The appointment of wealthy political campaign contributors to ambassadorships in key countries is a continuing bone of contention between U.S. presidents and State Department career diplomats. This situation has deteriorated under President Obama, who has recently appointed unqualified ambassadors to several countries.
While I’m singling out Obama, I mean to include all of his predecessors, because at any given time about one-third of our ambassadors around the world are political appointees. Campaign contributors often get plum ambassadorial assignments, while career diplomats are frequently relegated to Third World diplomatic outposts. This is unlikely to change, because this is how presidents reward their friends and campaign financiers.
Our new ambassador to Norway, Greek-American businessman and campaign “bundler” (which means he’s a high-powered fundraiser) George Tsunis, has never been to Norway, doesn’t speak the language and embarrassed himself at his Senate confirmation hearing when he acknowledged that he doesn’t know how Norway’s government functions. Oh well, he raised millions of dollars for Obama’s reelection campaign. What else do we need to know?
Lehigh University political science professor Henri Barkey, a former diplomat, called Tsunis’ appointment “a taxpayer-funded three-year junket to enjoy the fjords.”
Nice work if you can get it. And then there’s our new ambassador to Hungary, Hollywood soap opera producer (“The Bold and the Beautiful”) Colleen Bell, who stammered her way through her Senate confirmation hearing. She contributed some $800,000 to Obama’s re-election campaign.
All of this reminds me of Nevada’s most “famous” ambassadorial appointee, one-term U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht, a Las Vegas haberdasher who was a major GOP fundraiser. When asked why he wanted to become our ambassador to the Bahamas, Hecht replied that he loved golf and “they have a lot of nice golf courses.” One of my Foreign Service friends worked for Hecht in the Bahamas; the less said, the better.
While fewer than 25 percent of Obama’s first-term ambassadorial appointments were political, he has reversed himself in his second term, when 53 percent of his diplomatic appointments have been political. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which represents career diplomats, has condemned the increasing number of political ambassadors. “Ambassadorial nominees should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission (ambassador), including useful knowledge of the language ... and understanding of the history, culture, economic and political institutions, and interests of that country,” AFSA said in a rare public statement.
I worked for three political ambassadors during my 28-year Foreign Service career: Florida shopping mall developer Mel Sembler, University of Virginia political science professor David Jordan and fiery Cuban-American political activist Otto J. (for Juan) Reich. All three survived by relying heavily on career diplomats to manage their embassies.
While some political appointees, such as the late Shirley Temple Black (seriously) and Walter Mondale, have been outstanding ambassadors, many more have embarrassed the U.S. President Obama should pay more attention to his ambassadorial nominees to avoid offending our overseas friends and allies.
Guy W. Farmer is a retired U.S. diplomat.