Our Bundled Ambassadors

The way President Obama is handing out ambassadorships to big donors and bundlers, it’s like he’s channeling Oprah Winfrey. “And you get an ambassadorship, and you get an ambassadorship and you get an ambassadorship.”

There certainly is a precedent for presidents bestowing ambassadorships on supporters, but they usually had some basic qualifications.

Caroline Kennedy was recently named ambassador to Japan. Does she have any experience in international relations? No. Does she speak Japanese? No. Does she have any experience in trade relations, especially with a country like Japan, which is a key trading partner? No.

As The Washington Post notes: “Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, an important U.S. ally that’s only getting more important as China continues rising and, most problematically, is seeing nationalism rise under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has advocated changing the U.S.-imposed constitution that officially enshrines Japanese pacifism and the very close relationship with Washington. Kennedy, though she is a Kennedy, has little diplomatic or governmental experience; in 2009, she aborted a short-lived and poorly received campaign for the U.S. Senate.”

The Kennedys as ambassadors have a sordid history if you look at Caroline’s grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, as ambassador to England during World War II, where he advocated reconciling with Nazi Germany and wrote that “Democracy is finished in England.”

In one letter he wrote: “I cannot impress upon you strongly enough my complete lack of confidence in the entire [British] conduct of this war. I was delighted to see that the president said he was not going to enter the war because to enter this war, imagining for a minute that the English have anything to offer in the line of leadership or productive capacity in industry that could be of the slightest value to us, would be a complete misapprehension.”

He was forced by President Roosevelt to resign shortly afterwards.

Apparently no one bothered to look back at what can occur when you nominate someone to the ambassadorship of Great Britain without any credentials. For example, Matthew Barzun, who raised $500,000 for Obama, was given this plumb ambassadorship.

The Heritage Foundation noted that Louis Susman, Barzun’s predecessor, fulfilled Obama’s executive order requiring that government hiring be “based upon qualifications, competence and experience, not political connections.” But when Susman got the London job, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs described him as qualified “because he speaks English.”

In fact, 18 new ambassadorships are being given to Obama “bundlers” who have no experience in the Foreign Service.

According to Time magazine, Obama doesn’t have a very good track record nominating ambassadors: “Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Iraq, Brett McGurk, had to withdraw when evidence of an affair and rumors of an embarrassing sex tape emerged (though McGurk is now being considered for Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran).

“The administration pulled the nomination of top fundraiser Timothy Broas to be ambassador to the Netherlands last June after he was charged with drunk driving and resisting arrest.

“Manhattan hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry emerged as Obama’s pick for Paris, until a New York Post cover story detailing his penchant for online gambling on a website favored by Russian mobsters forced him to withdraw.”

Dennis Jett, a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University who is writing a book titled American Ambassadors: Where They Come From, Where They Go, and Why They Still Matter, proposes that “It says something when we send off amateurs to these countries. They ought to have credentials and experience and management abilities, in addition to just bundling hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

So who are some other nominees for Ambassadorships?

Rufus Gifford, Obama’s chief fundraiser in 2012, was appointed ambassador to Denmark; John B. Emerson, who was co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s southern California finance committee, was nominated by to become ambassador to Germany; and HBO executive James Costos was nominated to become U.S. ambassador to Spain. None have foreign affairs experience.

By comparison, let’s look back at the first U.S. ambassador to France — Benjamin Franklin. A founding father with great diplomatic experience who has been described as “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”

Franklin once wrote: “Diplomacy is seduction in another guise, Mr. Adams. One improves with practice.”

The global economy is fragmented and our relations with other countries is critical to our future. We cannot place our destiny in the hands of bundlers and amateurs. It’s time we recognized that the better America is represented on the world stage, the better it is for every American.

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