It’s been a bit of a rough month or so for President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees, which may have something to do with the fact that he keeps appointing people too comically inept to make it through a confirmation hearing without sounding like babbling idiots. Some highlights:
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said in an interview that several of Obama’s recent nominees were “truly alarming” because of their lack of qualifications. “When you put someone in an ambassador’s position who hasn’t even been to the country, you are rolling the dice,” he said.
The troubles began last month, when million-dollar bundler and Chartwell Hotels chief executive George Tsunis testified at his confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Norway. Tsunis admitted he had never been to the Scandinavian country and suggested, among other things, that the nation’s Progress Party was part of a discounted “fringe.” It is actually part of Norway’s center-right ruling coalition.
Noah Bryson Mamet was asked during his confirmation hearing this month if he had ever been to Argentina, where he would be ambassador. “I haven’t had the opportunity yet to be there,” said Mamet, who raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s reelection.
During the same hearing, Robert C. Barber, who raised more than $1.6 million for Obama in 2012 and has been nominated to serve as ambassador to Iceland, said he had never visited the Nordic nation.
Then there is Colleen Bell, the nominee for ambassador to Hungary and a producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful” soap opera, who raised or contributed about $800,000 to Obama in the last election. She stammered her way through testimony about U.S. strategic interests in the country, which is the focus of growing international alarm over far-right lawmakers’ attitude toward Jews and other minorities.
“I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees,” McCain said sarcastically during the hearing for several of the nominees.
Mr. President, as somebody who voted for you twice (although frankly “Mitt” Romney had something to do with the second time), I have to say that it’s a little troubling that you’ve gotten to the point where John McCain is able to burn you this easily.
OK, so what’s the deal here? Is Obama selling off the highest diplomatic offices in the land or what? Well, technically yes, but it’s not like he’s the first one to do it, and actually the practice of giving lower-priority (say, Ireland, as opposed to Syria) and higher-appeal (say, Italy, as opposed to, um, Syria) ambassadorships to non-diplomats, even rich out-of-touch ones, isn’t that bad an idea. It’s just that Obama seems to be particularly prolific at it lately and people, especially career foreign service officers, are getting upset. Or, rather, have been getting upset, since that article is over six months old. This issue didn’t suddenly appear in the last couple of weeks.
The American Foreign Service Association estimates that about 37 percent of Obama ambassadorial nominees have been “political,” a broad category that covers basically anyone who wasn’t a career foreign service officer before being appointed, not that far afield from the 70-30 diplomat-political ratio that seems to govern these sort of appointments historically. That compares to around 38 percent during both the Ford and Reagan administrations, but only 27-28 percent during the Carter and Clinton administrations. So Obama’s rate of political nominees is on the high end of recent administrations, but not out of line, and it’s certainly hyperbolic to call this sort of thing “corrupt” unless you want the word “corrupt” to mean basically nothing. However, Obama’s second term rate of political nominees is a whopping 53 percent, plus there’s the admittedly subjective perception that his nominees are even less qualified than the typical political nominee (see above for the anecdotal evidence). Worse, back in 2009 Obama promised to “have civil servants, wherever possible, serve in these posts” (“these posts,” it should be said, also include top appointments at the State Department in DC, which since the 1970s have been increasingly going to political appointees rather than civil servants). So, um, oops?
The administration defends this practice by noting that great ambassadors can (and, historically, have) come from all sorts of varied backgrounds, and they’re right that a background in business, politics, even show business can give an ambassador valuable insight that wouldn’t necessarily come from a career in the civil service. There are other reasons why the practice of presidents naming political ambassadors isn’t so bad: it allows for greater diversity in the diplomatic corps, and political ambassadors tend to have closer relationships to the president that may be valuable in a diplomatic capacity. It’s also the case that political ambassadors, who tend to be, shall we say, Tom Perkins’ kind of people (as an aside, what the hell is wrong with that guy?), can afford to pay for lavish parties and entertainment. That sounds stupid, but putting on parties is something that ambassadors in glitzy postings are expected to do, yet they have to do it out of pocket since the government needs to waste its money on stuff that accomplishes absolutely nothing, like “Congress.”
Still, none of this means that we should make “how much money did you bundle for my last campaign?” or “what great political service have you performed on my behalf?” the key questions we ask when screening new ambassador candidates. If that’s all we’re worrying about, let’s just turn the whole thing into a reality show and each week have the president give roses to the people who raise the most money for him, signifying that they’ve won ambassadorships to wherever, who cares, money and prestige baby! You shouldn’t be able to qualify for an embassy posting because you once saw the episode where the Simpsons visited that country, you know?
It’s possible to find rich, successful people with diverse backgrounds who also happen to know something about the country to which they’re being posted (like, I don’t know, some basic phrases in its language?) or who can at least, uh, pick up a briefing book or two (in fact that’s typically what political nominees have done; it’s called “ambassador school” and apparently the Obama version has adopted No Child Left Behind as its ethos). Political ambassadors can prove to be quite good at their jobs, but they can also turn out to be utter disasters, so careful screening and training is still in order.
The other consideration is how we’re defining “political” postings as opposed to postings that get filled by trained diplomats. Doesn’t Argentina have some strategic importance that might make a civil servant a better choice there? Hungary actually has plenty of internal problems about which our ambassador ought to know, plus it shares a border (albeit a small one) with Ukraine, which is kind of a big deal right now. Kenya is a political posting, really? Admittedly, our last ambassador to Kenya was a retired Major General in addition to being an Obama booster, but he was also (allegedly) a complete mess on the job. Come to think of it, aren’t we still in the middle of a “Global War on Terror,” and doesn’t the existence of that “war” make every ambassadorial posting theoretically/potentially too important to hand them out as political favors? Are we in any position to be angering our allies by sending them ambassadors who are insultingly ignorant about their host countries?
I’m not naive enough to think that the practice of doling out ambassadorships as political prizes is going to end, and I’m not even sure that it should. But it sure seems like the Obama administration could be doing a better job of selecting and preparing political nominees who have the right temperament for the job and a genuine willingness to actually learn about the countries to which they’re being appointed.