Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Appointing Donors as Ambassadors: A Colloquy

Recent Obama appointments to Ambassadorial spots around theglobe have blundered through their confirmation hearings.  Naturally, Republicans have leapt on this as a political issue accusing Obama have handing out ambassadorships to big unqualified big donors.  Of course the Republicans do not have exactly a clean record on this – although one Bush 43 donor/diplomat (Dopomat? Diplor?) observed that he was well briefed for his hearings.  This seems more like an operational failure.  Anyone with the chops to be a major campaign fundraiser ought to be able to manage a comfortable diplomatic appointment (they are going to places like Argentina and Norway.)

But this raises a deeper question.  The Foreign Service Association is pressingfor more stringent standards for Ambassadorial appointments.  They don’t reject political appointments. They just want to avoid the patronage for big donors.  Understandable, but as long as the President has the power to make political appointments, it will be difficult to screen out appointments based on patronage from the well-qualified, non-foreign service appointments.

Why can’t major campaign contributors be banned from diplomatic appointments?

First you’d have to answer the question of what’s a major donor?  Imagine a long-time friend of the President who, having run a major international corporation, would be well qualified for a diplomatic spot.  Would this good friend of the President be forbidden from making a campaign donation to his friend?

No, we just want to stop the bundlers – the big-time fundraisers - from buying Ambassadorships.

Sure, but the funny thing about campaign finance is that there are always work-arounds.  If our big-time bundler knows what he or she is doing the bundling can occur under someone else’s name, but everyone will know who was really the solicitor.

OK, fine, so the question is why not just rely on the Foreign Service for Ambassadors?

First, for all of the gaffes of the big donor ambassador-candidates, we haven’t seen much evidence that they do any harm.  They get sent somewhere quiet, pleasant and safe.

On the other hand, many distinguished individuals have served capably as Ambassadors to critical countries.  Japan, in particular, has received a steady stream of extremely distinguished elder statesman including former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and now Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.  Japan is a major ally that often does not get the attention it needs.  Sending such a highly regarded figure is a good way to honor a critical ally in a way that sending even the most senior and experienced FSO cannot.  

The appointment of Max Baucus to China fits in that realm as well.  While Baucus admitted that he is no “China expert” as a former U.S. Senator (and chair of the Finance Committee) he brings a great deal of relevant expertise to his new position.  Further, he will have a sense of how things will play back home  - while also honoring Beijing with a distinguished emissary.

Another figure that comes to mind is the great Bob Strauss, a long-time Democrat who served President George H. W. Bush as Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia. (And this list is NOT exhaustive.)

The Senate does have the power to reject nominees for Ambassador and if they truly feel an appointment might damage U.S. interests they may do so.  (Jesse Helms blocked Massachusetts Governor William Weld from serving as Ambassador to Mexico – although that might have been personal.)  But the cost of sending some political operatives to quiet tourist havens is small compared to the advantage of the President having the authority to send a trusted, capable ally to nations that are particularly important.

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