President-elect Barack Obama will uphold at least one of Washington’s old ways: the appointment of campaign donors to plum ambassadorships.
“There probably will be some” political appointees serving abroad, Obama said at a news conference yesterday. “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.”
Obama, who campaigned as a candidate of change and vowed to limit the influence of money in politics, has said he will revamp U.S. foreign policy. All ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president and are required to submit their resignations by Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, giving Obama about 170 posts to fill.
“He is going to be like every other president and is going to make political appointees of those people who helped moved his campaign forward,” said Steve Clemons an analyst at the Washington-based New America Foundation. Nominating a big donor to be ambassador to a tranquil Western European country, or a sunny Caribbean island is “a way to pay off his biggest supporters.”
Yet, Clemens said, “it’s not necessarily the best thing for American foreign policy.”
By tradition, about one-third of the ambassadorial postings go to political appointees, said Steve Biegun, who served as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s representative on the National Security Council.
Politicians and Donors
The non-career appointees are typically drawn from two groups: politicians with long Washington careers and big donors from the business community, Biegun said.
“There’s no hard and fast rules” to which countries appointees are dispatched, he said. “But it would be rare indeed if a political appointment went to a hardship post.”
Both Democratic and Republican presidents have given choice assignments to generous donors with no expertise in their designated country.
Bush appointed Sam Fox, who gave over $1 million to Republican candidates and groups, as ambassador to Belgium. Fox, chairman and chief executive of the St. Louis-based equity- management company Harbour Group Ltd., gave $50,000 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that ran ads calling into question the military record of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
He was appointed by Bush over the Senate’s objection after Kerry delayed a vote on his nomination.
President Bill Clinton appointed Larry Lawrence, a San Diego businessman who gave millions of dollars to Democratic causes, as ambassador to Switzerland.
Obama has come under some pressure to abolish the practice of selecting his ambassadors from outside the Foreign Service. Morton Abramowitz, a former ambassador with over 30 years of experience in the State Department, wrote an essay in December challenging Obama to “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.”
Looking outside the career Foreign Service officers for an ambassador can be shrewd politically, said former U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona.
“They make sense in some situations,” he said, citing President George H.W. Bush’s appointment of Robert Strauss, a Democratic donor with connections to both parties, to serve as the first envoy to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The signal was, this is a guy, who can pick up the phone and talk to George Bush,” Kolbe said.
Deep-pocketed ambassadors serve another function, too, he said.
“The entertaining costs are so high so you need somebody with a lot of money,” said Kolbe, who served on congressional committees that allocated State Department funds. “Embassies are under-funded for what it costs to entertain in a place like London or Paris.”
Ambassadorships to Rome and the Vatican are highly sought by Italian-American and Catholic donors, Kolbe said. The ambassador’s residence in Rome “has the largest private garden in Rome: 25 acres of land,” said Kolbe, who has visited most of the properties in Western Europe.
“The Bahamas is always a popular one,” he said. “Who in the hell doesn’t want to be in the Bahamas?”
Obama said yesterday that he planned to place professional diplomats in ambassadorships “wherever possible.” His appointees, he said, would be notable for their “professionalism and high quality.”
Some Foreign Service officers said they were pleased that Obama has signaled he will put a premium on competence in choosing his ambassadors.
“He’s been very encouraging,” said Tex Harris, the retired president of the American Foreign Service Association.
In any case, there are some slots that Harris and others said are guaranteed to go to career diplomats.
“We have the hardship posts in Africa safely in our pocket,” he said. “No one wants to go where you have to take a cholera pill.” Bloomberg