“Viable Ambassadors or Bona Fide Embarassments?” was originally published in the Davis Political Review on December 9, 2014.
What do a soap opera creator, a public relations executive, and a hotel mogul all have in common? Sure, all three donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the 2012 Obama campaign for president. But Colleen Bradley Bell, Noah Bryson Mamet, and George Tsunis are also part of a growing group of grossly underqualified ambassador nominees put before the Senate by the Obama administration in a thinly veiled act of cronyism clumsily defended as legitimate politics.
The political ambassadorship appointments have not gone without scrutiny. Several senators and political observers criticized ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ creator Colleen Bradley Bell’s rambling explanation of American interests in Hungary that resembled more of a botched answer to a current events question at a beauty pageant than a promising articulation of policy from America’s newest ambassador. Noah Bryson Mamet’s confirmation to the ambassadorship in Argentina also drew criticism because of his inability to speak Spanish, which was only compounded by the fact that he’s never actually visited Argentina. George Tsunis similarly drew condemnation from both Americans and Norwegian members of Parliament when he identified Norway’s Progress Party as a contemptuous faction group and mentioned that Norway “has a president” during his confirmation hearing for the ambassadorship to that country. The Progress Party is actually a legitimate political party, and part of Norway’s coalition government that has both a king and premier, but no president. Tsunis has since apologized for his gaffes, but the United States’ perceived dismissal of Norway through its appointment of a clearly underqualified campaign contributor has already been felt. Although Tsunis’ official confirmation still hangs in limbo, the damage has already been done.
The Bell, Mamet, and Tsunis blunders aren’t isolated incidents – they’re merely a few of the many embarrassing episodes in our country’s long history of dubious, politically motivated ambassador appointments. Former Senator Max Baucus, now Ambassador Baucus to China, admitted earlier this year during his confirmation hearing that he was “no real expert on China.” Similarly, Ambassador Maxwell Gluck was unable to name the premier of the country she would serve in during her confirmation hearing back in 1957. While several in the State Department are quick to point to a handful of success stories in which the leadership skills of seemingly political appointees made up for their lack of knowledge about their host countries, the reality is that all too many of these confirmations end in resignations prompted by investigations revealing both inadequate expertise and management. So, given the disastrous results of a majority of political confirmations, why do Presidential administrations and like-minded Senates continue this practice?
Three words: because they can. The Rogers Act of 1924, largely created in response to President Garfield’s assassination over a diplomatic appointment, established the Foreign Service, which became the producer of career diplomats. However, it did not abolish the practice of political appointments for diplomatic positions. In fact, the Foreign Service only requires four feeble attributes for viable ambassador candidates, and each can be easily manipulated to describe any campaign contributor with some degree of international engagement.
As pessimistic as it sounds, so long as the loopholes exist that allow for politically motivated ambassador appointments, presidents aren’t going to change their behavior. The longer this practice continues, the more feathers the United States is likely to ruffle, as evidenced by Norway. Politicians on Capitol Hill concerned with the United States’ image overseas need to create legislation that will narrow the Rogers Act to only allow members of the Foreign Service who have spent their entire careers in the diplomatic field to be nominated and confirmed as ambassadors. This type of legislation is necessary to avoid future gaffes with foreign allies and adversaries alike. Although such legislation would amount to greater restriction on the executive office, the actions of past presidential administrations as well as the current one have proved it all too necessary.