The Obama administration is under fire for doling out an unprecedented number of plum diplomatic postings to political appointees, many of which go to top dollar campaign contributors, sidelining career diplomats.
One former ambassador called it the selling of public offices. Another State Department vet blasted it as a patronage practice reflective “of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies.”
But the institution of thanking big presidential campaign donors with top posts in diplomatic missions is very American and very real.
The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which boasts 16,400 current and retired diplomats among its ranks, says the number of political appointees serving ambassadorships hit a staggering 37 percent, AFP reports.
While Obama entered office promising to limit the practice, the State Department’s professional association says the rate of political appointees reached an unprecedented level of 53 percent, once Obama began serving his second term in January 2013.
Under previous administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, that rate fluctuated between 27 and 38 percent.
"It is a real concern for career diplomats," AFSA president Robert Silverman told AFP.
"We want a debate about qualifications, and not about political influence or donations."
The organization opted not to discuss specific cases but lists all the White House's "political" appointees to head foreign missions, including Britain, Canada, China, the European Union, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations.
According to a July report in the Guardian, for 10 out of 12 sought-after postings in Europe, the Caribbean or Asia, the average amount raised by each donor is $1.79 million.
"All these people want to go to places where the lifestyle issues [are pleasant], and to some extent that produces this notion that life in these western European embassies is like Perle Mesta," Thomas Pickering, who recently led the investigation into lethal attacks on the US embassy in Libya and represented the US at the United Nations, told The Guardian at the time. Mesta, the US Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949–53, picked up the sobriquet “hostess with the mostest” for the lavish parties she threw.
But if Mesta made her name on her soirees, a recent Obama former ambassador to Luxemburg, Cynthia Stroum, left the diplomatic mission in disarray. Stroum, a Seattle venture capitalist who ingratiated herself with the Obama administration as a campaign "bundler" – a wealthy fund-raiser who bundle contributions from multiple donors – was not nearly as generous with her diplomatic staff.
In February 2011, she was forced to step down from the post after a scathing State Department report said she brought “major elements of Embassy Luxembourg to a state of dysfunction.”
After Stroum created an atmosphere which was viewed as "aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating," staffers asked for transfers to war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq rather than stay on at the cushy European embassy.
Following Stroum’s dismissal, the State Department decided to stop issuing such de facto reports on ambassadors.
During Obama's first term, other political appointees in Malta, Luxembourg, Kenya and the Bahamas were also forced to step down over management issues, the UK’s Independent newspaper reports.
Max Baucus, the long serving US senator from Montana, is slated to replace Gary Locke as US ambassador to China. During his confirmation hearing, Baucus admitted to lawmakers: "I am no real expert on China."
Baucus, the former head of the Senate Finance Committee with decades of legislative experience in matters of trade, will at least be aware of US economic and political interests regarding China and the strategically vital region.
Other Obama appointees have inspired far less confidence among congress and talking heads alike.
George Tsunis, CEO of Chartwell Hotels, who raised about $1.3 million for Obama and the Democratic Party, raised more than a few eyebrows at his hearing to be confirmed as ambassador to Norway.
Having admitted he’d never actually visited the country, he then went on to refer to Prime Minister Erna Solberg as president of the country and suggested that the conservative Progress Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, was a “fringe element” that “spewed hatred.”
Obama’s pick for US envoy to Hungary, Colleen Bell, fared no better. Having served as a producer for the TV soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, Bell was unable to answer fundamental questions regarding US strategic interests in Hungary.
When the painfully awkward confirmation session concluded, US Senator John McCain said with a sarcastic grin: “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees."
Writing for Politico, James Bruno, a retired Foreign Service officer, noted the clear bilateral experience gap.
“For the purposes of comparison, Norway’s ambassador to the Washington is a 31-year Foreign Ministry veteran. Hungary’s ambassador is an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years,” he said.
Bruno said you can chalk up the resume imbalance to one 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.”
If that were not enough, Noah Bryson Mamet, who was picked to be US ambassador to Argentina, shocked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month by admitting he had never actually been to the country and could not speak Spanish.
Liberal satirist from the Daily Show Jon Stewart was quick to mock Obama’s less-than-qualified appointees.
"Is there a rule that ambassadors can't have set foot in the country they're going to ambassador? Would it ruin the surprise?" he said, noting that all three had raised large sums for Obama’s campaign.
The Republican National Committee heaped more scorn on the picks by releasing the "Ambassadors for Dummies" guide.
The guide says step one requires you to "bundle hundreds of
thousands of dollars for the Obama campaign." The envoy-to-be is
then asked to "find the country of your appointment on a map "and
"visit the country. For at least one day."
Tom Korologos, who served as US Ambassador to Belgium under George W. Bush, told the Independent he was “amazed” the State Department was letting these people go so unprepared.
"When I went up for confirmation as ambassador to Belgium, I knew more about Belgium than the Belgians did," he said.
But despite the disdain McCain and other Republicans have shown, Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy who once served as envoy to Afghanistan, told NPR both sides are responsible for the mess.
“There is a law, which both parties ignore, about ambassadors needing to be qualified: the Foreign Service Act of 1980," Neumann points out. "People still get through even if they are manifestly not qualified."