Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I- Political Ambassador[ship]: A Reality Check on the Ship

AFSA reportedly sent a letter to the Obama Transition Team this past week lobbying to get more career diplomats into ambassadorial jobs. AFSA wants to cut down political ambassadorships “to a maximum of 10 percent,” which would go a long way toward “ending the unchecked spoils system under which scores” of political hacks and others are picked for jobs “for which they are unqualified (h/t to Al Kamen).”

In June of this year, the American Academy of Diplomats whose membership accounts for well over 4,000 years of combined diplomatic experience called on both the Obama and McCain campaigns to “commit to appointing only the most qualified ambassadors, preferably from the career Foreign Service. To assure meeting the qualifications noted above, the Academy believes a new target in the area of 10% of non-career appointees should be adopted.” You can read the full text of their letter to then candidate Obama here. If there was a response from either campaign, I did not see it nor hear of it.

A political ambassador reportedly cited his love of golf as one qualification for the job. Professional board-sitters, too, seemed to think that experience equipped them with dealing with foreign affairs. I’ve sat in a lot of employee association boards overseas so I must be qualified as well. I had to laugh out loud when I saw that the Illinois Governor according to the criminal complaint discussed whether he could obtain an ambassadorship in exchange for the Senate seat. Heh! You think the good Governor ever considered swapping the Senate seat with command of a guided missile destroyer or aircraft carrier? I wonder if the public simply thinks of the ambassador’s job as one big polo match or an endless stream of fiestas and parties with no real obligation or responsibility. My mate helpfully suggested that perhaps the answer here is to lobby for 1/3 of our unified command to be allocated to political appointees. You think that would make us sleep better at night?

I have to say that we had a political ambassador in Dukaaristan and the guy was extremely professional, conscientious about his role and his job, generous with all the people working in the mission, and above all, I think he was a most effective representative of our president (see coalition of the willing). Previous to him was a career ambassador who the staff was greatly relieved to say goodbye to. And succeeding him was another political appointee; those who rotated out “fondly” recalled their experience in Dukaaristan as “Surviving [insert ambo's name].”

This is not an argument for more political appointments, only a statement of the obvious – just as not all political appointees are bad, not all career appointments are perfect. We do hear the extremes in political appointees but not so much on career ambassadors and you can probably guess why. The AAD advocates that a “far stricter attention be given to appointing only those fully qualified by both personal and professional background for the demanding task of leading today’s American diplomatic missions.” AAD proposes the following criteria for consideration in the nomination and confirmation of American Ambassadors:

  • Unquestioned integrity, personal discretion and self-discipline
  • Demonstrated interest and experience in foreign affairs, at least in dealing with foreign cultures; preferably, personal knowledge of the country involved, its region, people and language;
  • Understanding power relationships, influence and negotiation;
  • Thorough knowledge of American history and values, and of American economic, commercial and political purposes – with a clear commitment to them;
  • Appreciation of the dynamics of American politics, of the role of the Congress and the Executive, and the constraints upon each, of the bureaucratic politics of Washington;
  • The intellect, perception and interpersonal skills required to report accurately in both directions between the host country and Washington, and to recommend appropriate policies;
  • Proficiency in communication: the ability to explain American positions persuasively to foreign governments and publics, and to address the American public as well;
  • Finally, demonstrated efficiency as a leader, manager and executive, reinforced by sound judgment and strength of character to lead our missions abroad and command attention and respect in Washington.

I think an item on collaboration skills in light of the interagency demands is also called for. But I fully agree with all of AAD’s criteria for consideration in the nomination and confirmation of American Ambassadors. I think this should apply to all chiefs of missions regardless of types of appointments. I also would like to see their official biographies reflected in a uniform format so it's clearer to see what's what instead of the uneven wordsmithing that we see now. If they want to brag about their relationship with the prez in their bio, that's fine - it should fall under the "other qualifications" field for clarity. If they have served in hardship posts (as all FSOs must prior to consideration for promotion into the SFS), the public should see those too; and it could only add to the transparency of the assignment process.

In July, Barbara Bodine of the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen (1997 to 2001) also penned “It's time to stop selling ambassadorships,” for www.politico.com and argues: It is not an issue of individual patriotism, loyalty to the president and to administration policies, or personal commitment; politically appointed ambassadors are no more or less patriotic, loyal or committed than are career diplomats. It is a question of experience, expertise and depth of competence. Diplomacy is not an amateur sport or avocation; it’s a skilled profession.”

She further writes that “American diplomats dedicate their careers, their lives, to developing the skills, experience and expertise necessary to test their mettle daily. Their investment is matched by the investment the American taxpayer makes to develop this cohort of skilled professionals.” And she questions the message that this practice sends to young people contemplating service in this field: “How do you explain to a student or any aspirant to the Foreign Service that, while the U.S. government expects that level of commitment, no matter how well and how long you serve, it is likely that a political donor with little relevant experience will end up with the top job of your profession?”

I’m sorry -- but the top job of this profession has almost always without fail gone to a political creature; somebody who is either in politics or one with extensive personal network in the political realm. Hillary Clinton, if confirmed will be the 67th Secretary of State. In the long history of this cabinet position, only one career diplomat was ever appointed as SoS. His tenure lasted exactly 43 days and some minutes. What does that say to our own people? That no matter how well you serve or how long or how much of your life is invested here, you'd be lucky if you get 43 days? Right! Let’s not go there. 43 days is actually quite depressing -- I'll have more tomorrow.

Addendum: Morton Abramowitz (former Ambassador to Thailand and Turkey) in today's WaPo on the appointments of ambassadors (Tuesday, December 16, 2008; Page A19). Read the full text here.

Obama can publicly declare that he will not appoint ambassadors who have in effect secured their posts through financial contributions and who have little background to merit any such appointment. Indeed, he can further state that he will permit the appointment of non-career ambassadors -- usually 30 to 40 percent of our ambassadors -- only if they are uniquely appropriate for the job. Otherwise, ambassadorial positions will be reserved for experienced, capable career officials.

Clearly there are non-career people who can do the job of ambassador better than many members of the career service. Some bring a breadth of perspective and a relationship with the president not often found in career diplomats. Mike Mansfield, Edwin O. Reischauer and Elliott Richardson come to mind. (Some governments like to have a close friend of the president's as ambassador to their country, but that doesn't work unless the political ambassador is able and has the knowledge, insight and experience to serve the United States and the host country well.) But, unfortunately, many political ambassadors from past Democratic and Republican administrations have clearly been unqualified. Of course, so have some Foreign Service officers. The difference is that the career system makes mistakes, not political payoffs.

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