Ambassadorships for sale
When candidate Barack Obama spoke of change, we thought he meant a new way of doing business, but apparently he also meant coinage. Because President Obama has kept the unsavory tradition of doling out some of the cushiest ambassadorial posts to fundraisers who brought in some of the biggest chunks of change to his campaign. Fifteen of the 62 ambassadors nominated so far were money “bundlers” for the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, among them Pittsburgh Steelers owner Daniel M. Rooney, retired Chicago investment banker Louis B. Susman and Los Angeles entertainment executive Charles H. Rivkin.
Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president, and presidents from both parties have long exercised their prerogative to name “political appointees” as well as career diplomats to head U.S. missions around the world. In the last half a century, they have done so with 25% to 35% of the ambassadorships (President Carter the former, President Reagan the latter), largely in lovely settings such as London, Paris and the Bahamas. Not all of those went strictly to donors and fundraisers, however. Political appointees have included many experienced public servants, such as former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Sen. Howard Baker Jr., both of whom served in Japan.
Obama conceded during the campaign that he was likely to name political appointees to some embassies, and we don’t object to the practice if it draws on the talents of foreign policy experts and experienced public servants who might have served in institutions other than the State Department. We also acknowledge that wealth and social status don’t automatically disqualify a candidate; they seem to have worked well for Pamela Harriman when she served as ambassador to France, for example. Nonetheless, we take issue with the practice of rewarding big campaign bucks with big taxpayer-supported jobs. So does the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which states that campaign contributions should not be a factor in the appointment of ambassadors, and which clearly is ignored by Democrats and Republicans alike. We believe Obama should put an end to this spoils system.
The United States is the only country that looks outside of its diplomatic corps for ambassadors, and the 21st century’s global economy and multipolar politics demand envoys steeped in the nuance of diplomacy and in the language, culture and history of the countries where they serve. Obama is only a third of the way through his ambassadorial appointments and, to be fair, most seem to meet this standard. Now we hope the rest will be based on merit alone, not money.