What About American Ambassadors? The Next President Will Not Nominate a Super PAC as Ambassador

Posted: 1:53 am EDT

 

The 2016 presidential election is some 18 months away. Some folks who are hoping to land a gig at some of our European embassies are expecting to get busy just about now. About 2/3 of all ambassadorial appointments will go to career diplomats but about a third will still go to top supporters of the winning candidate, most of them heavy lifters when it comes to rounding up funds to help get their candidate elected.  That’s not going to end anytime soon. See list of Obama Bundlers via OpenSecrets. Click here for Obama’s ambassadors during his first term, click here for the current appointees.  Click here for George W. Bush’s Pioneer Fundraisers who got similar appointments.  @PhilipArsenault has the breakdown of appointments for both presidents, both terms here.

In any case — apparently, the not quite so rich has a new lament this election cycle. “Who needs a bundler when you have a billionaire?” One fundraiser interviewed on WaPo says“Bundlers felt they were part of the process and made a difference, and therefore were delighted to participate. But when you look at super-PAC money and the large donations that we’re seeing, the regular bundlers feel a little disenfranchised.” All that money is moving the ground under their feet, and disrupting the status of the new incarnation of rangers, pioneers, and bundlers.

It is highly unlikely that the next President of the United States will appoint Super-PACs as ambassadors to Paris, London, Madrid or Brussels, etc.. So folks, calm down! While waiting for the call, folks should gear up learning about what American ambassadors do.  Oh, interested individuals also need to figure out which posts to avoid for various reasons.  It could be that the official ambassador residence is too small, or smaller than the house the appointee is accustomed to, or too old, or needs a new roof, or new paint, or new floors, or has bad toilets (and new appointee ends up supervising repairs and all that).  So put that on the to-do list but for now, an excellent book to read is Ambassador Dennis C. Jett’s book, American Ambassadors, The Past, Present and Future of American Diplomats, because it’s delightful and informative and everyone should know what he/she is getting into.  Also mark your calendars; the author will be giving a talk on the book at AFSA on June 11th from 2:00 to 3:30 pm.  Many thanks to Ambassador Jett and Palgrave Macmillan’s Claire Smith for permission to share an excerpt from the book with our readers.

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Dennis C. Jett, American Ambassadors, Published 2014. Copyright© Dennis C. Jett, 2014 [First Published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan ®] reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

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On the face of it, the first ambassador for whom I worked seemed perfect for the job. If the director of a movie called up central casting and told them to send over actors to audition for a role as an ambassador, he would have been a shoo-in for the part. He had, in fact, been an actor, costarring in movies with Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Temple. He had also been a successful politician, elected to Congress twice and as governor of Connecticut. The Connecticut Turnpike is named after him.

He came from a wealthy and illustrious lineage—his family included a senator, an admiral, and another ambassador. They could trace their roots back to the pilgrims. Tall, handsome, and silver-haired, he was fluent in several languages. According to one expert on style, he was “one of the most polished gentlemen in America” for more than half a century. He was also named ambassador three times by three different presidents. In referring to him, a journalist once wrote: “If the United States could be represented around the world the way it is represented in Argentina, it would be loved by the peoples of all nations.”

In reality, the ambassador was a disaster—and a dangerous one at that. Although he seemed to some to be the perfect diplomat, those who knew him better considered him, in effect, a threat to national security. The reason for such a divergence of opinion is that there is more to being an ambassador than simply glitz and glamour.

And when it came to John Davis Lodge, there was little else.

I did not know all of that when I was assigned to Buenos Aires as my first diplomatic posting. In early 1973, I had only been in the Foreign Service for a few weeks. All newly minted Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are introduced to the State Department through a six-week course, a kind of boot camp for bureaucrats. There the raw recruits get basic training about the government they are to represent. Toward the end of the course, the fledgling FSOs are given a list of all the postings in the world that are available for their first tour of duty. They have to decide on their preferences and then hope that the personnel system answers their prayers.

Having grown up and been educated mainly in New Mexico, where the Hispanic and Native American cultures had an influence on even a transplanted Northeasterner like me, I decided Latin America would be my first choice. Because Argentina seemed the most exotic of the possibilities in the southern hemisphere, that country was at the top of my list. As luck would have it, none of my peers ranked it as high, so the job was mine. But first I had to take additional training, including learning Spanish.

It was then that I came across an article in the Washington Post about Lodge written by Lewis Diuguid, the paper’s Latin American correspondent. In essence, the article said that Lodge was all style and no substance; dinners at the elegant ambassadorial residence inevitably dissolved into songfests, with Lodge belting out his favorite tunes from Broadway shows. The article claimed that Lodge kept four staff members in the embassy’s information section engaged full time in trying to get the local press to run photos and articles about his latest social activities.

Diuguid implied that Lodge’s desire to appear in the newspapers did not extend beyond photographs and the society pages. The article went on to quote anonymous sources, who said a serious conversation with Lodge was impossible and that if anyone had any real business to conduct with the embassy, they went to see the deputy chief of mission, the number two person in any embassy and one who is always a career diplomat.

As I read the article, I found it hard to believe it was not grossly exaggerated. I wondered how someone in such an exalted position could be such an apparent lightweight. A few weeks after arriving in Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to witness Lodge in action. He gave a large formal dinner at the residence for a visiting official from Washington. It was not a social occasion but rather an important opportunity to gather impressions on how the new government would conduct itself. One big question was whether Peronist officials would even come to the dinner. It was feared they might not if hostility toward the United States was going to again be one of Peron’s policies.

The evening unfolded, however, as if the Diuguid article had scripted the event. At the end of the sumptuous meal, as coffee and dessert were being served, Lodge called over an accordionist who had been providing soft background music. With this accompaniment, he burst into song while still seated at the table and rolled off a number of tunes. We all then adjourned to the ballroom, where he continued the entertainment. Among his favorite Argentine guests was a couple whom he summoned to join him at the grand piano. While the husband played, the wife and Lodge sang duets from Porgy and Bess and other Broadway hits.

As the show dragged on, the Peronist officials signaled they wanted to talk to the visiting official and the deputy chief of mission privately, so they all slipped off to the library. The Peronists made it clear that the new government would be open to a constructive and productive relationship with the United States, unlike in the past. This was a significant shift in policy that would be welcomed in Washington.

Finally, after the songfest, the guests began bidding the Lodges good night and thanking them profusely for the evening. The embassy staff members were always the last to leave; it was customary to stay until dismissed by the ambassador. As we waited for this to happen, Lodge learned of the discussion that had taken place in the library while he was singing in the ballroom. He became furious at his deputy, ranting that he had been stabbed in the back before but never in his own home. Unmoved by the success of the discussions, Lodge continued to berate the poor man in front of all of us. That evening I learned an important lesson: a country is not well served by an ambassador who thinks entertaining is the most important of his duties.

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Also read Selling Ambassadorships Is as American as Apple Pie (HuffPo)U.S. Embassies Have Always Been for Sale (Daily Beast) and Peter Van Buren’s review, American Ambassadors, The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats (HuffPo).

Senate Confirms Bassett (Paraguay), Bernicat (Bangladesh), Zumwalt (Senegal/GB), Allen (Brunei), Roebuck (Bahrain)

— Domani Spero

 

 

  • Leslie Anne Bassett to be U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay.
  • Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat to be U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
  • James Peter Zumwalt to be U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Senegal and U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Guinea-Bissau
  • Craig B. Allen to be U.S. Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam.
  • William V. Roebuck to be U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain

Ambassador-designate James Zumwalt was nominated as Ambassador to the Republic of Senegal and the Republic of Guinea Bissau.  Embassy operations in Guinea Bissau had been suspended since  June 14, 1998. The U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Senegal is dual-hatted as the Ambassador to the Republic of Guinea-Bissau “to serve concurrently and without additional compensation” and is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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State Dept Releases Part of FOIA’ed Ambo Credentials — Showing Soon Online? Mm-hmm.

— Domani Spero

On March 7, the State Department released the “certificates of demonstrated competence” requested by AFSA on July 29, 2013. The fulfilled request did not include the second FOIA request filed on February 28, 2014.  The DPB extract below also has brief FOIA data for FY2013, which we did not have when we blogged about this case yesterday (State Dept on Ambo Nominees’ “Certificates of Documented Competency” — Working On It.

Two sources confirmed to us that AFSA has these documents and is reviewing them. These “certificates” or “reports” are typically a page long, as previously described in our post here (AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again).  It is our understanding that these docs released today are just bio data and are not confidential.  We’ll have to wait and see whether AFSA would share these “certificates” with their members, and the public by posting them as a subsection of the ambassadors page on its website.

Via DPB, March 7, 2014:

QUESTION: Do you have any update on whether you’ve given the certificates of demonstrated competence to the AFSA representatives?

MS. PSAKI: I do. We have – as I mentioned yesterday, there were two different FOIA requests. So we have fulfilled the requests meeting the July FOIA. That was from – requested from January – January 1st, 2013 to the present time, meaning to when it was – when the process of looking at it began, which means it’s through November. So that is a request we’ve met. The February request is separate. We just received it last week. As I said yesterday, and as is the case in any FOIA, we’re working to process that.

QUESTION: Now, when you say fulfilled, does that mean that you agreed and handed over those certificates —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — unredacted?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any details on that, but just to – and I know somebody asked this question yesterday, but it’s an important note here because I looked into this. These documents that they’re asking for are about a page or two pages long.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: They are certainly not reflective of the qualifications or even that extensive of a background or any – of any of the individuals.

QUESTION: Right, which kind of begs the question as to why it took so – if they’re only a page or two long, why it takes so long to go – anyway. But —

MS. PSAKI: Well, they only —

QUESTION: — when was —

MS. PSAKI: To answer another one of your questions, Matt —

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: — because I aim to please here —

QUESTION: Uh-huh, yeah.

MS. PSAKI: — the request was not made informally or through any other channels —

QUESTION: Before?

MS. PSAKI: — but through the FOIA. Correct, through the FOIA process.

QUESTION: Would they – oh, I suppose this is a hypothetical question, but would – does it – are – could they have gotten it through an informal request? Or do you – would you have demanded that they go through the FOIA route to get them?

MS. PSAKI: I can’t answer that question. I mean, it’s impossible to answer.

QUESTION: Right. And then —

MS. PSAKI: But we do try to provide information —

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: — and work closely with AFSA.

QUESTION: And when was it fulfilled as – the way —

MS. PSAKI: I’d have to double check on that. I believe it was this morning, but let me double check on that and make sure that’s true.

QUESTION: It was this morning. So you missed their deadline. You were hoping for a little leeway, kind of like the Israelis and the Palestinians.

MS. PSAKI: I’ll check and make sure, Matt. Well, they certainly know when we met it or didn’t meet it, right?

QUESTION: Well, right. I know. Okay.

MS. PSAKI: It’s not a secret to them.

QUESTION: So we need to ask them if they’re satisfied with —

MS. PSAKI: And I can check – well, I can check too when – if it was last night or this morning.

QUESTION: How many tickets – how many tickets were there?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any numbers for you. It was any that were applicable in that timeframe.

QUESTION: Do you have in front of you – and I know the building has put these together, but I don’t know if it’s made its way to you – the response to the question that I asked yesterday, just to get it on the record, for how long it takes on average to respond to FOIA requests for the State Department?

MS. PSAKI: I do, Arshad.

QUESTION: I am delighted. Let’s —

MS. PSAKI: Get excited, it’s a Friday.

QUESTION: Let’s put this on the record. (Laughter.) Excellent.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. In Fiscal Year 2013, the average time to process a simple request was 106 days. In the same fiscal year, the average time to process a complex request was 533 days. To show just a factual point here on efforts to improve, in Fiscal Year 2013, the Department received over 18,000 FOIA requests and processed over 21,000. So we processed more than we received, meaning we’re trying to speed up the process.

QUESTION: So – and I had one other question about that, which is that implies that there is a big backlog that you were able to – right?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

 

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AFSA Releases Underwhelming Ambassador Guidelines For “Successful Performance”

— Domani Spero

We’ve been hearing about the AFSA ambassador guidelines for a while now.  We were prepared to be amazed but frankly, given that AFSA has largely ignored the termination of ambassador report cards, we tried hard to contain our expectations (see State/OIG Terminates Preparation of Report Cards for Ambassadors and Sr. Embassy Officials).

Last week, the State Department’s favorite columnist over at WaPo writes, “The cringe-inducing performances in recent weeks by some of President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees have raised expectations that the American Foreign Service Association will weigh in next week with some revolutionary guidelines to revamp the nomination process.  Don’t count on it. Thoughtful, yes. Explosive, hardly. Our sense of the guidelines, which AFSA began working on last summer, is that they’re fairly anodyne suggestions, not a call for stricter criteria.”

According to Al Kamen, the AFSA board reportedly approved the draft guidelines on a 17 to 5 vote, with all four former ambassadors on the board voting against the guidelines, “apparently feeling the new ones watered down the 1980 Foreign Service Act’s useless section on ambassador selection.”  We also heard complaints that while AFSA has been working on these guidelines since last summer, the AFSA membership reportedly did not get a chance to provide comments and input until Friday last week. What the hey?!

Below is the relevant section of the Foreign Service Act of 1980

SEC. 304 – APPOINTMENT OF CHIEFS OF MISSION

(a)(1) An individual appointed or assigned to be a chief of mission should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country in which the individual is to serve, and knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people.

(2) Given the qualifications specified in paragraph (1), positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstance will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.

(3) Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.

We are confident that various administrations since 1980 had their own definitions of what “from time to time” actually means.

So what’s the purpose of releasing these guidelines now?  AFSA says that it offers “this Guidelines paper as a resource to inform the executive and legislative processes of nominating and confirming U.S. chiefs of mission. Chiefs of mission are the president’s envoys to foreign countries and multilateralinstitutions, usually carrying the title of ambassador. They lead our engagement with foreign governments and act as the CEOs of U.S. overseas missions and embassies.”

One retired ambassador who is not an AFSA member asked why ambassadors are even described as CEOs  since they are not — having no bottom line, no shareholders, and no board of directors?  Without all that, we wonder who gets to fire these CEOs to improve “corporate” governance at our overseas missions?

Some of the folks we know who are retired members of AFSA are opposed to the practice of appointing bundlers as ambassadors citing Section 304 of the FSA 1980.   Some see this issue as key to defining an American profession.  Others strongly believe that AFSA as the professional association representing career Foreign Service diplomats, “must–like Cicero–at least take a stand and call out the current system for what it is–plutocratic  corruption.”

Just saw WaPo reporting that AFSA “may oppose Obama ambassador nominees” but that AFSA President Robert Silverman reportedly also “noted that there may be a feeling that AFSA might not “want to get into the middle of a dogfight” while it’s in progress.”

Whose dogfight is this, anyways?  Does AFSA really think that these guidelines would change the current practice of nominating ambassadors ?

At the DPB yesterday, a reporter asked if the State Department believe that an association or the union for current and retired professional diplomats should have any say in the nomination process.  The official spokesperson Jen Psaki replied, “I’d have to check and see … if we have an official U.S. Government position on that question.” Prior to that question, she did say this:

“Obviously, the nomination process, as you well know, happens through the Executive Branch, which has been a traditional process, and input and thoughts comes from a range of resources. And certainly, we support freedom of speech by anyone in terms of what they view nominees should be able to – should – criteria they should meet. But again, these decisions have traditionally been made out of the White House.”

Seriously now, are you hearing what she’s saying?

AFSA says that the Guidelines are “drawn from the collective experience of a group of distinguished former chiefs of mission, both career and non-career, and from legislative and regulatory sources.” Ten ambassadors, all retired; including Ambassador Donald Gips, our former ambassador to South Africa who also served  as head of the WH office for Presidential Personnel.  In that role, Ambassador Gips managed “the selection of several thousand political appointments for the Obama Administration” prior to his appointment to South Africa.  The working group surprisingly did not include a single member of the active Foreign Service.   How well or how badly these missions are managed have a direct impact on the life and work of our diplomats. So we’re curious — how much input did the active membership provide in finalizing the guidelines that the association issued on its behalf?  

AFSA says that the paper is “non-partisan in nature” and offers the following guidelines:

Under “Leadership, character and proven interpersonal skills,” the Guidelines says “A key skill is the ability to listen in order to better understand the host country’s perspectives.”

You know that every bartender worth his/her salt, actually could do this one just as well, right?

Under “Understanding of high level policy and operations, and of key U.S. interests and values in the country or organization of prospective assignment,” the Guidelines says of the  nominee: “He or she demonstrates the capacity to negotiate, and has the proven ability to take on various challenges, including working with U.S. and foreign business communities and other nongovernmental interests, and providing services to U.S. citizens.”

One could argue that Mr. Tsunis, the hotelier nominated for the U.S. Embassy Norway can demonstrate this just as well. As CEO of Chartwell Hotels, LLC which owns, develops and manages Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, he presumably worked with U.S. and foreign business communities and provide services to American citizens. Every. Single. Day.

The third item in the Guidelines is Management.  The President of the Garden Club of Oz, as well, “possesses experience in setting goals and visions, managing change, and allocating resources.”

The fourth and last item listed is “Understanding of host country and international affairs.“The Guidelines says of the nominee: “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages.”

Experience as a foreign exchange student count, right?

To be clear, your blogger’s household does not pay any dues to AFSA, so we are not a member of any standing.   But after reading  the AFSA Guidelines officially titled, “Guidelines for Successful Performance as a Chief of Mission,”we also had to wonder — what was AFSA thinking?  Yes, it is doing something, but is it doing the right thing?

In fact, we think folks could wave these AFSA Guidelines around to defend even the most controversial ambassadorial nominees.  Let’s try it.

For example, according to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell, producer of The Bold and the Beautiful, graduated with high honors from Sweet Briar College with a bachelor’s degree in political economy, a dual major in political science and economics. She spent her junior year abroad at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.   Scotland is not Hungary but that is a foreign culture, is it not? You don’t think this is enough for AFSA Guidelines #4?  Doesn’t it say on paper, “of other foreign cultures or languages?” She also produced the world’s most-watched soap opera, viewed in over 100 countries. The show serves 26.2 million viewers, including U.S. citizens. You don’t think that has anything to do with management and understanding of international affairs?

As a taxpayer with a vested interest in the effective functioning of our overseas missions, we have followed AFSA and the Foreign Service closely.  While we are not a voting member of this association, we would have wanted, instead, to see two things from AFSA: 1)  work on strengthening the Foreign Service Act of 1980 through Congress, who is after all, tasked to provide “advice and consent”on ambassadorial nominees under the U.S. Constitution, and 2)  work on the reinstatement of the OIG Inspector Evaluation Reports (IERs)  to promote accountability and successful performance of our chiefs of missions overseas.  The end.

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