Saturday, July 4, 2009

E$tremely Qualified Ambassadors

The Wall Street Journal has taken notice of the large number of political donors and fundraisers who have been appointed to ambassadorial posts (Donors Find a Home in Obama's Ambassador Corps). A few quotes:

Mr. Obama's choice of Mr. Roos [TSB note: John V. Roos, the Silicon Valley lawyer and Democractic Party money bundler who is going to Tokyo], along with other political boosters -- from former investment banker Louis B. Susman, known as the "vacuum cleaner" for his fundraising prowess, to Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney -- has raised eyebrows among some who thought the president would extend his mantra of change to the diplomatic corps.

"We're not only insulting nations [that] we're appointing these bundlers to, we're risking U.S. diplomatic efforts in these key countries," said Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist at watchdog group Public Citizen.

This tension can be traced back to Mr. Obama's claim during last year's campaign that President George W. Bush engaged in an "extraordinary politicization of foreign policy." Mr. Obama said he instead would ensure that hires are based on merit, rather than party or ideology. The American Academy of Diplomacy, an association of former diplomats, seized on the comments in lobbying him to lower the portion of ambassadors drawn from outside the foreign-service establishment to as little as 10% from the 30% average since President John F. Kennedy's tenure. (Mr. Bush's score was 33%.)

Of the Obama administration's 55 ambassadorial nominees so far, 33 -- or 60% -- have gone to people outside the foreign-service ranks, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That ratio is almost certain to tilt back toward career diplomats as dozens of the remaining posts are filled.

"The president said in January that he would nominate extremely qualified individuals like Mr. Roos, former Congressman Tim Roemer, and Miguel Diaz, who didn't necessarily come up through the ranks of the State Department, but want to serve their country in important diplomatic posts," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.

So there you go. No one ever said that the people "extremely qualified" for important diplomatic posts would necessarilly be those who are qualified by virtue of professional preparation. Obama promised he would appoint ambassadors according to "merit," and so he has. It's just that all of his political fundraisers have merit, and not all of his senior Foreign Service Officers do. Is anyone actually surprised by this?

Apparently, some really are surprised. The American Academy of Diplomacy and other admirers of Obama jumped to the conclusion that the people Obama would find "extremely qualified" to fill his ambassadorial posts would be, you know, diplomats. The Academy of Diplomacy had especially unrealistic hopes ("President-elect Barack Obama has repeatedly stated his intention to change the culture of Washington. He promises to drive the money changers (the lobbyists) from the temple, to reduce the partisanship and to appoint people who can actually do the job -- not just his political supporters.") Ouch! Reality bites. At least, it does if you believe political promises.

The ambassador's union is putting a good spin on the bad news:

Ronald E. Neumann, president of the Academy and a retired Foreign Service officer, cautioned that it is far too early to tell how the Obama lineup will look. When administrations turn over, the first ambassadors to leave their posts often are the prior president's political appointees; those spots are first to be filled, in turn, with new political appointees. Mr. Roos's predecessor in Tokyo, in fact, was a former business partner of Mr. Bush, although he had served as ambassador to Australia before the Japan post.

The president's slate of nominees thus far, Mr. Neumann said, "tells you it's not change, but it doesn't yet tell you what it is."

Maybe I'm a cynic, but, if it isn't change, then I'd say that it's The Same Old Thing.

And then there's this:

The Swiss media aired some concerns about the choice of car-dealership magnate Don Beyer for the Geneva posting.

They're talking about my homeboy, Don Beyer junior, son of the real Don Beyer who built a Falls Church, Virginia, Volvo dealership into the automotive empire that junior inherited. Basically a rich-kid dilettante, Don junior got into Democratic politics as a money raiser; he was Howard Dean’s national treasurer before raising money for Obama. He never ran for any local or state office until he bought the Virginia Democratic Party nomination for Lieutenant Governor back in the 90s. He served four pointless years in an otherwise Republican administration with a Republican-majority legislature, then ran for Governor and lost. His most commendable achievement is that his family business runs the absolutely very best radio commercials I've ever heard. [Here’s an archive of those one-minute masterpieces; I particularly like the Oxymoron and Latin Words ads.]

Beyer might be a political lightweight, but he's honest and harmless, which means he compares favorably to the "extremely qualified" appointees who preceded him in the last few administrations. What did Switzerland ever do to us that we've sent them such a string of crooks and cronies?

We have sent the Swiss: Peter Coneway, a Goldman Sachs partner who was a major donor to the Bush campaign; Pamela Willeford, a Texas socialite and hunting partner of Dick Cheney; Mercer Reynolds, Bush's 2000 Ohio finance chairman; Madeleine Kunin, a former Vermont Governor appointed by Clinton upon the death of his first appointee Larry Lawrence, a Friend of Bill who contributed about 20 million to Democrats over his lifetime, sometimes in excess of legal limits, and who extended both his generosity and his poor regard for financial disclosure requirements to his fellow Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

That last appointee was enough to embarrass even Bill Clinton, assuming that is possible. After Lawrence's death it was rumored - all too believably - that he had been under investigation by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General for financial irregularities when he passed away. Lawrence caused one last scandal when Clinton approved his burial in Arlington National Cemetery based on a false claim - which Lawrence had perpetuated even during his Senate confirmation hearing - to have served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. As it happens, merchant mariners are not entitled to burial in Arlington in the first place, but Clinton wasn't one to let rules, or a regard for the truth, stand in his way, especially not when Lawrence's widow was keeping the money flowing and insisted on the Arlington burial. When that outrageous fraud was exposed, Lawrence's body was disinterred.

This country could do better than an Ambassador Don Beyer, and we could do worse. That makes him typical of the political appointees we send abroad as ambassadors. If you're the kind who believes in campaign promises - whether explicit or implicit - you might find that a bad thing. Personally, I'll settle for it.

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