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U.S. diplomats to Obama: Ambassador nominees should really know something about their destination

Olivier Knox
Yahoo News

Yahoo

John McCain questions George Tsunis in a Senate nomination hearing.

John McCain questions George Tsunis in a Senate nomination hearing.

John McCain questions George Tsunis in a Senate nomination hearing.

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John McCain questions George Tsunis in a Senate nomination hearing.

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Please, presidents, stop picking big campaign donors to be ambassadors whether or not they know anything about the country where they’d be posted and are clueless about foreign affairs in general.

That’s the basic message to President Barack Obama and future administrations from a group that represents some 31,000 current and former career diplomats.

The American Foreign Service Association put it quite a bit more diplomatically (of course) on Tuesday in a set of new guidelines to help presidents select the best candidates for the job sometimes known as “chief of mission.”

A good nominee ideally “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages,” AFSA said in its six-page report.

“The actions and words of an ambassador have consequences for U.S. national security and interests far beyond the individual country or organization to which he or she is accredited,” AFSA said. “It is essential, therefore, that ambassadors chosen to represent the president and lead our diplomatic missions possess the attributes, experience and skills to do so successfully.”

The report landed at a time when a handful of Obama’s nominees — some of them seemingly picked for no reason other than to reward them for scooping up vast piles of re-election campaign cash — have raised eyebrows in Congress.

But the process of writing the report began in September 2013, and “this isn’t about any one candidate or administration,” AFSA communications director Kristen Fernekes told Yahoo News.

Obama’s ambassadorial picks have had a rough go of it recently in their Senate confirmation hearings. The nominee for the top U.S. post in Norway, hotel executive George Tsunis, called one of the political parties in the ruling coalition a “fringe element” and described the country as having a president (it’s a constitutional monarchy). Colleen Bell is a producer of the soap opera "The Bold and The Beautiful," but put in a performance of the Stammering and the Not-Up-to-Speed when she couldn’t say what America’s interests in Hungary were.

There have been other cringe-inducing moments. Democratic former Sen. Max Baucus, nominated for the top diplomatic job in Beijing, told former colleagues, “I’m no real expert on China” — a weird statement from the lawmaker who until recently was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that overseas trade issues. And Obama campaign donation “bundler” Noah Bryson Mamet, tapped to be ambassador to Argentina, had this to say when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked whether he’d ever traveled there: “I haven't had the opportunity yet to be there. I've traveled pretty extensively around the world, but I haven't yet had a chance.”

In Mamet’s defense, it’s hard to imagine any senator declaring that a weeklong tourism jaunt would significantly improve one’s qualifications — and nominees have tended not to take such trips in order to avoid giving the impression that they consider Senate confirmation a done deal.

But Tsunis and Bell were both big-time “bundlers” of contributions for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. And biographies provided by the White House do not list any particular foreign policy interests or connections to Norway or Hungary.

Should an ambassadorial nominee need to have at least some basic knowledge of the country he or she is going to?

“Obviously that's the goal,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing earlier this month.

AFSA’s guidelines largely echo the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which decreed that ambassadorial picks should, “to the maximum extent practicable,” possess “a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country in which the individual is to serve, and knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people.”

“Circumstances will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members” of the diplomatic corps, the law says, but “contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.”

In recent history, presidents have largely stuck to a 70-30 ratio of career diplomats to political appointees, according to data compiled by AFSA. In his first term, Obama nominated 63 percent career to 37 percent political. His second term so far shows nominees running at 53.2 percent to 46.8 percent.

Political appointees, including donors, often get prestige postings in friendly, prosperous countries like Britain, France, Italy and Japan. Those countries have important relationships with the United States — and large, seasoned diplomatic staffs that manage day-to-day affairs.

“I would encourage people to give those who have had tougher hearings a chance to go to their countries and see what their tenure will entail,” Psaki said. “And the judgment can't be made about how effective they'll be or how appreciated they'll be by the government until we have that happen.”

In early 2009, though, Obama said at a press conference that he expected to nominate “high-quality civil servants.”

“Are there going to be political appointees to ambassadorships? There probably will be some. It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven't come through the ranks of the civil service,” he said.

Some political appointees do thrive. Charles Rivkin made a name for himself at the head of the entertainment companies that gave the world “The Muppets” and “Yo Gabba Gabba.” But he got sterling reviews for his work as ambassador to France — it didn’t hurt that he speaks French. Rivkin recently won Senate confirmation to be assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

Others flame out in spectacular fashion.

Democratic fundraiser Cynthia Stroum was so “bullying, hostile, and intimidating” that morale at the U.S. embassy in Luxembourg plummeted. She focused too much on a bathroom renovation and improperly circumvented State Department rules to get reimbursed for buying a queen-size mattress, according to a State Department inspector general’s report.

The Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama’s 2008 campaign, Nicole Avant, went missing from the embassy in the Bahamas for 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, according to a January 2012 State Department inspector general’s report. Her absences included 102 “personal leave” days, and 77 business travel days to the United States, just 23 of those on official orders.

At an April 2011 Democratic National Committee fundraiser, Obama gave Avant a shout-out.

“And our ambassador to the Bahamas, Nicole Avant, is in the house,” he said, to laughter from the crowd. “It’s a nice gig, isn’t it?”

A nice gig? If you can get it.

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