An American attorney known for being a human rights advocate, in addition to supporting US President Barack Obama, has finally been cleared to be the next US Ambassador to Norway. Samuel D Heins will fill a position that’s been vacant for more than two years.
The vacancy likely would have set off a diplomatic scandal if it had been any other country than the US, Norway’s most influential and powerful ally. When relations between Norway and China soured over a Nobel Peace Prize to one of its dissidents, for example, Norwegian officials grew nervous after the Chinese ambassador abruptly left the country without even bidding the customary formal farewell to King Harald. Diplomats were relieved when China did send another ambassador a few months later, almost as abruptly as his predecessor had left, and were happy to squeeze him into King Harald’s schedule for the formal presentation of credentials.
The Norwegians have been largely patient, however, since Obama decided to replace his last envoy to Norway, his campaign finance manager and contributor from the 2008 election Barry White, with yet another major supporter from the 2012 election. It’s customary for US presidents to reward big contributors with ambassador posts in friendly countries like Norway. At the same time, presidents can generally be assured that ambassadors they appoint will be loyal and a good representative.
Obama’s first choice, however, displayed too much ignorance of Norway and badly bungled his Senate confirmation hearing. Businessman George Tsunis angered some Norwegian politicians and embarrassed not only himself, but also Obama, and opposition Republicans seized the chance to withhold confirmation. Tsunis apologized for his blunders regarding both Norway’s government structure and politics, but faced strong bipartisan opposition and from the Norwegian-American community. Even the mayor of Oslo at the time came out against him, and he eventually withdrew himself.
Then Obama’s next and far more popular choice, Heins, was held up for months by Republicans keen to make life difficult for Obama’s Democrats. Heins by all accounts performed well in his own Senate confirmation hearing and has been widely praised as a good choice, but his move to Oslo was held up by troublesome Republicans who also blocked lots of other ambassadors nominated by Obama, including the one to Sweden. Political quarreling dubbed as “outrageous” by some sources allowed for any objections by as little as one senator to block a nomination.
Apology from Kerry
The blockade, made worse by Obama’s decision to do business again with Iran over Republicans’ strong objections, had little if anything to do with Heins himself. Chief among those holding up Obama’s ambassador nominees was the right-wing senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who was vociferous in his objections to the Iran nuclear deal.
One of the career diplomats recently serving as head of mission at the US Embassy in Oslo in the absence of an ambassador told newsinenglish.no the entire situation was “downright embarrassing.” US Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to recently apologize to Norway for failing to have an ambassador in Oslo. Even former US President George Bush’s envoy in Oslo, Ben Whitney of the Republic Party, had regretted his own party fellows’ blocking the appointment. Whitney feared the ongoing absence of an ambassador would eventually damage relations between the US and Norway,
Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende could, in the end, announce via social media on Friday evening that the Senate had finally approved Heins’ nomination and he was thus cleared to move to Oslo, less than a year before Obama is to leave office. If Hillary Clinton wins the election, Heins may be able to stay on for awhile since she’s also a Democrat. If not, Heins’ tenure in Oslo is likely to be brief.
“Welcome to Oslo,” Brende wrote on Twitter from Munich, where he’s attending the Munich Security Conference along with Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, Kerry himself and scores of other government leaders. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that after seven months of holding up the ambassador nomination, Cruz finally felt he had made his point, and his Iran objections known. Ironically enough, he also asked that the plaza in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC be renamed Liu Xiaobo Plaza, after the Chinese dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize that sent relations between China and Norway into a diplomatic freeze. The Senate granted Cruz’ wish, at the risk of upsetting Chinese diplomats in Washington right in the midst of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Heins, meanwhile, is 72 years old, hails from the Norwegian-American stronghold of Minnesota and has been senior partner in the Minneapolis law firm Heins Mills & Olson. He’s a founder of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, has founded a center for victims of torture and handled many landmark lawsuits over the years, in addition to raising campaign funds for Obama. His arrival is expected to be well-received within the diplomatic corps in Oslo, and by Norwegian officials.