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New Book Describes Good, Bad And Ugly of ‘American Ambassadors’

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Edward Rumsey Wing, who in 1869 became America’s youngest-ever chief of mission at age 24, drank himself to death within four years of arriving at his post in Ecuador. In the 1980s, John Upston bounced so many checks that the State Department reportedly instructed his mission in Rwanda to stop accepting them.

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Photo: Penn State University
Dennis Jett

More recently, the allegedly abusive management style of Cynthia Stroum, a campaign bundler for President Obama who headed America’s Luxembourg mission, led several of her subordinates to volunteer for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another deep-pocketed political appointee, Colleen Bell — the one-time producer of the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” who is now the U.S. ambassador to Hungary couldn’t clearly articulate what our national interests are in that country during her confirmation hearing last year. And George Tsunis, Obama’s nominee to become ambassador to Norway in 2014, famously knew less about that country at his confirmation hearing than anyone who may have perused its Wikipedia page.

How did these diplomatic neophytes earn their ambassadorial nominations? How do their paths differ from those of career Foreign Service Officers, who often spend years slugging through remote, unglamorous postings while their well-connected counterparts race to the front of the line? How is an embassy shaped and defined by the ambassador who runs it?

Dennis Jett, a professor of international affairs at Penn State and former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, sheds light on these and a number of other questions in his richly detailed and engaging new book, “American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats. The book isn’t all about incompetent ambassadors — we also learn about the history of American diplomacy, how career diplomats become ambassadors, the confirmation and clearance process, where ambassadors go and what they do, among other things.

We caught up with Ambassador Jett recently to talk to him about the book and how America’s system of diplomatic appointments might be reformed.

According to your research, we’ve historically seen a roughly 70/30 split between career appointees and political appointees in the ambassadorial ranks, with the percentage of career appointees spiking under the Eisenhower and Carter administrations and the percentage of political appointees peaking under Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan. The LA Times recently reported that President Obama has appointed 41 percent political appointees so far in the second term and 35 percent overall. Those figures are high based on the historical standard, are they not?

The short answer is yes. Political appointees tend to be front-loaded, so at the beginning of a new term you see a lot of these appointments being made and the career people serve out their terms, which are usually three years. It’s a little disturbing though, especially because during the campaign Obama said that people should be selected based on merit. If it holds up, his number will be historically high. Reagan was at 38 percent political appointees and he had some of the worst of any president — what we’re seeing now is the corrupting influence of money. Obama and [Republican president candidate John] McCain spent a combined billion dollars in 2008. In 2012, Obama and [Mitt] Romney spent a billion each. And in 2016, there’s been talk that Hillary [Clinton] might spend $2 billion.

This means you’re going to have to sell ambassadorships. The flipside of this is the Washington appointments. Those jobs are more for political operatives than big givers. On that side, the appointments are 70/30, with 70 percent of the top jobs at the State Department going to political appointees and 30 percent going to career people in Washington.

You wrote that the White House has to come to an agreement with the State Department on which posts will be political appointees. But how often does State push back in these negotiations?

It’s always a negotiation. The amount of pushback depends on the personalities involved. The president is usually above the fray so they are rarely involved in this.

You talked about how few diplomats ever become ambassadors. There are about 8,000 Foreign Service Generalists with a theoretical chance to become an ambassador. But there are only about 120 posts where ambassadors tend to be taken from the career ranks?

a7.book.dennis.jett.coverRight. I think that over the course of one’s career, you have about a 5 percent chance of becoming an ambassador and of course that depends on what cone you’re in and a number of other factors. The odds are even longer for consular officers and public diplomacy officers.

The clearance and confirmation process seems to take an extraordinary amount of time, especially in recent years. The GOP has blocked dozens of ambassadorial nominations of late. Has it always been a long, slow process?

It’s been slow but it’s gotten worse. The biggest time consumer used to be the background check. The congressional part used to take two to three months. Now there are people waiting for a year just because of the senatorial gridlock. Our ambassador now in Peru, I think he had to wait over a year. He was a career guy and there was no controversy. It’s just fighting — partisan bickering. It’s quite a shocking waste of time.

In the book, you wrote that it was rare for someone to get to the top at the State Department on performance alone. You asserted that self-promotion and making the right contacts are also critical. Do you believe this is the same dynamic in the diplomatic corps of most Western nations?

My guess is that this is true of any large bureaucratic organization — public sector, corporate, even universities. But some organizations are better at measuring performance. The State Department struggles mightily on this front. There are evaluations and your promotion prospects hinge to a large part on the ability of your supervisor to write a decent evaluation for you. Assignments are also crucial, so if you don’t have a network, you can’t work the system.

You profiled a large number of incompetent political appointees in the book. Were there one or two who stood out as being the most spectacularly unqualified or incompetent?

Probably the worst was Cynthia Stroum in Luxembourg. Here you had people working for her who were volunteering to transfer to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Right. I think I read in the Office of Inspector General (OIG) report that she went through seven deputy chiefs of mission in less than two years before she resigned.

She inherited a ton of money. She was a venture capitalist so she was probably playing with her inheritance as her supposed profession. She didn’t earn what she had and she bought her ambassadorship and was probably terribly self-conscious about that. And it reflected in the way she treated people. And of course, there were others. Douglas Kmiec in Malta wasn’t horrible, but he was weird. He thought his job was to write for religious magazines. [An OIG report on his tenure stated that he spent several hours of each workday in his residence.]

And there was Scott Gration, the former Air Force general in Kenya. He was strange as well. I think he insisted on a Hillary Clinton-like deal where he ran all his email through his Gmail account and apparently never bothered to read cables. [An OIG report conducted during his tenure rated him last in interpersonal relations and next to last in managerial skills and attention to morale. He resigned after he saw a draft of the report.]

What about Ruth Farkas? She had this quote referenced in your book, “Isn’t $250,000 a lot of money for Costa Rica?” Richard Nixon ultimately sent her to Luxembourg in 1973. But you wrote that she did an OK job?

Yes. That’s one of the challenges. You can’t predict who will succeed or fail. You can tell if someone is qualified, but it isn’t just qualifications that dictate whether someone will be a good ambassador. And post management also depends on DCMs, so sometimes a good DCM can save a horrible ambassador if they are smart enough to get out of the DCM’s way.

You reported that Nixon said that anyone who wants to be an ambassador must give at least $250,000. I think that’s where the Farkas quote comes from. Nixon maintained that we didn’t need someone with “extraordinary qualifications” to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Was that a fair point?

They may be small countries but they have significant organizations to manage. Even in a place like Luxembourg, you’re managing at least 60 to 80 people. And do you really want any element of your government done by someone who is incompetent? There’s this perception that the only thing diplomats do is go to cocktail parties and not pay their parking tickets. Well, there’s other work being done. Even small embassies have important functions. Drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism — these are global problems that affect even the smallest countries. Incompetent ambassadors are a threat to national security wherever they are.

You wrote about Nicole Avant, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas from 2009 to 2011. She was outside the country for an average of 12 days per month during her tenure, which the OIG described as an “extended period of dysfunctional leadership.” But at a Democratic National Convention event, President Obama gave a shout-out to her and said, “It’s a nice gig isn’t it?” — referring to her Bahamas post. So do you think that even the president views these jobs as being insignificant?

I think so. If presidents and candidates said, “This is a hard and serious job and we’re only going to put qualified people in,” then all those people who are bundling checks with the hopes of becoming an ambassador might say, “Well, do I really want to bother collecting money from all my friends for the campaign?”

They like to maintain the illusion that it’s an easy job. But the title of ambassador is the next best thing to royalty or becoming a general. You’ve always got that on your business card. I certainly do. It’s worth something, so there is a vested interest in downplaying the significance of these jobs.

We saw some political appointees fumble their confirmation hearings last summer in a very public way: Tsunis, who ultimately withdrew his nomination to be ambassador to Norway; Bell, who was a soap opera producer before she was confirmed as ambassador to Hungary; and Noah Mamet, a political operative and consultant who was confirmed as ambassador to Argentina. Do you think a lot of career diplomats took delight in watching these political appointees be exposed as lightweights?

Absolutely. Tsunis — talk about a cringe-worthy moment! One senator threw him a softball and asked him about business opportunities in Norway and he couldn’t even answer that. A 12-year-old could have mentioned oil exports and the energy sector. So yes, I do think career diplomats felt a little satisfied. But if McCain hadn’t shown up at the hearing to ask tough questions and if [Comedy Central’s] Jon Stewart hadn’t picked it up, Tsunis would be in Norway today.

You pointed out in your book that Tsunis had contributed to McCain’s campaign in 2008 but switched to Obama in 2012. So McCain had an incentive to show up and grill him, right?

That’s right. Politicians remember these things. It was also an opportunity to stick it to the president and he did.

But you wrote that even someone like George Tsunis could turn out to be a good ambassador. You believe that?

It’s unlikely, but not impossible. If the guy is so lazy he couldn’t even spend an afternoon reading up on Norway, it’s shocking. But if he got there and said, “OK, I’m a self-made man, son of immigrants, I’m going to be successful at this,” who knows how it would have turned out?

Were there any other noteworthy incompetent political appointee ambassadors you came across in your research?

There was Joy Silverman, whom George H.W. Bush nominated to be the ambassador to Barbados. She had never held a job and had no college degree. But she was never confirmed. Under Reagan you had a number of incompetent political appointees like John Upston in Rwanda. The embassy got a cable from Washington one day stating, “Do not accept checks from the ambassador because he’s bounced one too many, so if he writes a check to obtain local currency, don’t do it.” There was some debate at post whether to follow this instruction because the alternative was letting him bounce checks out on the local market.

You didn’t highlight many career diplomats who were terrible ambassadors, but obviously there have been some of those as well. In the book, you cited a Penn State evaluation of 139 OIG reports — 98 with career appointee ambassadors and 41 political. Apparently there was no significant difference in their performances, although career officers tended toward average whereas political appointees tended to be good or bad?

The career people were slightly higher than the political people, but there are good political appointees. They bring a fresh perspective and an outsider’s point of view. They aren’t weighted down by bureaucracy and bureaucratic procedures. And they aren’t weighted down by careerist concerns. They can do things or say things and not have to worry about how it will affect their careers. When I was ambassador to Mozambique and then Peru, I often thought, “Well, how far do I want to push this thing?” Political appointees never have to worry about getting their next assignment.

One of your recommendations is to subject political appointees to the kind of language exams at the Foreign Service Institute that career diplomats take and then publicizing the results of their tests. Would this shame candidates who can’t speak the local language or what would be the point of this?

The shaming aspect might deter some people who have no language abilities. Some of them claim they speak a language at the conversational level. What does that mean? With a test, we’d find out. Congress ought to know and people who want to be an ambassador would know that they’d be facing a language test.

One of my other fundamental recommendations is to empower the OIG to do a lot more inspections. You’re never going to get money out of politics — because the Supreme Court has basically endorsed the corruption of politics by money — and we have an electoral industrial complex that will resist any change. And so the most effective way to limit the number of unqualified people who want to become ambassadors is more frequent inspections and more public exposure of their incompetence.

You also talked about creating a better system of measuring performance. What would that look like?

Ambassadors ought to be rated by those in their mission every year. And it should be done in Washington too.

You wrote that the GOP has blocked 42 of President Obama’s ambassadorial nominations. I don’t imagine that trend will change if Hillary Clinton wins in 2016?

No. A lot of the reaction to Obama is racism. This whole idea that he is a Kenyan-born Muslim, socialist dictator — it’s all about legitimizing hate and bigotry. Like Rudy Giuliani saying that Obama doesn’t love his country. It’s all code words for screaming “nigger.” It may not be as bad for Hillary. I don’t know that it will get worse and it could get a little better. Perhaps Hillary will be a better politician than Obama was.

You concluded the book by opining that, “If the best diplomats aren’t chosen to conduct diplomacy, America proceeds at its own peril.” After conducting this research for your book, are you more optimistic that future presidents will do a better job in appointing the best quality people? 

I wouldn’t say I’m more optimistic, no. I hope it doesn’t get worse. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to shine a light on this problem. It’s hard to be optimistic because you still have the corrupting influence of money and the growing size of campaign budgets and campaign staffs — that will lead to heavy pressure to make political appointments. If the Republicans win, I think it will get worse. And even if Hillary wins, she’ll have a lot of people to pay back, particularly the Israeli lobby, so I wouldn’t be particularly optimistic about that aspect of our foreign policy improving.


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on May 29, 2015

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