and Nepal (2007-2009), and in her junior years as a diplomat, was political counsellor in New Delhi and consul-general in Kolkata. She also served in Dhaka and Ottawa and had ambassadorial stints in Uganda (1997-1999) and Ghana (2001—2002).

In announcing her nomination along with Dick Berner, who he named as director, office of financial research at the US department of treasury, Obama said, "These fine public servants both bring a depth of experience and tremendous dedication to their new roles," and predicted, "Our nation will be well-served by these individuals, and I look forward to working with them in the months and years to come."

Powell is currently director general of the foreign service, a job she has held since her senate confirmation in July 2009. She was conferred the personal rank of career ambassador in January 2011.

Karl F 'Rick' Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for south Asian affairs in the Clinton administration told, "I do know Nancy Powell well and think highly of her."

He recalled, "I tried to get her at one point to be my principal deputy in the South Asia bureau," and added, "She's a real South Asia hand."

Inderfurth, now the Wadhwani chair for US-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that "she's very well regarded in the State department."

He added, "I mentioned to Peter Burleigh when I saw him in his office at the embassy recently that after seeing the photographs of all the men who have served as the US ambassador to India, it was time for a woman to join their distinguished ranks. Looks like that's about to happen."

Walter Andersen, who also served in South Asia and dealt with matters of the subcontinent for nearly three decades at the State department, including as the chief of the South Asia Division of the Intelligence and Research Bureau, told, "I have known Nancy for some three decades, if not more, and I can't think of another career diplomat better qualified," to be the next ambassador to India.

Andersen, currently the associate director of the South Asia Program at the Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies, said, "She knows South Asia very well and one could describe her as a South Asianist in the State Department and she is one of a small band of diplomats -- like Howie (Howard Schaffer) and (his wife) Tezi (Teresita Schaffer) -- who were among the earliest group of the South Asianists among the career diplomats at the State."

 "She has had tough assignments, as in Pakistan as ambassador at a sensitive time," he said, and noted that Powell "is creating history because she will be the first woman ambassador to India".

Andersen agreed that "the system and the White House wanted a tested hand at the wheel who could handle the range of advances that have been made over the past few years and now need to be managed and built. Nancy will do that superbly."

He said, Powell hails "from the nation's heartland in Iowa and is a former high school teacher. Nancy brings a real sense of America and American interests to her position."

"She knows how to get the best out of people. The embassy staff is getting a person who combines a tough demand for achievement with the decency of a person concerned about the well being of people," Andersen added.

Both Howard and Teresita Schaffer fully endorsed Andersen's testaments about Powell, and declared, "This is a great appointment."

"The important thing is that she knows all the issues and is well placed to try to get them dealt with. Her big challenge will be to keep the tops of both governments engaged," they said.

Lisa Curtis, a former CIA South Asia analyst, an ex-State department official, and then Congressional staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who now heads the South Asia bureau of the conservative Heritage Foundation -- a DC think tank -- also echoed similar sentiments.

"Powell's extensive experience on South Asia will provide a steady hand in India to nurture relations during what could be an unpredictable time for the region as the US draws down forces in Afghanistan and US-Pakistan relations deteriorate," he said.

Besides her South Asia assignments, Powell's other Washington assignments at the State Department included,  refugee assistance officer, principal deputy assistant Secretary for African affairs, acting assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Activities.

She was also the national intelligence officer for South Asia at the National Intelligence Council.

She joined the Foreign Service in 1977 following six years as a high school social studies teacher in Dayton, Iowa after graduating from the University of Northern Iowa.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC