Hearing: Nomination of Ambassador to the Republic of Tunisia

On July 30th, 2015, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing for the nomination of Daniel H. Rubinstein as Ambassador to the Republic of Tunisia. The hearing also included nominees for Ambassadors to the Central African Republic,the Republic of Gambia, the Republic of Benin, and the Togolese Republic. To watch a video of the hearing, click here. To view these notes as a PDF, click here.

Rubinstein began his statement by thanking President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for his nomination, asserting that Tunisia is an important partner and major non-NATO ally to the United States. He noted that his years of experience as a foreign service officer and an extensive background in economic and counterterrorism efforts will be critically useful in his posting to Tunisia. Rubinstein voiced his “abiding respect and admiration for the country, its culture, and its people,” and pledged to work to advance U.S. national interests in Tunisia as well as help deepen the partnership between the two nations. In May, Essebsi and Obama affirmed the “enduring partnership” of the United States and Tunisia based on shared values, which Rubinstein said is an important reminder and counterpoint to those who think that the Arab world is somehow incompatible with democracy and American values.

Rubinstein asserted that his first priority as Ambassador will be the safety of Americans abroad, with “no higher responsibility” than keeping Americans safe. Despite historic elections and a relatively peaceful democratic transition, he noted that the country’s security remains fragile, citing the Bardo Museum and Sousse attacks. Regarding regional instability, Rubinstein said the current conflict in Libya and trends of radicalization are “exploited by those who wish to undercut Tunisia’s progress,” and that while Tunisia’s security services have made progress, more needs to be done to support the country. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Tunisians have asked for “continued support and increased training” to subvert the efforts of violent extremist groups. Along with helping strengthen Tunisia’s security forces, Rubinstein pledged to support reforms to the country’s police and judicial systems to improve accountability in the country. He also stressed the need for the United States to help bolster Tunisia’s economy, adding that if confirmed, he will try to increase access to economic opportunities for all Tunisians.

Rubinstein commended Tunisia for being the only country in the Arab world that is rated as “free” according to Freedom House. He praised the government for ensuring that all political groups collaborate to negotiate and achieve consensus. He also stated that the Tunisian people expect transparency from their government institutions, and that if confirmed, he will ensure that the United States promotes reforms that will improve the country’s transparency and accountability measures.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) asked Rubinstein what sorts of U.S. engagement have been most successful in Tunisia. Rubinstein lauded the diplomatic engagement that has helped keep all of the leading elements of Tunisia’s body politic working together, particularly during some of the most fragile moments of the country’s transition. He added that the ability for Tunisia to conduct credible, free, and fair elections was commendable, and was in part thanks to U.S. diplomatic efforts. He also noted that U.S. engagement has been effective from a security perspective, as the two militaries boast a great relationship and now feature a more robust partnership, including better train and equip programs and counterterrorism initiatives. Finally, Rubinstein stressed the success of economic engagement, as the United States has given Tunisia technical advice on how to best tackle critical economic reforms, such as a new investment code, tax and custom laws, private partnership laws, and more.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) asked Rubinstein what he sees as the greatest threat is for Tunisia, as it remains the sole model in the region. Rubinstein responded that Tunisia should be viewed as an example rather than a model, as there are a host of differences between all the countries in the region. One of the factors that makes Tunisia a great example for its neighbors, said Rubinstein, is the country’s commitment to political compromise, as secularists and Islamists have worked through their differences and have succeeded in peacefully passing off power. He called this a “hopeful sign” that there is significant buy-in from the Tunisian people in all aspects of their political transition. Rubinstein reiterated that the recent terrorist attacks are worrisome, yet stated that the United States, with the generosity of Congress, will be able to work with Tunisia to increase their border security and help with counterterrorism.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said that the Foreign Aid budget for FY16 did not fund the president’s request for Tunisia. He noted that there seems to be a gap between U.S. rhetoric in on aid and what the Senate recommended in its FY2016 appropriations bill. Rubinstein said that the FY16 request is well grounded, as it addresses security needs as well as economic and governance reform. He stressed that if economic and governance reforms don’t keep up with security assistance, then there could be a problem. Rubinstein agreed with Murphy that the United States has made a rhetorical commitment to Tunisia, and that the Tunisian people are counting on the United States primarily for help. We should, he said, give them the fiscal space to reform.

Murphy also noted that the United States often thinks of the region in terms of black and white, which can be a serious limitation. He then asked how Rubinstein thinks the United States should deal with an Islamist group such as Ennahda, which cannot be completely excluded from politics but might have values that are antithetical to those at the core of an emerging democracy. Rubinstein responded that the two key factors in thinking about Islamist groups is whether the group is a core part of the political fabric of the country, and whether the group is “playing by the rules.” In Tunisia, Rubinstein said it is essential that all political groups participate “fully and constructively,” engage in compromise, and are supportive of the political process. In the case of Ennahda, he believes the group has succeeded at engaging constructively, and thinks that for this reason they should continue to be engaged with. Regarding other movements, Rubinstein said they must be closely examined to assure they will be a constructive actor in the country, and that they will turn over power peacefully if need be.