Appointing Donors as Ambassadors: A Colloquy

Recent Obama appointments to Ambassadorial spots around theglobe have blundered through their confirmation hearings.  Naturally, Republicans have leapt on this as
a political issue accusing Obama have handing out ambassadorships to big
unqualified big donors.  Of course the
Republicans do not have exactly a clean record on this – although one Bush 43
donor/diplomat (Dopomat? Diplor?) observed that he was well briefed for his
hearings.  This seems more like an
operational failure.  Anyone with the
chops to be a major campaign fundraiser ought to be able to manage a
comfortable diplomatic appointment (they are going to places like Argentina and
But this raises a deeper question.  The Foreign Service Association is pressingfor more stringent standards for Ambassadorial appointments.  They don’t reject political appointments.
They just want to avoid the patronage for big donors.  Understandable, but as long as the President has
the power to make political appointments, it will be difficult to screen out
appointments based on patronage from the well-qualified, non-foreign service
Why can’t major campaign contributors be banned from
diplomatic appointments?
First you’d have to answer the question of what’s a major
donor?  Imagine a long-time friend of the
President who, having run a major international corporation, would be well
qualified for a diplomatic spot.  Would
this good friend of the President be forbidden from making a campaign donation
to his friend?
No, we just want to stop the bundlers – the big-time
fundraisers – from buying Ambassadorships.
Sure, but the funny thing about campaign finance is that
there are always work-arounds.  If our
big-time bundler knows what he or she is doing the bundling can occur under
someone else’s name, but everyone will know who was really the solicitor.
OK, fine, so the question is why not just rely on the
Foreign Service for Ambassadors?
First, for all of the gaffes of the big donor
ambassador-candidates, we haven’t seen much evidence that they do any harm.  They get sent somewhere quiet, pleasant and
On the other hand, many distinguished individuals have
served capably as Ambassadors to critical countries.  Japan, in particular, has received a steady
stream of extremely distinguished elder statesman including former Senate
Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, former Vice President Walter Mondale, former
Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and now Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.  Japan is a major ally that often does not get
the attention it needs.  Sending such a
highly regarded figure is a good way to honor a critical ally in a way that
sending even the most senior and experienced FSO cannot.  
The appointment of Max Baucus to China fits
in that realm as well.  While Baucus
admitted that he is no “China expert” as a former U.S. Senator (and chair of
the Finance Committee) he brings a great deal of relevant expertise to his new
position.  Further, he will have a sense
of how things will play back home 
while also honoring Beijing with a distinguished emissary.
Another figure that comes to mind is the great Bob Strauss,
a long-time Democrat who served President George H. W. Bush as Ambassador to
the Soviet Union and Russia. (And this list is NOT exhaustive.)

The Senate does have the power to reject nominees for
Ambassador and if they truly feel an appointment might damage U.S. interests
they may do so.  (Jesse Helms blocked
Massachusetts Governor William Weld from serving as Ambassador to Mexico –
although that might have been personal.) 
But the cost of sending some political operatives to quiet tourist
havens is small compared to the advantage of the President having the authority
to send a trusted, capable ally to nations that are particularly important.

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