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By Jacob Heilbrunn, Editor, National Interest
Reviewed by Brenda Brown Schoonover

Every once in a while the spotlight focuses on the United States’ spoils system, that is, granting political appointments as a means of rewarding high-roller contributors to the political administration in power. In January and February 2014 a few of President Barack Obama’s recent ambassadorial appointees made poor showings at their confirmation hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The candidates’ lack of preparation and knowledge of the countries in question ignited vigorous debate with regard to the century-old spoils practice historically exercised by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

For years the ratio of political nominations for ambassadorial posts has traditionally been about 30 percent political appointees with the remaining 70 percent of chief of mission positions going to career Foreign Service officers. More often than not, generous political donors are assigned to what are considered “cushy” posts or high profile missions, usually in Europe as opposed to the trenches in less desirable hardship posts that tend to be reserved for the career diplomats.

Jacob Heilbrunn, Editor of National Interest praises Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin for her well researched article, “Obama’s Ambassador Nominees Prompt an Uproar with Bungled Answers, Lack of Ties.” (2/14/14) Eilperin highlights the president’s recent candidates who blundered through their hearings—all generous donors to the Democratic Party and to the president’s 2012 re-election:

Colleen Bradley Bell, the nominee for Hungary, is the producer of the TV soap opera, “The Bold and the Beautiful.” According to retired Foreign Service Officer, Jim Bruno of Politico, Ms Bell has raised $2,101,635. During her January 16, 2014 hearing, Bell struggled with her responses, most notably specific questions regarding U.S. strategic interests in Hungary.

George Tsunis, candidate for Norway and founder and CEO of Chartwell Hotels, is said to have bundled $1.3 million for 2012. (A party switcher, he gave $50,000 to McCain in 2008.) Tsunis’ January 16 testimony, described as faltering and incoherent, revealed his lack of knowledge of Norway. His mischaracter-ization of one of the ruling coalition political parties caused quite a stir in the Norwegian press. Tsunis further flubbed it by referring to Norway’s president. A constitutional monarchy, Norway does not have a president.

Noah Byron Mamet, slated for Argentina, is a businessman. He has been criticized for never having been to Argentina and for possessing little knowledge of U.S./Argentine relations or the Spanish language. Reports of his fund-raising levels range from $500,000 to 2 million.

As of this writing, Bell and Tsunis have been approved by the committee but are pending Senate approval. Mamet is still awaiting committee vote.

Eilperin notes that the recently botched performances “highlighted the perils of rewarding well-heeled donors and well connected politicos with plum overseas assignments”—in addition to providing fodder for Republicans eager to attack the White House. Furthermore, “The cases underscore how a president who once infuriated donors by denying them perks has now come into line.”

According The New York Times, the United States holds the unique distinction of being the only developing country to use this practice citing that “Other democracies’ diplomats are nearly always career professionals.” Jim Bruno of Politico also cites the U.S. as the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils.

Surprising to many is the fact that the practice has increased under President Obama’s tenure with political ambassadors at 37% overall and 53% during his second term. This exceeds the 30/70 norm and is the highest since Reagan and Ford at 38% according to Eilperin, who lists others: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s 27%; Bush Senior’s 31%; and, George W. Bush’s 30%.

With reference to Juliet Eilperin’s article, Heilbrunn observes that over the past century the importance of the ambassador’s position has diminished and been made worse by what he considers Obama’s “dubious appointments.” Heilbrunn considers the heavy use of political-appointee chiefs of mission significant for three reasons: it creates cynicism about the possibility of advancement in the ranks of the career Foreign Service professionals; it implies the U.S. is not taking the host country seriously; and, it indicates that President Obama has lowered standards he initially set for his administration in vowing to reward high quality career employees.

The Irresistible Bandwagon
The recent performances of the ambassadorial candidates—sometimes labeled “cringe-worthy” –have engendered a chorus of criticism targeting not only the nominees but also the payback system in general. Al Kamen, Washington Post columnist of “In the Loop” has highlighted the issue at least three times since the bumpy mid-January hearing. Retired Career Ambassador Thomas Pickering and author Nicholas Kralev did so in USA Today (2/27/14) , “Take Politics Out of Diplomacy: Let’s Stop Pimping American Ambassadorships Out to the Highest Bidder.” The authors reminded us that both parties have appointed campaign bundlers and it is not something introduced by the current president. They maintain “the practice had become worse as a result of the increased importance of money in politics in recent years. Pickering and Kralev advocate a 10% quota for political-appointee chiefs of mission.

In an unprecedented act, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the Foreign Service professional association, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents on the embattled ambassadorial nominees plus all pending diplomatic nominees.

On March 10, fifteen of the former presidents of AFSA covering four decades, called on the Senate to reject the nominations of the three “mega-bundlers”—Bell, Tsunis and Mamet. The former AFSA presidents deemed that “the three candidates represent a continuation of an increasingly unsavory and unwise practice by both parties, one that contravenes the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which calls for “demonstrated competence in nominees for ambassadorships.”

While the spotlight is on recent nominees, there is backlog of 40-plus Senate ambassadorial approvals including postings to close allies such as Canada and Ireland and a number of career appointments. The stalling tactic is said to represent a tug-of-war between the parties over control of the Senate schedule and Republican payback for the Democrats elimination of the filibuster.

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “It is never good when you don’t have an ambassador, simply because it sends a bad signal. He added, “Of course the only thing worse than not having an ambassador is having a bad one.”

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