Diplomacy and National Security: the Politicization of Ambassadorial Appointments

Boring !  Fuggetaboutit !  It’s part of the system !  Some of them are really good!  There are plenty of duds in the service, too!  Have you never heard of American exceptionalism?  And what does it have to do with national security?  Yawn….

One more try!  This frustrated champion of professionalism has in the past met with silence, scorn and rolling eyes when hoping to call attention to what he believes to be a major issue in any discussion of national security:  the appointment of wealthy supporters and political or personal cronies to jobs as ambassadors of the United States of America abroad.  It matters not that they are dispatched for the most part “only” to the Bushies’ Old Europe or other oh-so-yesterday friends or enemies (China, Japan) or watering holes in the sun.  Nor does it matter that not all such appointees are wealthy donors but rather distinguished professors or men of steel who have proven their worth on the battlefield.

The habit has become entrenched over the past sixty years, with fairly consistent percentages of ambassadorial appointments going to career officers (69%) and outsiders (31%).  Presidents of both political parties have been loyal to that tradition and certain details:  since 1960, 72% of Western European and 73% of Caribbean posts have gone to friends and fund-raisers; since 1980, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan have each hosted one American careerist as against from six to nine politicos.  President Barack Obama has trumped them all, increasing the number of political appointments by a third: as of September 13, 40.6% of ambassadorial posts have gone to non-career persons since his inauguration, with 68% to Europe as a whole and 78% to the United Nations and its specialized agencies.  Throw in Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa and the African Union, and you get the idea.  (Which governments and peoples are most offended can be debated:  those who are saddled with non-professionals, or those who don’t rate a presidential friend?)

The facts and figures are available on the website of the American Foreign Service Association, which under the leadership of President Susan Johnson has put the issue high on its agenda and tied it directly to our national security: “President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with congressional leaders from both parties, have called for strengthening the Department of State, our premier foreign policy institution.  In doing so, they join their voices with those who have long argued that diplomacy is a major instrument of national security…The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s  important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed….”

Would that the President and Secretary Clinton had themselves made that linkage.  While it is true that the regional bureaus at State are led at the highest levels by career officers or outsiders with proven expertise, our senior representatives abroad are often men or women with no qualifications for the job but who played important roles of one sort or another in the last presidential election.  It is unlikely that the President selected them all, for the Secretary, Vice President Biden and, perhaps, others at the White House all had political debts to pay off or buddies to reward, but the appointments are the President’s responsibility – in every sense of the word.  And who is really paying off those debts?  It is the American tax-payer who foots the bill for salaries, first-class travel, seriously opulent and staffed residences, armored cars and chauffeurs and body-guards and representational expenses.   Should not the tax-payer have the benefit of thinking that his contribution helps serve his country rather than supporting a high life style for a corporate donor?  Or perhaps he should content himself with the thought that the appointment of fat cats is no more than a minor reflection of the proper role of money in politics under the First Amendment (as recently confirmed by the Supreme Court).

The reactions cited at the start of this diatribe were not made up, and the most discouraging thing for me is that Foreign Service Officers, active and retired, who may have read my earlier attempts to bring this issue to the fore are among the most bored.  AFSA, however, in addition to tracking and publishing ambassadorial appointments has given high priority to the need for required education and training on the way toward building a diplomatic corps that qualifies in every way as a profession.  (See the May 2010 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.)   This approach can serve over time to reduce political appointments, but we must not wait that long.  FSOs should not shy from speaking out for fear of being labeled clubby or resentful of having failed to land a post of their own.

As I recently (and learnedly, having consulted my etymological dictionary) told a class of French university students, “to negotiate” means no more or less than “to do business.”  When our diplomats negotiate with foreign officials, the business at hand is, in one way or another, and with varying degrees of importance and urgency, our national security.  When our ambassadors do it, the stakes are often high.  And there I rest my case for professionalism and an end to political appointments.

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