How can we tell that the embarrassment of Barack Obama’s sale of diplomatic appointments has gotten too big to ignore? One indication would be a major media outlet trying to slough it off by calling it business as usual. Another signal could be a major media outlet paying attention to it and demanding action.
Today, we get both … at the Washington Post. First, Aaron Blake concedes that the nominees have been unqualified embarrassments of late, but argues that there’s nothing new about nominating campaign donors to these positions:
For decades, political allies — fundraisers, in particular — have often gotten what are known as “plum” ambassador posts. These are often sunny or touristy destinations where U.S. diplomacy is hardly a pressing issue.
That’s why, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the last 19 ambassadors to Ireland have all been political appointees, but the last 21 ambassadors to Lebanon have all been career foreign service officers. Ireland is a desirable post; Lebanon, not so much.
And while Obama is one of the bigger offenders in this regard, he still trails slightly behind two Republican presidents when it comes to the percentage of his ambassador picks who are political appointees, as opposed to those who have spent their careers in the foreign service — Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
While political appointees comprised about 38 percent of Reagan’s and Ford’s ambassadors, they’ve been about 37 percent of Obama’s, according to AFSA.
Blake provides a handy chart to bolster his case:
First, as the chart actually demonstrates, this isn’t business as usual, but a big jump in the Obama era. Second, didn’t Obama win office by promising to change the culture of Washington and end the idea that government was for sale? That was the entire point of “Hope and Change,” was it not? Obama has since argued that he didn’t understand just how entrenched that culture is in Washington DC and how difficult it is to change it — an odd claim, since he’d been a Senator for four years by the time of his inauguration — but this is an area in which Obama has complete authority. These are his appointments, not Congress’, and he’s basically making them a paid sinecure.
For the next indicator, here is the editorial board at the Post disagreeing rather emphatically with Blake’s argument:
All presidents appoint some ambassadors who are not professional diplomats. Most have been harmless; a few have been stellar. Mr. Obama, however, has considerably stretched the boundaries of previous presidential records, both in quantity and in apparent disregard for quality. The president promised in 2009 to increase professional appointments, and the State Department said last Friday that it aims for a 70-30 split between career and political ambassadors. Yet, so far in his second term,53 percent of Mr. Obama’s appointments have been political, according to the American Foreign Service Association. A third have been fundraisers for his campaigns.
The bundlers are going not just to London, Brussels and Vienna, where their roles may be largely decorative, but also to countries where relations with the United States are troubled. In addition to Mr. Mamet, Mr. Obama is dispatching fundraiser and soap-opera producer Colleen Bradley Bell to Hungary, a NATO country whose government has a disturbing record of undermining democratic institutions. At her confirmation hearing, Ms. Bell was unable to spell out U.S. interests in Budapest other than “to promote business opportunities, increase trade.”
Mr. Obama’s new ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, raised $1.3 million for the Democratic Party in 2012 but didn’t know at the time of his hearing last month that Norway has a king but not a president.
Ambassadorial appointments for small allies such as Norway or tough partners including Hungary and Argentina matter because their governments rarely receive the attention of high-level officials in Washington and yet require skilled diplomacy. It’s no wonder that Argentina, the third-largest economy in Latin America but a perennial trouble spot, was tended by career diplomats under the four presidents who preceded Mr. Obama. His use of the Buenos Aires embassy and so many others as political plums signals a disregard for U.S. foreign interests.
Plus, let’s not forget a couple of other Barack Obama campaign pledges from 2008. He repeatedly blasted the foreign policies of George W. Bush as arrogant and ignorant, pledging to restore American standing with its allies and implementing foreign policies that exuded “smart power.” How does one square “smart power” with demonstrably ignorant and incompetent ambassadors? How arrogant does it look to have our friends send professional diplomats to represent them here, while we send donors with no understanding of their nations in return? Did any of Bush’s or Reagan’s appointees demonstrate the level of ignorance in the confirmation hearings as did George Tsunis and Colleen Bell?
Smart power, indeed.
Addendum: I noticed that hardly any of you promoted me as the new ambassador to Ireland on Twitter, by using the #Morrissey4Ireland hashtag. I’ll even up my offer to $5 for OFA for the appointment, despite my obvious disqualifications of having been in Ireland, knowing its form of government, and speaking its language. I’m giving up my Friday Jimmy Johns order just in case the call comes.