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July 2009

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As of July 10, the scorecard on the American Foreign Service Association website (http://www.afsa.org/) showed that the Obama administration has thus far named 32 political appointees to ambassadorships, as compared to 25 career diplomats. Since World War II, the overall ratio has been about 30% political, 70% career. This essay calls for ending the longstanding, bipartisan tradition of rewarding political contributors and friends with ambassadorial posts. – Ed.   

End Political Appointments to Embassies
By Alan Berlind

For half a century, successive U.S. administrations of various stripes have overcome their differences and emulated their predecessors in one important respect.  Liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, have put ideology aside and, to put it bluntly but precisely, sold comfortable ambassadorial residences with all their finery to wealthy campaign contributors possessing no particular qualifications for the related and crucial tasks of representing the United States abroad, providing expert advice to Washington on matters affecting American foreign policy and security, and carrying out policy as decided by the president of the United States.  President Barack Obama appears intent on continuing this practice, which constitutes a serious offense to the governments and international organizations so treated, subjects the United States to ridicule abroad, and encourages public partisan posturing at Senate hearings.  The American Foreign Service, committed to loyally serving the president chosen by the American voter, suffers on the sidelines.

The great majority of the prizes handed out to campaign donors and party hacks are in Europe:  American embassies in Rome, Stockholm, Vienna, London, Paris, Helsinki, Bern, and Brussels, among others, and international organizations also located in dazzling capitals.  The argument that we are rewarding our oldest friends and allies is nothing but a Washington myth not subscribed to by the host governments or their people.  Nobody out there takes seriously the idea that the latest rich envoy will have the ear of the President or that his appointment should be taken as a sign of special interest.  (Were this simplistic notion to be accepted as intended, governments and peoples elsewhere could reasonably ask what insult is meant by the appointment of a mere Foreign Service professional to their capital.)  One is reminded of the old practice of sending black ambassadors to Africa, which scored no points with the hosts and suggested condescension.

While the appointment of rich friends to embassies is a purely American tradition, there are those who like to point out the successes of some non-professional ambassadors chosen for some special expertise acquired, for example, in academia.  We all know of such cases, but as is usually true, the exception proves the rule.  And those who think fit the appointment of senior military men to ambassadorships might dwell on the verdict reportedly delivered by General Anthony Zinni when his rumored appointment to Iraq was withdrawn:  “They can stick it where the sun don’t shine.”  Not all admirals and generals are so crude, but they and academics and campaign contributors share one thing in common:  They are not trained diplomats, who in turn would be poor choices to command an army battalion or an aircraft carrier.

Discussion of the need to cut back on political appointments to embassies usually turns on the questions of what percentages, or caps, should be established so as to begin reducing the current 30% plus and assure that no more than a certain number of non-professionals are sent abroad.  This is not a promising approach:  The figures indicate that even a cap of 10% would leave many embassies in Europe with dollar signs alongside the stars and stripes.  This is a time for radical action, not to copy other countries but to show them the respect they demonstrate by assigning senior, experienced diplomats to Washington.  The fight for the total elimination of our brand of ugly dollar diplomacy must be accompanied by executive and Congressional action to help our diplomatic establishment recover from the grave damage inflicted during recent years by the success of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon in displacing the State Department at the helm of foreign policy followed by Condoleeza Rice’s fanciful and foolish introduction of “transformational diplomacy” and the shift in resources that required.

Never before in our history has the United States image throughout the world been as dismal as that created by former President George W. Bush, aided ably in its destruction by Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, et al.  President Obama has already done much to restore our reputation.  But image and reputation are mere causes, while the effect lies in our declining influence around the globe, a development that concerns nothing less than our ability to win the support of others for positions vital to our security.  The damage that has been done is not irreparable, but it will require professional skills out there on the front lines – the capitals where our ambassadors defend and promote American interests and ideals.  Rich friends are poor choices for the enormous tasks ahead.bluestar


imageAlan Berlind retired from the Foreign Service in 1986 as deputy chief of mission in Athens, having served previously as political advisor at the U.S. mission to NATO, director of the Office of the Law of the Sea Negotiations in Washington, and DCM in Khartoum, with earlier tours in Greece, Ghana, Belgium, and the Department and a year each at Columbia University and the National War College. He has taught at American colleges in Athens and Thessaloniki and at the University of Bordeaux, where he currently resides with his wife and son.

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