“Of course, the tradition of appointing an ambassador as a payback for some political “assistance” is not endemic to US only, but yes, appointment of a veteran career diplomat to that post makes so much more sense…” Rob Miller
By James Bruno – Politico – h/t to the NoisyRoom: Recently, a colleague of mine from the Foreign Service told me about a former U.S. Ambassador to Sweden who, some years ago, had passed out in the snow, too drunk to get up. He had been partying hard during an outing in the countryside. Fortunately, an embassy officer found him in time to save his life. America’s boozy man in Stockholm was a non-career political appointee—no surprise. The fellow who saved him was a professional diplomat. And the roles the two men played that night is emblematic of a familiar routine.
That was the thought I had earlier this week when word came that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had approved nominations of President Barack Obama’s latest batch of ambassadorial picks—including a couple of first-time diplomats whose cringeworthy performances during their testimony suggested they’ll need to rely heavily on their Foreign Service staff to keep from embarrassing the United States. Of course, we have little reason to worry about longtime Montana Senator Max Baucus, whose appointment to serve in China the Senate passed unanimously on Thursday. But some wealthy campaign donors with backgrounds a bit further afield from public service should give us concern. They’ve already embarrassed themselves.
When hotel magnate George Tsunis, Obama’s nominee for Oslo, met with the Senate last month, he made clear that he didn’t know that Norway was a constitutional monarchy and wrongly stated that one of the ruling coalition political parties was a hate-spewing “fringe element.” Another of the president’s picks, Colleen Bell, who is headed to Budapest, could not answer questions about the United States’ strategic interests in Hungary. But could the president really expect that she’d be an expert on the region? Her previous gig was as a producer for the TV soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She stumbled through responses to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) like, well, a soap opera star, expounding on world peace. When the whole awkward exchange concluded, the senator grinned. “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees,” McCain said sarcastically.
For the purposes of comparison, Norway’s ambassador to the Washington is a 31-year Foreign Ministry veteran. Hungary’s ambassador is an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years.
The résumé imbalance, of course, owes to a simple fact: The United States is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies. A similar system once allowed political allies to become military officers, but Congress outlawed the practice after the Civil War, during which the public recoiled at the needless slaughter brought on by incompetent cronies who had been appointed generals (men like Daniel Sickles, whose insubordination at Gettysburg caused more than 4,000 Union casualties). Representing the United States in a foreign capital, however, is a privilege still available to any moneyed dolt with party connections.
And President Obama — who entered office promising to limit the practice and instead appoint more Foreign Service professionals to ambassadorial positions—has arguably done more to exacerbate the problem than his recent predecessors. His second-term appointments have gone to political allies more than half of the time. Since World War II, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, that number has been lower: About a third of the ambassador posts have been offered to non-professional diplomats.
The reason a hotelier and a television producer, for instance, might be appealing choices is blindingly obvious: money. Bell raised $2,101,635 for President Obama’s re-election efforts. Tsunis, who flipped his affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 2009, embraced his new party with gusto, raising $988,550 for the president’s 2012 bid.
Among the ambassadors serving in 10 of the choicest cities in Europe and the Caribbean, the average amount raised per posting in the last election was $1.79 million, according to the Guardian newspaper. And the cost for a plush post in a city like Rome, Paris, Stockholm or Canberra seems to be going up. The Guardian reported that appointees to these embassies raised a total of $5 million in 2012, up from $3.3 million in 2008, $1.3 million in 2004 and $800,000 in 2000.
Apologists for the ambassadorship-for-cash status quo point out that the embassies where political friends are in charge are often quite stable countries with which America has a solid relationship. Others claim that envoys who enjoy direct access to the president can be the most effective. This is utter hogwash. Ambassadors’ chain of command goes through the secretary of state. Acting outside of that chain is cause for confusion and misunderstandings and is actually frowned upon by White House and State Department officials alike.
The truth is, there are real costs to sending dilettantes to do America’s diplomacy: public embarrassment and potential damage to U.S. interests. Scandinavia seems to attract some of the worst of the lot. Tsunis will follow in the steps of Reagan-appointed ambassador Mark Evans Austad, an outspoken former Mormon missionary who had a thing for hurling verbal attacks at a variety of Norwegian liberal institutions and the press and in 1983 was hauled off, drunk, by police after bellowing loudly and banging on a woman’s door at 3 a.m. The police returned Austad to his residence. Around the same time, a politically appointed envoy to Denmark was forced to resign after word got out that he kept two prostitutes at the ambassadorial residence in Copenhagen. Other transgressions by pay-to-play ambassadors include cocaine smuggling through the diplomatic pouch, drunken imbroglios at embassy functions and embarrassing adulterous affairs.
And then there’s the recent case of Cynthia Stroum, Obama’s pick to serve in Luxembourg—a Rhode Island-sized NATO ally that has always been a convenient spot to stick political friends and donors. Over the years, real estate moguls, socialites and car salesmen have all washed up in the Ardennes. Stroum, a wealthy Seattle investor, was dispatched there in 2009 after raising half a million bucks to put Obama in the White House (or, $1 for every citizen of Luxembourg). She abruptly resigned in early 2011 after a blistering report from the State Department’s inspector general noted that her embassy “has underperformed for the entirety of the current ambassador’s tenure.” The ambassador’s managerial style, the report claimed, engendered personality conflicts and the embassy was fraught with verbal abuse and questionable expenditures on travel and booze. “At present, due to internal problems, [the embassy] plays no significant role in policy advocacy or reporting,” the report noted, “though developments in Luxembourg are certainly of interest to Washington clients and other U.S. missions in the NATO and EU communities.” So terrorized was Stroum’s small staff that the inspector general recommended the State Department dispatch medical personnel to examine the stress levels of embassy employees. It noted at least four quit or sought transfers to jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan during her tenure, rare moves for diplomats ensconced in cushy European postings.
These de facto report cards on ambassadors from the State Department’s inspector general were recently and inexplicably discontinued. But a share of the blame in failing to police the problem lies with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has fallen down on its job of vetting ambassadorial nominees. In addition to a long-standing gentleman’s agreement that the out-of-office party will rubber stamp diplomatic nominees, wannabe ambassadors now spread campaign contributions to key senators to clinch an ambassadorial nomination. In the last two Congresses, for example, George Tsunis contributed to the campaigns of five senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and current Chairman Robert Menendez, as well as to the Senate Majority PAC. Before Tsunis paraded his ignorance before the Foreign Relations Committee, New York Senator Charles Schumer gave a gushing introduction. Tsunis had donated $4,600 to Schumer’s campaign fund in 2009.
Notwithstanding the troubling auctioning of the embassies, there’s certainly room in our ambassador corps for non-career diplomats. Distinguished citizens have long represented the United States abroad with distinction: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in India; Mike Mansfield, Howard Baker and Walter Mondale in Japan; Jon Huntsman Jr. in China; Shirley Temple Black in Ghana and Czechoslovakia and many others. Despite admitting he’s “no real expert on China,” Max Baucus, a trade expert and skilled legislator, brings other skills to the job. Our first ambassador to a unified Vietnam was ex-congressman and Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war Pete Peterson, under whom I had served when I was political counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi from 1997 to 2001. With his Hill contacts and credibility among U.S. veterans’ groups, Peterson would accomplish more in a phone call than any career ambassador could in a hundred cables back to Washington. But these men were eminently qualified and did not buy their ambassadorships.
We have serious business with Norway. I predict that, as with most of his predecessors, George Tsunis will be a figurehead ambassador ably supported by his career Foreign Service staff, who will be doing the substantive work with no fanfare. If he stays out of trouble in the three years he will likely be in Oslo, he will have achieved something of an accomplishment.
Sending a soap opera producer to Budapest poses greater risks for Washington, as extremism and anti-Semitism are on the rise in Hungary and that country’s economy is held down by structural constraints and high debt. How will Colleen Bell, who had trouble even identifying Washington’s strategic aims there, deal with a wily prime minister cracking down on freedom of political expression? Tough to say. But for those Foreign Service professionals nudged out of a plum ambassadorship, take heart — I hear there’s an opening at The Bold and the Beautiful.
James Bruno is a retired Foreign Service officer, novelist and blogger. His book, The Foreign Circus: Why Foreign Policy is Too Important to be Left in the Hands of Diplomats, Spooks & Political Hacks, will be published this year.