07.28.09

Obama's Embassies for Sale

As the Senate confirms more big-league Democratic donors to be U.S. ambassadors—including sending Donald Beyer, who raised over $500,000 for Obama’s campaign, to Switzerland—former diplomat Dennis Jett, ambassador to Mozambique and Peru under President Clinton, says the president is just like his crony-appointing predecessors.

It is a system that Rod Blagojevich would love. While it amounts to little more than the selling of government jobs, it is also perfectly legal. Not only is it not against the law, it is a time-honored tradition. Yet continuing this sordid practice cannot help but have a negative impact on national security. The positions being sold are not those of minor functionaries; they are ones that really matter in an ever more globalized and dangerous world.

Despite the obvious damage, this corrupt exercise is repeated every four years—and there seems to be no hope that it is going to change under President Obama. The “system,” of course, is the awarding of plum ambassadorial postings to major campaign donors—cash for cachet.

In his first six months, Obama forwarded to the Senate 58 nominations for ambassadors. Of those 32, or 55 percent of the total, were political appointees.

The granting of the ambassador title to fat cats with no foreign-policy credentials has been part of how Washington does business for many years. George W. Bush gave nearly 50 “Rangers” and “Pioneers” ambassadorial posts. “Pioneers” gathered at least $100,000 in contributions and “Rangers” delivered $200,000 or more in 2000 or 2004. Having their own designation meant their status as a major fundraiser could be conveyed by using a single word. Influence peddling and patronage is so much easier when it has its own shorthand.

While Bush made little pretense of using government for anything other than the enrichment of the already rich and well-connected, Obama was elected to bring about profound changes in foreign and domestic policy. Even during the campaign, however, he made clear that there are limits to how ready Washington is for reform when it comes to ambassadorships. He readily admitted that there would be political appointees as ambassadors and he added “it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that there are not going to be some.”

The number of political appointees to date must be a disappointment to anyone who thought “some” would mean fewer than under previous presidents. In his first six months in office, Obama is ahead of four of his five immediate predecessors in the percentage of ambassadorial nominations that have gone to political appointees.

Since at least as far back as the Eisenhower administration, the percentage of ambassadors who were political appointees has remained at roughly 30 percent. The remaining 70 percent are almost always career foreign-service officers who worked their way up through the ranks of the State Department.

The first ambassadorial appointments of any new president include a far higher percentage of political appointees than the average over his entire term in office, however. The standard practice is for all ambassadors to present their resignations to a new president, but only those of the previous president’s political appointees are accepted immediately while the career ambassadors are usually allowed to finish out their normal three-year tours.

In his first six months, Obama forwarded to the Senate 58 nominations for ambassadors. Of those 32, or 55 percent of the total, were political appointees. In the same time period, his five predecessors made more nominations—an average of 67—but the number of those who were political was lower at 47 percent.

The overall ratio of political appointees to career ambassadors has remained more or less constant despite the fact that the number of countries in the world has grown considerably. President Kennedy had less than 100 ambassadorial positions to fill. Obama has nearly twice that number to hand out.

That ratio has not changed much and neither have the types of places to which the political ambassadors are sent. The failed states and economic basket cases are left to the career officers. The industrialized democracies of Europe and Asia and the island nations of the Caribbean are the destinations of the political appointees.

There are good reasons for this. If someone is making six-figure campaign contributions, he wants a country his friends will recognize, visit, and where the biggest threat to health is gout. From the point of view of the bureaucracy, if the ambassador in such a place is a fool, it is a manageable problem. The government-to-government connections between developed countries are so fluid, frequent, and numerous that he can easily be worked around. And if he goes off to a tropical paradise and is never heard from again, no one in Washington will notice.

Some argue it does not matter because ambassadors are not policymakers, but just implementers of what is dictated by Washington. Anyone who believes that, however, hasn’t spent much time outside the Beltway. Ambassadors run embassies with hundreds of employees from dozens of different agencies. Getting them to work well and work together requires some understanding of the way government works.

If it is one thing that the last president demonstrated, it is that the world’s only superpower is not all-powerful and that the cooperation of other countries is essential to effectively confront the most serious threats that America faces. The last administration thought public diplomacy (not to mention domestic policy) was repeating the same lie enough times. Persuading skeptical publics abroad requires more than a few phone calls or a personal relationship with the man in the White House.

The fact that someone has made a bundle in real-estate development or skimming bonuses in high finance does not mean he is the best person to carry out such tasks. No other serious country chooses its ambassadors in such a transparently mercenary manner. Britain and Germany, for instance, have nearly all career ambassadors with a few appointees included who are known for their political clout and not simply the size of their bankroll.

But then again, no other country has allowed money to corrupt the political process to the extent the United States has. Tens of thousands of Washington lobbyists engaging in a multibillion-dollar business shilling for anyone with the ability to pay is one symptom of the problem.

The cost of presidential elections is another. One study estimates the cost of the last presidential campaign at $1.6 billion—twice what it was four years before. As campaigns have grown more expensive, the importance of contributions by aspiring ambassadors has grown as well. And therefore, the old spoils system remains securely in place despite the promises to change the culture of Washington.

So what are the hopes that foreign-policy expertise will count more than contributions when it comes to naming ambassadors? Real change would require the president, and probably the Senate as well, to surrender a measure of power, which is something politicians never willingly do.

And it is not as simple as simply reducing the 30 percent figure to a lower number. There have been stellar political appointee ambassadors, and, by contrast, career ambassadors who were real turkeys. But using campaign contributions as the key criterion for the job is probably the worst criterion for the job.

When asked about the qualifications of the nominee for London, an investment banker and campaign bundler from Chicago, Obama’s press secretary replied that he speaks the local language. While that may be a relief to those who believe, like George Bernard Shaw, that America and England are two peoples separated by that common language, it is not much of an argument for the naming someone who can influence such an important relationship, but does not have a clue how.