Once upon a time the role of the ambassador was, more often than not, that of a splendid figure who would help shape European diplomacy or even lay down the law in remote territories. But in the past century, the position's importance began steadily to diminish. And in recent decades the decline has continued: there is no contemporary Anatoly Dobrynin, who commanded a special entrance into the State Department, at least until the Reagan administration rescinded it, in Washington, DC. Nevertheless, it is possible to add insult to injury, and that is what the Obama administration is apparently doing.
In a well-researched story, the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports that President Obama is making dubious appointments at a new clip. A soap opera producer to Hungary. A nominee to Argentina who knows no Spanish. And so on.
What these choices have in common is that they have done something that Obama appreciates, which is to donate a lot of money to the Democratic party. Even the more recent and serious selections—Sen. Max Baucus to China—are questionable. Overall, according to NPR, the American Foreign Service Association says that Obama is naming a record number of political appointees in his second term.
This phenomenon, of course, is not new. But as Eilperin observes,
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 abroad 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.
Why does it matter? Three reasons. First, it sows further cynicism in the ranks of the State Department about advancement for professionals. The message is clear: ambassadorial appointments are, by and large, for sale to the highest bidder.
The second reason is that it signals to the host country that the U.S. doesn’t really take it very seriously. It’s a further indication of the insouciance, if not contempt, that the U.S. has about dealing with the rest of the world. If there is a crisis in Asia between China and Japan that could result in armed clashes, do we really want Senator “I’m no real expert on China” (a statement Baucus made during his confirmation ceremony) as our principal representative? Or Colleen Bell to deal with the growing nationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungary?
The third is that it provides further testimony to the erosion of Obama’s own standards. As ABC News notes, Obama was quite forthright about wanting to improve the Foreign Service when he began his presidency:
Rewarding donors and political allies with ambassadorships is nothing new, but Obama vowed to buck the tradition, promising shortly after he was elected to “have civil servants, wherever possible, serve in these posts.”
“My expectation is that high quality civil servants are going to be rewarded,” he said in a January 2009 news conference.
That was then. Now Obama is putting the State Department staff in the embarrassing position of having to defend his incompetent appointees:
"Over the course of history, there have been many, many ambassadors who have come from outside of the career paths who’ve been very successful,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told ABC News. “There are many who have been very successful serving in these roles in countries around the world, and that’s part of the reason why this will continue.”
Indeed it will. But whether those ambassadors were all campaign bundlers is another matter. For Obama it seems to be an almost obligatory qualification. Obama entered office claiming he would raise standards. Instead, he's lowering them further.