‘Arctic Ambassador’ Position Draws Mixed Reaction From Alaska Delegation

Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that he’s creating a new position called Special Representative for the Arctic Region. It’s been referred to as an “Arctic Ambassador” in some reports, but it’s not exactly that, and the reaction of Alaska’s two U.S. senators has been mixed.

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Townsend: Liz, both senators have been pressing for an Arctic ambassador to assert the U.S. interests in the region. Shouldn’t this be unbridled good news to the senators?

Ruskin: Well, it was the way Sen. Begich announced it last week on Valentine’s Day. He talked to Kerry on the phone, then issued a press release that used the word “ambassador” a dozen times.

Townsend:  But Sen. Murkowski didn’t see it that way?

Ruskin: Not so much.  A few hours later, when her press release came out, she pointed out the Secretary of State never used the word “ambassador” in a letter he wrote to both senators. Murkowski questions whether the position would be on par. And she used some harsh language, calling the Obama Administration’s Arctic policy “lackluster” and “a national disgrace.”

Townsend: So is this just the Washington dance, where the senator of one party is obligated to criticize the president when he’s of the opposite party?

Ruskin: Could be some of that. It’s also a turf battle between the two senate offices.

Townsend: How do you mean?

Ruskin: It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that Murkowski — or her staffers — were ticked the Secretary of State called Begich and allowed him to break the news. That was kind of a gift. In her press release, Murkowski’s staff wrote that she “is considered the leading expert” on Arctic issues in Congress. They backed up that with pictures of her posing with the chair of the Arctic Council this month and sitting right next to Secretary Kerry at an Arctic confab in Sweden last year. And her staff included a video of her talking Arctic on the Senate floor back in 2011, and she’s gesturing to a map of the Arctic, no less. Altogether, the not-so-subtle message is “back off, the Arctic’s hers.”

Townsend: Back to the terminology, Special Representative or Ambassador. Does it matter?

Ruskin: It does to Sen. Murkowski. She issued a press release yesterday suggesting this Arctic rep thing is just window dressing because the person won’t have the same standing as the real Arctic ambassadors from other countries.  She says Secretary Kerry should meet with her and explain why he refuses to upgrade to ambassador. Begich, on the other hand, said today this is a step toward creating an Arctic ambassador, which requires Senate confirmation.

Townsend: So is he saying he was wrong to use the word “ambassador” in his press release last week?

Ruskin: No. He insists he’ll call the appointee “ambassador” because he or she will be acting in that role.

Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her news tips and program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-550-8452.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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