WASHINGTON — A century-old debate over whether presidents should reward political donors and allies by making them ambassadors has flared again following a string of embarrassing gaffes by President Barack Obama’s picks.
By JULIET EILPERIN
The Washington Post
The nominee for ambassador to Norway, for example, prompted outrage in Oslo by characterizing one of the nation’s ruling parties as extremist. A soap-opera producer slated for Hungary appeared to have little knowledge of the country she would be living in. A prominent Obama bundler nominated to be ambassador to Argentina acknowledged that he had never set foot in the country and doesn’t speak Spanish.
Even former senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and the new U.S. ambassador in Beijing, raised eyebrows at his confirmation hearing by acknowledging, “I’m no real expert on China.”
The stumbles have highlighted the perils of rewarding donors and well-connected politicos with plum overseas assignments, and have provided political fodder for Republicans eager to attack the White House.
The cases also underscore how a president who once infuriated donors by denying them perks has now come into line with his predecessors, doling out prominent diplomatic jobs by the dozens to supporters.
“Being a donor to the president’s campaign does not guarantee you a job in the administration but it does not prevent you from getting one,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters this week.
On Friday, the American Foreign Service Association said it is pushing new guidelines to ensure that ambassadors meet certain qualifications for top diplomatic posts.
For several decades, presidents have generally followed a “70-30” rule when it comes to such appointments, nominating career foreign service officers for roughly 70 percent of U.S. missions and reserving the rest for political allies.
Political appointees account for 37 percent of the ambassadorships filled so far during Obama’s tenure, according to the American Foreign Service Association. The rate for his second term so far stands at 53 percent, the group said.
The numbers are at the high end for recent presidents, according to the group’s data. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford inserted political supporters in about 38 percent of their ambassador jobs; at the other end of the scale, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had about 27 percent. George W. Bush and his father were at 30 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
Obama administration officials say the number has been inflated by a surge of second-term openings in posts typically given to non-diplomats. The rate is sure to fall, they said.
Still, it’s a notable turnaround from Obama’s first year in office, when he gave only about 10 percent of ambassadorships to political donors — angering many of those who were left out.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said in an interview that several of Obama’s recent nominees were “truly alarming” because of their lack of qualifications. “When you put someone in an ambassador’s position who hasn’t even been to the country, you are rolling the dice,” he said.
All nominees go through what is informally referred to as “ambassador school,” where they learn about the country for which they’ve been selected and sit with a desk officer at the State Department to learn about ongoing developments.
There is a long history of fumbled confirmation hearings and missteps abroad by politically connected ambassadors. Maxwell Gluck, a women’s clothing store chain owner who was nominated in 1957 to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ceylon, was unable to name the premier of that country, now known as Sri Lanka, but was confirmed anyway. George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Italy, Peter Secchia, got in trouble for saying he loved that country’s “beautiful girls.”
Pennsylvania State University international affairs professor Dennis Jett said U.S. diplomatic posts used to be entirely a matter of patronage. The Rogers Act of 1924 established a professional foreign service, but did not bar political nominees.
Jett said there is no way to eliminate political appointments even though “we’re the only serious country that does it this way.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.