Increasingly, it appears that President Barack Obama believes the most important qualification a candidate for a foreign ambassadorship can possess is a strong record of financial support.
That is not how it is supposed to work. Diplomacy is a delicate skill that requires special knowledge, not an impressive fundraising record.
Obama is by no means the first president to reward political allies rather than experts in foreign affairs, but what’s striking is that many of his nominations have brought ridicule and embarrassment his way.
One after another of Obama’s nominees — including those he has chosen to represent America’s interests in Norway, Iceland, Hungary, Argentina and even China — have demonstrated they know little about their proposed destinations.
Perhaps the most glaring example of a nominee’s ignorance in that regard is that of Noah Bryson Mamet, a political consultant who raised at least $500,000 for Obama and the Democratic Party in the 2012 election cycle. His concession that he had never visited Argentina prior to his nomination and his description of that nation as “a mature democracy” turned his recent confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee into a disaster for both him and the administration.
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, chairs the committee and normally would be predisposed to support a nomination by a president of his own party. Yet he and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, both felt obliged to remind Mamet that, under the leadership of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina has restricted freedom of the press and the judiciary while refusing to pay its debts to the American government and American bondholders.
The senators also noted that Argentina seized equipment from a U.S. military training mission, sought to derail an investigation of an Iranian-sponsored terrorist bombing and sided with the anti-American governments of Cuba and Venezuela.
Another embarrassing nomination is that of George Tsunis, who, during his confirmation hearings in January, betrayed his abysmal ignorance of Norway, even though the president nominated him to be our ambassador to that important ally. Tsunis, a fundraiser for the president, admitted he had never visited Norway and appeared to think that like the United States it has a president when in fact it is a monarchy. To the Senate committee he acknowledged he even had no idea which political parties make up Norway’s governing coalition.
Critics have suggested that the reason two Norwegian lawmakers recently embarrassed the United States by nominating Edward Snowden — the former CIA employee who leaked so many American intelligence documents — for a Nobel Peace Prize was to punish the Obama administration for nominating Tsunis to be ambassador to Oslo.
Since Obama took office, 37 percent of his ambassadorship nominations have been political in nature, the American Foreign Service Association reports, and that’s not unusually high. But the rate for his second term has surged to 53 percent, the association said.
For Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, about 38 percent of their ambassador nominees were political in nature, and for Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter the figure was about 27 percent. The numbers for George W. Bush and his father were at 30 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Administration officials say their number has risen because of a surge of second-term openings for diplomatic posts that typically go to nondiplomats.
Here’s one possible explanation for the surge in political appointees by Obama: In his first year in office, the president gave only about 10 percent of ambassadorships to political donors, and that angered some of his political allies.
If that’s the reason, the president needs to be reminded that such a pattern is no way to respect the importance of our nation’s diplomatic corps or to win the respect of other nations.