President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, may make a fine diplomat, if confirmed. But so far he's turned out to be a PR disaster. At his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Tsunis — a Long Island hotelier — referred to a "president" of Norway (the country doesn't have one) and erroneously called one of the ruling coalition parties a "fringe" element that "Norway has been very quick to denounce."
Tsunis' diplomatic blunders have caused some criticism both at home and in Norway, but the real fallout is that they have prompted a bunch of stories about the relatively large number of Obama ambassador-designates who donated or raised money for him and the Democrats. According to a tally by the Center for Public Integrity, 24 of Obama's second-term ambassador picks were bundlers for his campaign, 24 were political appointees, and 37 were career diplomats.
Tsunis, chief executive of Chartwell Hotels, raised at least $500,000 for Obama in 2012. He's also a member of Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Leadership Committee, and was — until he switched parties in 2009 — a big supporter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who asked him the damaging question about Norway's anti-immigration Progress Party.
Tsunis isn't the only one to underperform in a confirmation hearing, either. Colleen Bradley Bell, a TV producer (and Obama bundler) nominated for the Hungary ambassadorship, earned a sarcastic "great answer" from McCain when she offered a generic response to his question about America's strategic interests in Hungary. Democratic political consultant (and Obama bundler) Noah Bryson Mamet admitted to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that he hasn't ever visited Argentina, his designated post.
These sub-par confirmation hearings have earned Obama a stern tsk-tsking from pundits, politicians, foreign policy experts, and even late-night comedians. ABC News listed the "five most cringe-worthy blunders" from Obama ambassador nominees; at The Washington Post, former State Department official Henri J. Barkey argued that "Obama's ambassador nominees are a disservice to diplomacy."
Jeffery Goldberg, writing at Bloomberg View, gleefully recalls a recent trip he took to Budapest with McCain, where he strongly suspects that McCain "decided to meet the press in Budapest mainly so that the delegation would be asked questions about...Colleen Bell." When they did, McCain winked at Goldberg and two other American reporters, then invited Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to defend Bell. This is the response Goldberg says he wishes Murphy had given:
Colleen Bell was nominated to serve as ambassador to Hungary not because she knows anything about Hungary, or about Europe, or NATO, or the democratic development of former Soviet satellite states, but because she raised just an ungodly amount of money for President Obama, and in our country, we have a bipartisan tradition of selling ambassadorships to vulgar people of great means. The good news is that Bell is a successful, ambitious person who has at least a small chance of gaining direct access to the president or at least to his people — admittedly none of whom particularly care about Hungary — and also, she will throw excellent parties to which I'm sure at least some of the less-unwashed journalists among you might be invited. [Bloomberg]
And since this isn't an Aaron Sorkin script, Goldberg was disappointed and dispirited when Murphy instead said he thinks "Hungary and the bilateral relationship is going to be very well-served by Colleen Bell's arrival."
"The corruption here is multilayered," Goldberg continues. "There is the corruption of governance and diplomacy, in which ambassadorships are sold to the highest bidder. And then there is a more subtle form of corruption, in which the people's representatives are made to feel as if they must provide cover for the corrupt practices of the executive branch."
I have a lot of respect for career diplomats, generally — their work isn't usually as glamorous as it might seem, often taking them and their families to forlorn or dangerous countries. But not every foreign service officer would make a great ambassador, and more importantly, they may not be as vigorous in promoting a president's policies as somebody who cared enough about the president that he or she raised large amounts of money to elect him.
Unless there was a specific quid pro quo — if you raise this much money, you get an ambassadorship to a reasonably developed country of mid-importance — I'm not even sure it qualifies as "corruption."
But more to the point, the skill set of a successful political bundler is pretty germane to the job of heading up a diplomatic mission. My understanding of what bundlers do is host parties where they persuade guests to write large checks. That sounds very similar to diplomacy.
"Generally speaking, modern ambassadors are not the ones actually formulating foreign policy," says Slate's Joshua Keating. "Veteran foreign-service folks probably wouldn't agree, but with the exception of a few countries like China, Egypt, or Pakistan, where an official on the ground's initial response to a crisis could have a major impact on U.S. interests, it seems as though a competent political insider could do an ambassador's job as well, or if not better, than a subject-matter expert."
Rubio, who's requesting that Obama withdraw Mamet's nomination, conceded to USA Today that "every president has made political appointments of political allies and donors and so forth," adding that "in some instances that works well — you know, if you're going to Malta or if you're going to the Bahamas."
But that undersells the successes of Shirley Temple Black, who died on Monday. After her wildly successful career as a child actor, Black reinvented herself as a politico and diplomat. President Gerald Ford named her ambassador to Ghana, and President George H.W. Bush appointed her ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989. Her main qualification? She was a prominent Republican fundraiser. Here's the kicker, from Aljean Harmetz's obituary of Black in The New York Times:
When she was appointed ambassador to Ghana in 1974, some career diplomats were outraged, but State Department officials later conceded that her performance was outstanding.... When she arrived in Prague as ambassador — a post usually reserved for career diplomats — she discovered that there had been a Shirley Temple fan club there 50 years earlier... Black succeeded beyond almost everyone's expectations, winning praise during her three years in Prague from, among others, Henry Kissinger, who called her "very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined." [New York Times]
My guess is that Black had never set foot in Ghana or Czechoslovakia before she became the top U.S. diplomat in those countries.