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Diplomatic disunity: We need ambassadors, not fundraisers

President Obama is just the latest in a long list of U.S. presidents to reward political allies with an ambassadorship... and that's precisely the problem.
Colleen Bell attends a cocktail reception at Gagosian Gallery in L.A. on May 3, 2013.
Colleen Bell attends a cocktail reception at Gagosian Gallery in L.A. on May 3, 2013.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently approved a new batch of nominees to become U.S. ambassadors, clearing the way for a full vote on each one in the Senate. But several of those nominees are facing a great deal of criticism from both politicians and career diplomats.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain told The Washington Post that the lack of qualifications among some of the nominees is "truly alarming" adding, “When you put someone in an ambassador’s position who hasn’t even been to the country, you are rolling the dice.”

McCain had previously cracked down on three ambassadorial nominees--Robert Barber, nominee to be ambassador to Iceland, George Tsunis, nominee to be ambassador to Norway, and Colleen Bell, nominee to be ambassador to Hungary--during an intense round of questioning at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 16.

When all three nominees were asked whether they had been to the country they're set to serve in, only Bell could confirm that she had visited Hungary. All three nominees--who each raised money for President Obama's 2012 campaign--are awaiting confirmation by the full Senate as of this writing.

In a separate headline-generating exchange from a Feb. 6 hearing of the same committee, Sen. Marco Rubio asked Obama's nominee to become ambassador to Argentina, Noah Mamet, if he had ever visited that country. 

"Senator, I haven't had the opportunity yet to be there. I've traveled pretty extensively around the world. But I haven't yet had a chance," Mamet told the Florida Republican.

That comment from Mamet's testimony led to reports (and in at least one case, a report that was later corrected without acknowledgement) that Mamet does not speak Spanish. But according to State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach, those reports are not true. "(Mamet) does speak Spanish," Gerlach told msnbc. "He reads it very well and is brushing up, but he's conversant."

That sort of intensive class to learn or brush up on a language needed during a diplomatic post is standard operating procedure for the Foreign Service - a fact Gerlach also reiterated.

As to the criticisms that Mamet has never been to Argentina, Gerlach says former U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Vilma Martínez had also never been to the country before she took the post in 2009. Martínez was awarded high honors by Argentina's government when she left the job last July. 

During his testimony, Mamet actually received praise from Rubio for his "impressive resumé." Mamet also spoke confidently and in some detail about the issues he would face on the job. With Argentina, that includes stark economic concerns - something that was raised by both Rubio and Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. But it should be noted that, just like ambassadorial nominees Barber, Bell, and Tsunis, Mamet raised large amounts of money for the Obama-Biden campaign in 2012. That fact is even noted in his biography on his own company's website.

Returning to January 16, questions raised during that Senate Foreign Relations hearing on the readiness of those nominees went beyond language preparedness and passport stamps. 

When asked what strategic interests the United States has in Hungary, Colleen Bell, the former soap opera producer and Obama-Biden fundraiser-turned-ambassadorial nominee, struggled to answer:

Colleen Bell: Well, we have our strategic interests, in terms of what are our key priorities in Hungary, I think our key priorities are to improve upon, as I mentioned, the security relationship and also the law enforcement and to promote business opportunities, um, increase trade, um.Sen. McCain: I'd like to ask again what our strategic interests in Hungary are.Colleen Bell: Our strategic interests are to work collaboratively as NATO allies, to work to promote and protect, um, the security both - for both countries, and for - and for the world, to continue working together on the cause of human rights, um, around the world, um, to build that side of our relationship, um, while also maintaining and pursuing some difficult conversations that might be necessary in the coming years.

McCain then paused and said sarcastically, "Great answer."

As for George Tsunis, who was picked to be ambassador to Norway, during his testimony he showed he was not aware that Norway is a constitutional monarchy. Tsunis also incorrectly identified one party of Norway's ruling coalition as a "fringe element" that "spews their hatred." When challenged on that point, Tsunis almost immediately responded, "You know what? I stand corrected."

Before the hearing concluded, McCain sarcastically said, “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.” The Arizona Republican later tweeted:

And lest we forget the words of former Senator Max Baucus who was recently confirmed to become our next Ambassador to China, "I am no real expert on China."

But the fact is, American politicians of both parties have long bemoaned many of the ambassadorial nominees picked by the opposite party, often on the grounds that those nominees are unqualified. But that criticism can ring a bit hollow - particularly from senators who vote to confirm all ambassadorial nominees. And especially because criticism of unqualified nominees only tends to get lobbed across party lines.

What holds far more clout are the very vocal concerns coming from veterans of America's diplomatic community. Retired Foreign Service officer James Bruno recently wrote in a piece for POLITICO--titled "Why Does America Send So Many Stupid, Unqualified Hacks Overseas?"--that the "cringeworthy" performances of some nominees should "give us concern." Taking note of the less than stellar testimonies from both Bell and Tsunis, Bruno pointed out the following:

Norway’s ambassador to... Washington is a 31-year Foreign Ministry veteran. Hungary’s ambassador is an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years.The resumé imbalance, of course, owes to a simple fact: The United States is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies.

President Obama said in January of 2009 that "wherever possible" he would rely on career diplomats from the Foreign Service to serve as U.S. ambassadors. But according to Bruno, the president "has arguably done more to exacerbate the problem than his recent predecessors." 

Bruno goes on to list the political contributions of the aforementioned Obama donors nominated to ambassadorships. He also points out cases dating back to President Reagan where political buddies-turned-ambassadors led to "public embarrassment and potential damage to U.S. interests."

All those concerns echo the ones made in this writing for The Washington Post from last April, authored by three experts in U.S. diplomacy (including a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and a former undersecretary of state). The trio wrote that "American diplomacy is facing a crisis," and the cause is "the overwhelming — and growing — presence of political appointees in mid-level and top leadership positions" within the State Department, including the Foreign Service.

That crisis is one that American diplomacy has faced for decades and, unless something changes, it's a crisis that we will continue to face into the foreseeable future. And as technology and globalization continue to make the world into one large, interconnected community, it's a crisis that could very soon cause America something far more damning than - as Bruno put it -  "public embarrassment and potential damage to U.S. interests."