Call this yet another extension of smart power. In recent confirmation hearings, we’ve found that Barack Obama appointments for ambassador posts have no knowledge of the government with which they’ll interact, no clue as to the strategic interests in play for the US with the assignment (a description that applies to two appointments, as we’ll see), and finally have never bothered to actually visit the country to which he’d be posted. It’s as if Barack Obama desires to confirm the old saw that Americans have little curiosity about what extends beyond our two oceans.
In today’s Washington Post, former Clinton diplomatic adviser Henri Barkley, now a professor of international relations at Lehigh, blasts the White House for its riches of embarrassment in recent appointments. Barkley accuses the Obama administration of selling offices, and warns of the dangers in sending out incompetents in important diplomatic posts:
The Obama administration’s appointments suggest that the president isn’t being honest when he says that diplomacy is important to him. Yet the administration clearly values diplomacy — officials, including the president, have emphasized that the ongoing negotiations with Iran are the way to resolve the nuclear impasse. Would Obama consider making Tsunis our negotiator? Of course not. Yet it’s illogical, and insulting, to presume that Norwegians are such wonderful and civilized people — and hence unlikely to cause any problems with Washington — that we can afford to send someone on a taxpayer-funded three-year junket to enjoy the fjords.
Even the argument that Norway is an unproblematic post for a political appointee does not pass muster. Obama’s ambassador-designate to Hungary, Colleen Bradley Bell, is a television soap opera producer (“The Bold and the Beautiful”) and also was a money-handler for the president’s reelection campaign. What qualifications does she have to be ambassador to a country in crisis? Hungary’s democratic institutions are under severe threat from the governing party, and extremists have been targeting minorities. Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union. Unfortunately, when asked by Sen. John McCain, Bell was incapable of identifying the U.S. strategic interests in Hungary. …
Unfortunately, some current nominees are a modern version of the 18th-century French practice of the sale of offices. Then, the income derived went to finance state activities; now, it is for financing campaigns.
Both Democrats and Republicans reward those who helped their campaigns. But for a president who just told the nation of his commitment to reducing inequality, this practice of rewarding unqualified people, whose “good deed” is to have bundled campaign funds, is particularly jarring.
Barkley isn’t the only one noticing, either. James Bruno lists the recent appointments for Politico and comes up with big cash totals, too:
The resumé imbalance, of course, owes to a simple fact: The United States is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies. A similar system once allowed political allies to become military officers, but Congress outlawed the practice after the Civil War, during which the public recoiled at the needless slaughter brought on by incompetent cronies who had been appointed generals (men like Daniel Sickles, whose insubordination at Gettysburg caused more than 4,000 Union casualties). Representing the United States in a foreign capital, however, is a privilege still available to any moneyed dolt with party connections.
And President Obama—who entered office promising to limit the practice and instead appoint more Foreign Service professionals to ambassadorial positions—has arguably done more to exacerbate the problem than his recent predecessors. His second-term appointments have gone to political allies more than half of the time. Since World War II, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, that number has been lower: About a third of the ambassador posts have been offered to non-professional diplomats.
The reason a hotelier and a television producer, for instance, might be appealing choices is blindingly obvious: money. Bell raised $2,101,635 for President Obama’s re-election efforts. Tsunis, who flipped his affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 2009, embraced his new party with gusto, raising $988,550 for the president’s 2012 bid.
Among the ambassadors serving in 10 of the choicest cities in Europe and the Caribbean, the average amount raised per posting in the last election was $1.79 million, according to the Guardian newspaper. And the cost for a plush post in a city like Rome, Paris, Stockholm or Canberra seems to be going up. The Guardian reported that appointees to these embassies raised a total of $5 million in 2012, up from $3.3 million in 2008, $1.3 million in 2004 and $800,000 in 2000.
Maybe the US Senate could step in and force Obama to stop appointing fundraising hacks to represent America abroad. They had the chance with Max Baucus, a former member of the club who claimed to have no knowledge of the strategic implications of the air-defense zone claims of China, where Baucus was appointed as Ambassador. The Senate confirmed Baucus yesterday to that post … in a vote of 96-0.
Smart power is apparently contagious.