Gaffes by Obama nominees revive issue of making donors ambassadors

Gaffes by Obama nominees revives debate over whether presidents should reward political donors and allies with diplomatic posts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 5:26am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 5:26am

A century-old debate over whether US presidents should reward political donors and allies with diplomatic posts has reignited following a string of embarrassing gaffes by President Barack Obama's picks.

The nominee for ambassador to Norway, for example, prompted outrage in Oslo by characterising one of the nation's ruling parties as extremist. A soap-opera producer slated for Hungary appeared to have little knowledge of the country. A prominent Obama fund-raiser nominated to be ambassador to Argentina acknowledged that he had never set foot in the country and did not speak Spanish.

Even former senator Max Baucus, the new US ambassador in Beijing, managed to raise eyebrows during his confirmation hearing by acknowledging, "I'm no real expert on China."

The stumbles have highlighted the perils of rewarding well-heeled donors and well-connected politicians with plum overseas assignments, and have provided political fodder for Republicans eager to attack the White House. The cases also underscore how a president who once infuriated donors by denying them perks has now come into line with his predecessors, doling out prominent diplomatic jobs by the dozens to supporters.

"Being a donor to the president's campaign does not guarantee you a job in the administration but it does not prevent you from getting one," White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week.

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 per cent of missions abroad and reserving the rest for political allies.

Political appointees account for 37 per cent of Obama's appointments so far, according to the American Foreign Service Association. The rate for his second term so far stands at 53 per cent.

The association, which represents career officers, plans to issue proposed guidelines this month laying out basic qualifications for a chief of mission.

The numbers are at the high end for recent presidents, according to the group's data. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford inserted political supporters in about 38 per cent of their ambassador jobs; at the other end of the scale, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had 27 per cent. George W. Bush and his father were at 30 per cent and 31 per cent.

Senator John McCain, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said several of Obama's recent nominees were "truly alarming" because of their lack of qualifications. "When you put someone in an ambassador's position who hasn't even been to the country, you are rolling the dice," he said.

The troubles began last month, when million-dollar fund-raiser and Chartwell Hotels chief executive George Tsunis testified at his confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Norway. Tsunis admitted he had never been to the country and suggested, among other things, that the nation's Progress Party was part of a discounted "fringe". It is actually part of Norway's centre-right ruling coalition. Then there is Colleen Bell, the nominee for ambassador to Hungary and the producer behind The Bold and The Beautiful soap opera, who raised or contributed US$800,000 for Obama in the last election. She stammered her way through testimony about US strategic interests in the country, which is the focus of growing international alarm over its far-right government's treatment of Jews and other minorities.

"I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees," McCain said sarcastically during the hearing for Bell and Tsunis.

White House officials note that several Obama first-term appointees, such as television executive Charles Rivkin in France and technology lawyer John Victor Roos in Japan, got high marks.

"It's a strength not a stigma that an ambassador spent decades running a corporation or serving as a governor or senator," David Wade, Secretary of State John Kerry's chief of staff, said. "The question is the individual, not where they come from, period."