US & Canada

Should political fundraisers become ambassadors?

Howard Gutman
Image caption Howard Gutman, the current US ambassador to Belgium, was a campaign donor

Many of the US ambassadors to swanky European capitals are campaign donors. Are politically appointed diplomats a bad idea?

Last week President Barack Obama recommended 10 new individuals for ambassadorships. Two of them had raised money for his presidential campaign - Denise Bauer for Belgium and James "Wally" Brewster for the Dominican Republic.

They are "bag men", people who give money to political campaigns - a group that is increasingly female, despite its name.

They are like dozens of other ambassadors who are chosen by the White House for the postings - though they have no background in foreign service.

Rather than serving in the diplomatic corps, political appointees have instead worked as business executives, lawyers, consultants and in other professions.

As non-career diplomats, they can be appointed "without competition", according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Giving money - and later becoming ambassador - is a long-standing tradition in the US diplomatic world.

In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon was blunt about the arrangements he had in place when talking with an aide about a diplomatic posting to Belgium.

"Anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000," Nixon said. "I'm not going to do it for political friends and all that crap."

Image caption The US embassy in Brussels, pictured in 2005

Political appointees are not necessarily wealthy. At times, presidents nominate individuals who have personal ties.

"There was an ambassador in the Bush administration who used to bicycle with the president," says Robert Rizzi, a Washington lawyer who helps clients through the official vetting process for political appointees.

Once the president has selected a candidate for an ambassadorship, the individual appears before the Senate foreign relations committee for a confirmation hearing.

The proportion of political appointees among ambassadors has remained the same - roughly one-third - since the 1950s.

The political appointees are part of the "spoils system", says Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association.

"It undermines the whole concept of meritocratic professional diplomatic service," she says. Many people have found fault with the system over the years.

Image caption Nicole Avant, centre at a New York party, was ambassador to the Bahamas for less than two years

Shortly after being elected president, Obama vowed to "reform the political appointee process".

A statement on his website reported that "in the Obama-Biden administration, every official will have to rise to the standard of proven excellence".

Yet instead of declining under Obama, the percentage of political appointees has remained the same.

Today about 29% of ambassadorships are held by political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association.

The UK, Canada and other countries have political appointees - but not as many. Jim LeBlanc, a consultant who used to work for a Canadian ambassador, says: "It doesn't go as deep."

Bruce Oreck is a lawyer who helped raise $575,000 (£377,000) for Obama's presidential campaign. He got a call from the White House after the election.

"They said, 'Would you be willing to serve and, if so, where would you have an interest in serving?'" Oreck recalls.

Oreck, whose father is the founder of Oreck, a company that has sold millions of vacuum cleaners, is now the ambassador in Helsinki. He had never seen the city before his posting.

"People who are successful are disciplined," Oreck says. "You want people who've had that kind of success because they're going to be good advocates for America."

Some political appointees do well. Citigroup's Louis Susman raised money for Obama and then went to London as ambassador.

Shortly before he left in April, Susman had an audience with the Queen, "a privilege rarely afforded to departing ambassadors", reports the Telegraph.

The ambassador in Paris, Charles Rivkin, helped raise $800,000 (£524,000). "Neither the ambassador nor the embassy in Paris have any comment on this topic," says embassy spokesman Mitchell Moss.

The ambassador in Lisbon, Allan Katz, raised $500,000 (£328,000).

Embassy spokeswoman Virginia Staab says: "In the US Foreign Service, we aim to strike the perfect balance between career and political appointees since each can provide strengths and opportunities to further US foreign policy."

Career diplomats such as Thomas Boyatt, who served as ambassador to Colombia after working for years in the foreign service, resent the way that wealthy individuals end up in cushy posts.

"The media used to call us 'the striped-pant boys'," says Boyatt.

"I used to say, 'The only stripes I ever had on my pants were from my own blood.' That shut them up."

Whether political appointees or career diplomats, they should accept posts that are located in the developing world - rather than accepting ambassadorships only to European or wealthy nations, says Boyatt.

The Obama administration has had an unusual number of high-level disasters among its political appointees, many from postings in Western nations.

Cynthia Stroum, a political appointee who served as the ambassador to Luxembourg, was "hostile and intimidating", according to a 2011 governmental report about that embassy.

"I'm baffled that I was forced to resign over such petty and unsubstantiated allegations," Stroum says.

Regarding the selection of ambassadors, Stroum says: "I have no way of knowing how they made or continue to make their choices or what criteria they use."

Not all political appointees are fundraisers. Some are public figures who are known on a national level or for their work in a local community.

One appointee, Douglas Kmiec, a former Catholic University of America dean, resigned as head of the US mission in Malta in 2011.

State department officials said he had been spending hours every day writing about Catholicism - and not enough hours, apparently, on his diplomatic work.

Kmiec says he chose to resign "when individuals within the department refused to follow the president's efforts to use faith-based diplomacy".

Another political appointee, Nicole Avant, the former ambassador to the Bahamas, lasted less than two years. The state department's office of inspections gave her a negative report.

She says she "had inherited a dysfunctional embassy. Under the direction of the new executive team that I appointed, the embassy began to recover."

Critics say they wish career diplomats were serving in more posts as ambassadors, since political appointees do not always fare well.

"There have been some that have turned out to be real busts," says the American Foreign Service Association's Susan Johnson.