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Recent confirmation hearings raise eyebrows at ambassador nomination criteria

February 17, 2014 at 6:39 PM EDT
Gaffes made by a fresh crop of ambassadorial nominees — several of them Obama campaign donors — have stirred up consternation about political appointments to diplomatic positions. Gwen Ifill gets analysis from former Foreign Service officer Nicholas Burns and Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: A crop of recent ambassadorial nominees, several of them big-money Obama supporters, have raised fresh questions about who gets to represent the United States abroad.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: Mr. Mamet, have you been to Argentina?

NOAH BRYSON MAMET, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina-Designate: Senator, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to be there.

GWEN IFILL: That response from Noah Mamet, President Obama’s choice to be ambassador to Argentina, raised eyebrows at a Senate confirmation hearing this month.

Mamet generated more than $500,000 for the president’s reelection, and he’s one of a handful of key supporters rewarded with overseas posts. Another is Colleen Bell, the soap opera producer tapped to be envoy to Hungary. In January, she struggled to respond to Senator John McCain at her own confirmation hearing.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Do you think our — what are our strategic interests in Hungary?

COLLEEN BELL, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary-Designate: 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, increase trade…

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I would like to ask again what our strategic interests in Hungary are.

GWEN IFILL: The ambassador-designate to Norway, Chartwell Hotels CEO George Tsunis, also ran into trouble when McCain asked about Norway’s anti-immigration Progress Party.

GEORGE TSUNIS, U.S. Ambassador to Norway-Designate: …is that you get some fringe elements that have a microphone that spew their hatred. And although I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them, we’re going to continue to work with Norway to make sure…

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: The government has denounced them?  The coalition government — they’re part of the coalition of the government.

GEORGE TSUNIS: Well, I would say, you know what?  I stand corrected. I stand corrected.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I have no more questions for this incredibly, highly qualified group of nominees.

GWEN IFILL: The gaffes have revived questions about what it takes to become a U.S. ambassador.

According to the American Foreign Service Association, 37 percent of President Obama’s ambassador picks have been political. That’s the highest proportion since Ronald Reagan’s figure of 38 percent. And it’s well over the percentages during the Bush and Clinton presidencies.

In fact, in Mr. Obama’s second term, the figure tops 50 percent. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defends the decisions.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: Being a donor to the president’s campaign doesn’t guarantee you a job in the administration, but it doesn’t prevent you from getting one. And the fact of the matter is, the president has made nominations to ambassadorial posts and other posts from the ranks of the private sector, from government service, and has put in place qualified nominees across the board.

GWEN IFILL: The Foreign Service Association says it plans to make recommendations this month on setting qualification requirements for future nominees.

For more on this, I’m joined now by Nicholas Burns, a career Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to NATO, and Walter Russell Mead, editor at large of the “American Interest” magazine and a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College.

Nick Burns, I believe I can call you by your former title, Ambassador Burns. Are people purchasing ambassadorships?

NICHOLAS BURNS, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Well, I think, in recent decades, the big question at that White Houses of both parties have asked is, how much did this person raise for my campaign?  Were they bundlers?  Did they raise money from other people?

And it seems that that is now one of the major criterion to select ambassadors. Our presidents have done best when they have asked another question: Is this person qualified?  Do they have some experience in the country?  Do they speak the language of the country?  Have they done business in that country?

And there are plenty of very good political ambassadors in the past, from Averell Harriman, who was FDR’s link to Stalin as ambassador to the Soviet Union, Edwin O. Reischauer, the great Japan expert at Harvard whom President Kennedy appointed to be ambassador to Japan.

We have tremendously qualified people in our country, but we ought to be looking at the skills required to be successful in the job. And that’s language and experience and a deep knowledge of history and economics. And that increasingly is not the question that a lot of our presidents are asking.

GWEN IFILL: Walter Russell Mead, are those questions being asked enough, in your opinion?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Bard College: Well, I think we — you can look at the last group of people being confirmed and you can say, at least they weren’t very well-prepared for their confirmation hearings.

I do think that there are a lot of different qualities that make sure good ambassadors. Shirley Temple Black was an example of someone who actually contributed to Richard Nixon’s campaign and got an ambassadorship. A lot of eyes were raised. But by the end of her career in diplomacy, she was pretty well-regarded.

Caroline Kennedy, who is our ambassador to Japan at the moment, is somebody who doesn’t have all the qualifications you might want ideally an ambassador to have on paper, but the Japanese were very, very happy to have her, and saw her as a sign of Japan’s importance in American eyes.

GWEN IFILL: Nick Burns…

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: So, I think we have to look flexibly at what the qualifications are. But I think there is a real question of qualification.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you, Nick Burns, about that.

I wonder whether there is any value that is inherent in being close to the president, having raised money for him, that carries it with you into a foreign capital, where people think, hey, he knows the big guy.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, we have a lot of embassies. We have diplomatic relations with about 180 countries in the world. And the president doesn’t have 180 best friends.

It sometimes can be helpful. But, frankly, ambassadors are really reporting — they report to the president, but they’re reporting through the State Department, through the secretary of state. That’s really the place where they’re getting their instructions and where they have to work to get things done.

I do think that the presidents also have the Foreign Service. I was a member of that service, but we have tremendously qualified women and men who train their entire adult lives to be ambassadors. They do speak the language. They have lived in these countries. They have got the skills to be effective in government, which is sometimes a very different atmosphere than being effective in business.

So I’m not against political appointees. And I would agree very much, for instance, that Caroline Kennedy was an excellent choice by President Obama. But, in the main, we ought to have — the great majority of our ambassadors ought to be career Foreign Service officers. The historic average is about 70 percent. I would like to see that at 80 percent.

But we need to take care and not gamble with people from the private sector and outside the government who may not be qualified. And the presidents need to do their homework before they select their ambassadorial nominees.

GWEN IFILL: And, Walter Russell Mead, is the balance right, in your opinion, when you say that 70 percent of the ambassadors are career Foreign Service officers?  Should they — are they right to be frustrated when they see political friends or political allies going to these plum posts?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, you know, being an American diplomat working in the American Foreign Service is actually quite frustrating in a lot of different ways.

And people like Ambassador Burns, who certainly earned all of his advancement and appointments by just really superb work in the Foreign Service, are aware of this, that, in many countries, the Foreign Service is almost autonomous. And when there’s a change of government, maybe two or three people at the very top change.

In the U.S., it isn’t just the ambassadors where we bring in political appointees, but to all kinds of levels, even deep inside the State Department. In some ways, that’s a defect, because key decision-making positions in the State Department are being filled by people who are appointed for political reasons, don’t know how the department works, and sort of every four to eight years, there’s kind of a seizure of the government.

And it takes a long time for people to be confirmed. On the other hand, that system does allow in a sense for our State Department, our foreign policy is closer to — is in closer touch with what’s going on inside the country. There are advantages and disadvantages.

But I do think, whatever the number of ambassadors is, we do have to give — the great thing about a political ambassador, political appointment is, this is somebody who in theory is close to the president. When the president has dozens of bundlers, a bundler is not necessarily the president’s best friend, hasn’t — wasn’t the college roommate or something like that.

And so I think the real question for me is not a numerical quota system, but it’s fundamentally one of quality. We do need very, very intelligent, thoughtful people as ambassadors. I don’t think, in every case, we have had them.

GWEN IFILL: Nick Burns, has this come up in less sought-after diplomatic — hardship posts for diplomats?  Do they ever send the prime political appointees to, I don’t want to name a name because I will get in trouble, but to a tough country?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Very rarely.

In fact, if you look at where we send politically appointed ambassadors, it’s mainly wealthy countries, nice places to be if you want to be a tourist, Western Europe. But the toughest assignments, countries experiencing civil war or countries with which we were at war, when we went to Iraq and Afghanistan, invariably are going to the career Foreign Service.

And the Foreign Service is ready for anything. I mean, these are people who spend their entire lives working for this opportunity and rising through the ranks. So I really think it’s time that our presidents turn back to the American Foreign Service, and the Congress would fully fund the service, because we just don’t have enough career diplomats to do the job.

We’re the greatest power in the world. We have enormous influence in the world. We ought to want to have our best people as ambassadors for the United States of America.

GWEN IFILL: Nicholas Burns and Walter Russell Mead, thank you both very much.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.