How stupid can you be and still be a U.S. ambassador?
I went to Wikipedia to find out. I looked up George Tsunis, President Barack Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Norway, who embarrassed himself at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. But Tsunis is such an outlier that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
But Norway does. And had Tsunis bothered to look, he wouldn’t have mistaken that monarchy for a republic. He might not have called the Progress Party an extremist group with fringe elements.
Tsunis was mercifully stopped by Republican Senator John McCain before he could create an international incident. The Progress Party is part of Norway's governing coalition. “I stand corrected,” he told McCain. He also stands exposed as a ninny who didn’t do basic homework on a country where he proposes to represent the U.S. As hard as the White House pumped up his resume, his day job is chief executive officer of Chartwell Hotels LLC. He’s also an ace at fundraising. He brought in $988,550 for Obama in 2012.
Checkbook diplomacy has long plagued ambassadorships, but Tsunis is among a near-record-breaking streak of questionable appointments by Obama. The president, with 37 percent of his nominations going to people who aren't career diplomats, trails Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, who gave 38 percent of their appointments to nonprofessionals, according to the American Foreign Service Association. For a brief moment, when he was front-loading his thank yous at the start of his term, George W. Bush weighed in at 40 percent. Bill Clinton sold off a comparatively paltry 28 percent of his appointments.
Not all noncareer diplomats are unwelcome. The Japanese have opened their arms to Caroline Kennedy. Felix Rohatyn was a respected financier who was steeped in European politics, culture and language before being appointed to Paris. The child star Shirley Temple Black grew up to be a fine ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
The checks have grown along with the practice. In 1989, when President George H.W. Bush sent Henry Catto to London, where he flew the Texas flag and installed a four-foot-high wooden Hereford steer on the lawn of Winfield House, you could get a prime post for contributions in the low six figures. Nowadays, according to the Guardian, getting Rome, Paris or Stockholm will cost you a lot more. Appointees to these embassies raised a total of $5 million in 2012, a jump from $1.3 million in 2004 and $800,000 in 2000.
With so many bundlers to reward, there aren’t enough unimportant places to send them. Obama dispatched music executive Nicole Avant to the Bahamas, which must have seemed like a sinecure, except it’s a global financial center as well as a hot spot for drug and human trafficking. She left after a report by the Office of Inspector General found that she was gone from Nassau 276 days and displayed “dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement.”
Another bundler, Cynthia Stroum, sent by Obama to Luxembourg, resigned after a report exposed irregularities, including spending an inordinate amount of time renovating the ambassador's residence and large purchases of alcohol.
Obama comes in for particular criticism given that he promised to end the practice of appointing ambassadors with no background in foreign policy. The State Department is filled with potential nominees who have graduate degrees in foreign affairs, speak multiple languages, have served abroad and have deep expertise in the politics of various countries. The diplomats of other countries are usually professionals who know a region, its politics, culture and language. Take the Hungarian ambassador to the U.S., an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years.
Compare that to Colleen Bell, Obama’s nominee to Budapest. Bell, a producer of the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful," was unable to string together cogent replies during her hearing. When asked about the U.S.'s strategic interests in Hungary, she answered, “Well, we have a strategic interest in terms of what are our key priorities in Hungary.” To a question about what she would do differently from her predecessor, she replied with platitudes worthy of a Miss America contestant: "If confirmed, I would like to work towards engaging civil society in a deeper -- in a deeper … ” The thought trailed off.
When Obama's appointee to Argentina, Noah Bryson Mamet, was asked by Republican Senator Marco Rubio if he’d ever been there, he said he hadn’t had the chance. Jon Stewart asked on "The Daily Show" if there was a rule against having an ambassador set foot in the country before being appointed so as not to “ruin the surprise.”
The openness with which this practice takes place belies how crude and coarse an exchange it really is. Obama isn't criticized for appointing so many lightweights. He's criticized for exceeding the informal quota of 30 percent.
In an earlier age, Congress acted against a reckless spoils system. In the 19th century, generals were chosen like ambassadors, not for their competence but by patronage. When Daniel Sickles -- known as "the amateur" -- cost the Union 4,000 casualties at Gettysburg, Congress outlawed the system.
With the ambassadorships, no one’s died so far, not even from embarrassment.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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