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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