Opinion Editorial

Some of Obama's ambassador picks are no Shirley Temples

As an adult, Shirley Temple Black shed her signature ringlets, became a Republican fundraiser and went on to a career as a respected diplomat in the Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations. Even her boss, Henry Kissinger, was impressed, calling her "very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined."

But not all fundraisers are as able as Black, who died Monday. Consider George James Tsunis, who has been nominated by President Obama as ambassador to Norway, and Colleen Bell, Obama's pick to be ambassador to Hungary. Both won their appointments after bundling money for the president's reelection campaign, and both got off to inauspicious starts at their confirmation hearings.

It was hard not to cringe watching Tsunis answer questions last month during his Senate confirmation hearing. If you missed it, Tsunis dismissed Norway's anti-immigrant Progress Party as a "fringe" element and said, "I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them." As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointed out, the Progress Party is part of the ruling coalition. Tsunis also referred to Norway's "president." A constitutional monarchy, Norway has no president.

Bell did no better; her response to a question about U.S. strategic interests in Hungary dissolved into an untrackable collection of words that seemed to confuse strategic interests with priorities. You know, law enforcement and human rights and stuff.

It does no good to pillory Bell for her inability to think on her feet, nor Tsunis for his ignorance — though his failure to absorb rudimentary details about his posting country should make the White House wonder exactly how effective a representative he will be. This is the risk Obama takes in rewarding political friends with jobs for which they are ill-prepared.

This page has chastised Obama on the issue before, most recently over his decision to send former presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy to Japan. Rewarding political backers with ambassadorial seats is hardly new, but Obama has been noteworthy in two key ways: He has made such appointments at a higher rate than the last few administrations, and he has done so after saying, shortly before assuming office, that his "general inclination is to have civil service, wherever possible, serve in these posts."

Despite the stumbles of Tsunis and Bell, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president retains "confidence in all the nominees he's put forward for ambassadorial positions." The question is, how much confidence should the American people have in Obama's judgment in ambassadors?

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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