Feature

Ambassadors: Obama’s political hacks

In his second term, President Obama has filled 53 percent of U.S. ambassadorships with political appointees.

The nominee for U.S. ambassador to Norway admits he’s never been there, and outrages Norwegians by referring to its prime minister as “president” and its ruling center-right coalition as an extremist “fringe.” The nominee for U.S. ambassador to Argentina can’t speak Spanish. The nominee for ambassador to Hungary? A soap opera producer who hemmed and hawed through a Senate committee’s questions about the country. What all those nominees had in common, said Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post, was that they were major donors or bundlers to President Obama’s 2012 campaign. In his second term, Obama has taken diplomatic cynicism to new heights, with political appointees getting 53 percent of his ambassadorships—compared with the average of about 30 percent during recent presidencies. Filling U.S. embassies with unqualified political hacks “is a grave insult to competent foreign service officers,” said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com, suggesting that what the State Department does “is irrelevant.”

The real problem is the system itself, said Kori Schake in ForeignPolicy.com. The State Department has done little to determine what makes a good ambassador or to provide serious professional training. Perhaps that’s why “many political appointees prove better diplomats than our diplomats.” Obama has made some “genuinely fantastic political appointments,” including sending Russian scholar and democracy activist Mike McFaul to Moscow. It’s also wrong to assume that ambassadors must be experts in their assigned countries the day they arrive; the kind of negotiating, cajoling, and strong views that make someone a successful businessperson and party activist in the U.S. can come in very handy abroad.

Tell that to the Norwegians, said Jacob Heilbrunn in The National Interest. When you dispatch to Oslo some wealthy joker who knows nothing about Norway, “it signals to the host country that the U.S. doesn’t take it very seriously.” In fact, it underscores the blithe indifference with which the U.S. views the rest of the world. We’re the only industrialized country that sends political appointees as ambassadors, said James Bruno in Politico.com. Consider the case of Colleen Bell, the soap opera producer whom Obama is dispatching to Hungary, where anti-Semitism is on the rise and the wily prime minister is cracking down on dissent. Is she really up for that job? “Tough to say.” But my wild guess would be no.

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