— By Domani Spero
Late last Friday, the WH released the names of individuals who President Obama intends to nominate as ambassadors to a few cushy appointments in Belgium, Australia, Chile and some not so cushy ones like Cote d’Ivoire, Lebanon, the Lao Republic and others. A week previously, President Obama also announced his nominees for our posts in Spain, Germany, and Denmark.
There’s just enough time for the Senate to hold confirmation hearings before it goes on a summer break. No Paris, London, Tokyo, Luxembourg yet, but they sure will come before much longer.
It is funny-ha-ha to see the elephant crowd deride the Obama appointments of “bundlers” to ambassadorial posts. We should recall that not too long ago, the donkey crowd also once derided the Bush ambassadorial appointments of “pioneers,” “rangers,” and “super rangers” after two prior elections.
Meanwhile, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) continues to appeal for a bipartisan commitment to a more professional, better trained and better resourced diplomatic service. It also argues that “the appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades.”
Not bad arguments, of course, except that they’re talking to the wall.
The notion that this practice of appointing mega donors as ambassadors is going to end soon or later (when there’s a new administration) is rather absurd. The reality is both political parties have an interest in perpetuating this practice. So the people who can put a stop to it, will not stop it.
The American Foreign Service Association statistics on ambassadorial appointments indicate that Presidents Carter and Clinton appointed 26.73% and 27.82% political ambassadors respectively, the lowest in the group. President Carter has the most number of career appointees at 73.27%. President Ford who was only in office from August 1974-January 1977 topped the appointment of political ambassadors at 38.2%. President Bush (41), President Bush (43) and President Obama all have political ambassadorial appointees hovering slightly above the 30 percent mark. (The AFSA stats did not include a tally of President Reagan’s appointments as of this writing).
It must be said that both parties are equal opportunist during elections. And the results when it comes to ambassadorial appointments following every election reflect that.
Nixon. Remember former President Nixon’s grand jury testimony unsealed in 2011 where he talked about the selling of ambassadorships? (see Nixon’s 1975 Grand Jury Testimony: No selling of ambassadorships, but gave a price tag of $250K in 1971).
“I would say, looking at the smaller countries like Luxembourg, that Pearl Mesta wasn’t sent to Luxembourg because she had big bosoms. Pearl Mesta went to Luxembourg because she made a good contribution. But may I say she was a very good ambassador in Luxembourg. And when you talk about selling ambassadorships, I don’t want the record of this Grand Jury 11 even to indicate that people of wealth, because they do make contributions, therefore should be barred from being ambassadors.
The record should clearly indicate that certainly no commitment, no sale of ambassadorships should be made, but, on the other hand, the fact that an individual has proved himself on the American scene, has proved himself by legitimately building a great fortune, rather than being a disqualifier is a factor that can be considered and should be considered in determining whether he should get a position.”
In the face of this long and persistent tradition, we think that an outside group such as, perhaps the American Academy of Diplomacy or a similar entity should consider rating ambassadorial nominees as “well qualified,” “qualified” or “not qualified” before they are confirmed. This is what the American Bar Association has done in over five decades when it comes to judicial nominees and it has shown some influence in the Senate confirmation process. It will not stop presidents from nominating top donors to plum ambassadorships, but perhaps it will encourage more scrupulous care on the vetting of nominees at the WH and at the Senate during their confirmation hearings.
In the absence of that, political ambassadors ought to follow a few straight-forward rules when going overseas — provided unsolicited below with zero warranty, of course: (Also see WhirledView: A Primer for first-time U.S. political appointee ambassadors)
1. First, do no harm.
The governing rule of diplomats, like that of doctors, must be ‘first, do no harm’. When you get into a tough situation, and you will, whatever you do, do not make it worse. If your post is working well, be a good steward of the mission. If it’s working badly, try your darnest to make it better. If you don’t like your DCM, think hard before you kick him/her out and ask for a replacement. And whatever you do, do not/do not ask for a replacement DCM every six months; it won’t end well. (See Which Ambassador is planning to unload his/her DCM shortly and other curtailment news).
2. Try not to be too memorable that you live on in embassy and host country lore.
Retired FSO George West recalls that “President Truman, in his infinite wisdom and on the advice of his wife, sent Perle Mesta to Luxembourg.” She was known as “The Hostess with the Mostest” and the inspiration of the Irving Berlin musical ‘Call Me Madam.’ To read more about that appointment in 1948-1950, click here for Mr. West’s oral history.
Remember when? Host countries have long memories. According to Robert Fritts who was previously our ambassador to Ghana and Rwanda:
“I heard lots of unflattering Luxembourg anecdotes, for example, about Perle Mesta, who had been appointed by President Truman. She also lived on in embassy lore as having named her resident sister rather than the DCM as charge d’affaires a.i. when she left post on one her frequent absences. It got straightened out, but the Luxembourgers never forgot it.”
3. Not all projects are created equal
President Bush’s Ambassador to Italy, Ronald P. Spogli marked his tenure in Rome in a most tangible way. He presided over the wine cellar construction at the Villa Taverna, the 16th century residence in Rome that has served as home for our ambassadors in Italy for the last 75 years. The project which cost over a million dollars was funded and supported by Italian wineries. (See More on Embassy Rome’s Donated $1.1 Million Wine Cellar).
One of the 2009 ambassadorial appointees during President Obama’s first term in office is Bruce Oreck who went to Finland. He made the renovation of the US Embassy in Helsinki his top project. His persistence “revived a stalled project to renovate the antiquated and unsafe chancery buildings.” (See US Embassy Helsinki: Ambassador Bruce “Biceps” Oreck Launches Innovation Center).
So perhaps a project that fits a need to a T? Somebody had already tried a Song and Verse Competition, to iffy results. Another one had personally designed a health campaign, Let’s Live to unrealistic expectations.
4. Uncle Sam is cheap, be prepared to spend out-of-pocket
In 2008, forbes.com had an article on ambassadors, primarily on the outgoing Bush Ambassador to London, Robert H. Tuttle.
America’s ambassador to Britain, Robert H. Tuttle, was hosting one of his last lavish breakfasts for guests at his residence near the U.S. embassy in London, the morning after Barack Obama’s election victory.
American ambassadors picked for desirable posts like London and Paris tend to be wealthy as they are expected to entertain guests more extravagantly than the State Department budget might allow. (Tuttle would no doubt have served highest-quality marmalade and croissants at his post-election breakfast last Wednesday, for instance.) “Ambassadors are given representational funds, but some have chosen to use personal funds to go into their own pockets,” an embassy spokesman said.
No one says why some have chosen to use personal funds. Perhaps that’s because the official representational funds is nothing to write home about? An NYT article in January 2013 says that “Deep pockets are an unofficial requirement for many postings” and that “in some capitals they can expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on entertaining.”
“The expectation is so ingrained that Timothy J. Roemer, a former congressman, felt compelled to bring up his bank account when Mr. Obama named him ambassador to India. “I told the White House and the State Department early on, I can’t afford to do the job like that,” Mr. Roemer said.”
Not to mention the ambassador’s wife changing clothes three times a day. In Paris.
Harold Geisel, the State Department’s Acting Inspector General is a retired FSO. From 1986-1988, he was the management counselor at the US Embassy in Rome where he served under political ambassador Maxwell Rabb. Below from his oral history via ADST:
About two days into my posting I was up to see him and his wife Ruth was there as well. And he started crying to me about how he was, I think, $20- or $30,000 out-of-pocket on his representation. And I looked at him and I said, look Mr. Ambassador. You live in Villa Taverna, one of the most glorious houses in Rome that was once the summer residence of the Holy Fathers. You go all over Rome in a Cadillac limousine with a motorcycle escort to beat the traffic, you have one of the best cooks in Rome and you get a salary of $90,000 a year. I’ll tell you what. If you’re not happy with it, I’ll pay the $30,000 out-of-pocket and take your place. He looked at Ruth and the two of them just started laughing and laughing. And we were great friends ever since and we even became business partners in a partnership after Rome. You have to know the guy you’re talking to. I mean, there are guys who would have thrown your rear end right out of there on the spot.
5. Ambo call home
A WH official reportedly told an ambassador, “You cannot realistically expect the leader of the free world to stop everything to rescue you from bad guys.” Is the direct line to the president overrated? When political appointees take the short cut to join the diplomatic service and represent the United States of America, even they, must follow the rules, and there are tons of them in/out of the Foreign Affairs Manual. This includes the landline and other connections that hook them directly to the mother ship with its corresponding multiple hierarchies. And the mother ship, like it or not, is in Foggy Bottom, not the White House, even if the latter is the appointing authority. (see WH to US Ambassador to Malta: Don’t Expect Leader of the Free World to Stop Everything to Rescue You From Bad Guys).
6. Ambassadors charm school maybe helpful but it’s not enough.
WaPo’s Emily Heil recently reported about the ambassadors charm school, currently in session with some quotes from former ambassadors including this one:
One former ambassador says “charm school” is a misnomer for a rigorously educational and informational session. “Trust me, it’s not about china and teacups,” the graduate said. “It’s about the belly of the beast. It’s ‘here’s how it all works.’ ”
Right. The US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin described by the 2012 OIG report as a “dynamic and visionary noncareer ambassador” told Nicholas Kralev in March 2013 that the formal preparation process to become ambassador “was not sufficient for the standards he set himself, and that he “interviewed dozens of former ambassadors, took a lot of notes and learned a lot.”
The former ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun (rumored to be the front runner as the next US Ambassador to London) who also got good marks in the OIG inspection report in 2011 told the IG inspectors that although he took the Department’s course for new chiefs of mission, he feels that “it did not adequately prepare him for the work he faced upon his arrival at post.”
New ambassadors get about two weeks of training at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department’s training facility in Arlington, Virginia. Then FSI director Ruth Whiteside told Nicholas Kralev that there is no plan to extend the course and that “The expectation is that they (the ambassadors) will be doing individual consultations on their particular post, have briefings at various agencies and other preparations.” She added that FSI’s job is “to give them the maximum chance for success.”
In two weeks.
- The Ambassador May Wear Prada (swampland.time.com)
- Barack Obama fundraisers get plum diplomatic posts (gulfnews.com)
- Obama campaign fundraisers picked for plum ambassadorships (publicintegrity.org)