State Dept. defends balance of career vs. political posts

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

The State Department on Friday rejected criticisms that too many top diplomatic jobs have gone to political appointees rather than career foreign service officers.

“There’s never been a secretary of state more personally connected to the Foreign Service than Secretary (John) Kerry. It’s in his blood. It’s stamped in his DNA. He’s the son of a foreign service officer,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Yahoo News by email.

“It’s no accident that he has worked with President (Barack) Obama to build a senior team with more foreign service officers in leading assistant secretary positions than at any time in recent memory, and no accident that he chose a foreign service officer to serve as the State Department’s Counselor for the first time in thirty years,” she added.

The head of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents current and former career diplomats, had warned in an interview with Yahoo News on Thursday that the historical balance between foreign service officers and political appointees was off.

“The world is a mess,” AFSA President Bob Silverman said. “We need our most experienced people – people who have actually managed embassies, who have actually managed international programs – in the mix at the top of the leadership.”

Silverman also pressed Kerry to name a career diplomat to succeed highly regarded foreign service officer Bill Burns as deputy secretary of state, the department’s No. 2 spot. He noted that the No. 3 job is held by a political appointee, Wendy Sherman. (Sherman and Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, another political appointee, are thought to lead the field of potential successors to Burns.)

A senior Kerry aide told Yahoo News that, of the 17 deputy secretaries of state, just two have been career diplomats.

Psaki declined to commit to replacing Burns with a foreign service officer.

“While it would be inappropriate to speculate about pending decisions and nominations about the Department’s senior leadership, everyone should rest assured knowing that the Secretary doesn’t just respect but reveres the institution that is the Foreign Service,” she said.

Tensions between career civil servants and political appointees in the U.S. government is nothing new. And political appointees (including campaign donors) can prove to be outstanding diplomats. Entertainment executive Charles Rivkin won sterling reviews as ambassador to France and easily won Senate confirmation to his current job, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs. They can also, of course, prove to be disastrous choices.

AFSA has highlighted that Obama has relied more often on political appointees than his recent predecessors did, notably at the ambassador level.