Ambassadorships: Qualified Applicants Need Not Apply?

Posted: Mar 22, 2014 12:01 AM
Ambassadorships: Qualified Applicants Need Not Apply?

“I’m no real expert on China.” Sobering words to hear from the man nominated by President Obama … to be U.S. ambassador to China.

But that’s what Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said during his confirmation hearing in January when asked some detailed questions about U.S.-China policy.

At least Baucus had actually been to China. Not all of President Obama’s nominees for ambassadorships can say that. Consider this exchange between Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Noah Mamet, during the latter’s confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Argentina:

Rubio: “Mr. Mamet, have you been to Argentina?”

Mamet: “Senator, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to be there. I’ve traveled pretty extensively around the world, but I haven’t yet had a chance.”

Others have displayed an alarmingly flimsy grasp of how politics work in the country where they would serve.

For example, when Sen. John McCain asked George Tsunis, prospective ambassador to Norway, “What do you think the appeal of the Progress Party was to the Norwegian voters?” Tsunis called them a “fringe element” that “Norway has been very quick to denounce.” At which point McCain noted that the Progress Party is part of Norway’s coalition government. “I stand corrected,” Tsunis replied.

But let’s ask a more basic question: Why are there political ambassadors?

Over many years of traveling around the world, I have had the opportunity to meet some extraordinary women and men who have served as U.S. representatives on every continent. Some have been career foreign service officers, others have been political appointees.

By and large, these individuals have performed yeoman service to represent our country under often difficult and challenging circumstances. I remember long sessions with former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat appointed by Jimmy Carter and reappointed by Ronald Reagan to the critically important post of ambassador to Japan. He was later succeeded by House Speaker Tom Foley, and then by Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican.

Today, the post of Ambassador to Japan is held by a famous person whose qualifications for appointment to the Embassy in Tokyo are, well, limited. Caroline Kennedy may have caught the fancy of the Japanese people, but her qualifications to represent our nation in one of the most important posts internationally are not obvious.

The most recent round of Obama appointees, however, are so ill-qualified that even The Daily Show’s John Stewart made fun of them. The ambassadors-designate to Argentine, Iceland, Norway and Hungary had never stepped foot in the country to which they would be accredited as the U.S. representative.

Their main qualification seems to be that they raised millions for the president’s reelection campaign. Sure, blatantly political appointees are nothing new, but this latest batch apparently can’t even be bothered to Google the country they’d serve in as ambassadors.

The Obama administration has made some good political appointees, such as Louis Sussman, former ambassador to London. I had the privilege of serving on the U.S. Information Agency’s Oversight Board with Sussman for several years.

But you don’t nominate someone just because he or she raised money for the president, particularly if they lack knowledge of the country to which they would represent the United States.

Argentina is a linchpin country in Latin America with politically unstable leadership. Norway is one of Europe’s largest energy suppliers and the NATO bulwark on the Northern Flank. Iceland has had a tough economic recovery and is strategically located in the heart of the North Atlantic. Hungary is a former Soviet state and a fellow NATO member that borders Ukraine.

It’s a sad commentary when not only TV commentators, but late-night comedians make fun of America’s representatives overseas.

President Obama once vowed to “have civil servants, wherever possible, serve in these posts.” What happened to that promise?