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Obama picks incompetent ambassadors

Rewarding his supporters hurts U.S. foreign policy

By Dale R. Herspring

There has long been a battle between the White House and the State Department’s Foreign Service over ambassadorial appointments. The Foreign Service wants all ambassadors to be Foreign Service officers (FSOs), while presidents often want to reward supporters with ambassadorships.

The Obama administration has been especially irresponsible with ambassadors appointments. Normally, about 25 percent of ambassadors are “political appointees.” Under Presi-dent Barack Obama, it is around 50 percent. Unfortunately, his choices appear to be especially unqualified, which is detrimental to the implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Everywhere one looks abroad, we face serious problems, from China to the Middle East to Moscow to Berlin. It would seem wise of us to send the best and brightest abroad. 

Understand that an ambassador is the president’s personal representative, and a president can name whomever he wants. There are two types of political appointees.  One type includes individuals such as retired military officers, heads of major corporations or retired congressmen. These individuals generally have special competence; they might speak the language or know something about their host country. FSOs are not happy about such appointments, but often understand the logic. An ambassador to Hungary who I once worked with spoke fluent Hungarian and had been involved in international business affairs with Hungary.

Not all political appointees, especially those who have served on the Hill, were in international business or military, are bad. For example, former Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana did an outstanding job representing the United States in Japan. His age and sensitivity to Japanese culture gained the respect of the Japanese. They also knew that he had the president’s ear and therefore could break through the bureaucracy if necessary.

The second type of political appointee is someone who is nominated because of his or her contributions to the president’s campaign. These appointees become “unofficial jokes” in the State Department, and the system invariably finds a way to get around them. Such individuals often know little about the national security process or about or the country to which they are assigned.

Once nominated to become an ambassador, the individual must be confirmed by the Senate. In the past, this process helped keep unqualified individuals out. However, the Senate’s ability to reject nominees has been gone since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the “nuclear option.”     

There is no reason for a political appointee to appear before lawmakers unprepared. When appointed, they get an office, briefing books and have the opportunity to interact with FSOs, many of whom have served in the country concerned. Normally, the future ambassador takes about two weeks to prepare for his or her hearing. There is no excuse for being ignorant of important matters.

Appointing political hacks as ambassadors is not unique to the Obama administration. Presidents of both parties have done it. However, most of Obama’s recent appointees have been both ignorant about and unprepared for their assignments. Obama’s nominee to Norway — George Tsunis — has not only never visited Norway, he knows nothing about the country. Though it is a monarchy, he spoke of it as headed by a president.  He also knew nothing about its political parties and made a fool of himself.

An unqualified fundraiser also can infuriate the host country. Oslo is fully informed about Tsunis’s incompetence. The message the United States sends in naming him is that we do not value our relationship with Norway.

Similarly, Colleen Bell,  a TV soap opera producer, is on her way to Hungary.  Hungary is a NATO member and has a complex political situation. It is important that an ambassador there can understand and even influence some very sensitive situations. It also has a very complex language, and not everyone speaks English.

It is infuriating to see individuals get jobs representing our country for which they are not qualified while highly qualified Foreign Service officers stand ready to serve. This is not the only reason for the mess that is our foreign policy, but it certainly is a contributing factor. 

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