Degree, Kind, and Appointing Ambassadors

James Joyner complains about President Obama’s ambassadorial appointments:

Now, I think this goes too far. As Neumann notes in the NPR story linked above, his own father was “an enormously competent appointee who served four presidents, three embassies and two parties” as ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. But, like Barkey, the elder Neumann was an international relations scholar with deep expertise and experience in the region, not a political hack. Further, as our own John Burgess, a retired career foreign service officer, has noted, an appointee can be an enormous asset if he has the ear of the president.

But filling this many ambassadorships with people whose sole qualification is having raised a lot of money for the president not only smacks of corruption but undermines our foreign relations.

In my comment on that post, I mentioned that appointing unqualified political allies as ambassadors was nothing new, going back to the beginnings of the Republic.

Recently, we marked the death of Shirley Temple Black. Mrs. Black served with distinction as our ambassador to Ghana, possibly the best ambassador we’ve ever sent to Ghana. She had no formal qualifications for the job—she was distinctly a political appointee. However, in her role as ambassador she applied the same skills and energies that informed her work on the screen as a child to her new post. She learned the language. She became familiar with the culture, customs, and politics. She harnessed her new knowledge to the recognition that her movie stardom brought along with it and her distinctive qualities of mind and spirit and became a unique asset to the United States as ambassador.

Will President Obama’s appointments fare as well? Frankly, I doubt it. The greater question, perhaps, is should we be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt?

A persistent criticism I have had of the present administration is that for the Obama Administration politics overwhelms every other consideration. IMO that was true of the ARRA, the PPACA, it has been true of the president’s public statements, and it has been true of his foreign policy. When the politics doesn’t play out as he had thought it would, he reverses course. This is most apparent in the action he’s being criticized for him some circles: delaying the enforcement of the employer mandate for mid-sized firms. To date no one has presented a coherent defense of the action either from a legal or a policy standpoint. If you believe the PPACA is good policy, you should also believe that the administration has erred in its repeated postponements of the employer mandate. The administration’s move as well as the defenses of its actions are purely political in nature.

Politics always influences policy. It is a major consideration in every presidential administration. They wouldn’t be presidential administrations if that weren’t the case. Is there some point at which a difference in degree is a difference in kind?

19 comments… add one
  • ... Link

    The worrisome bit comes from the actions of the alleged professionals, such as that Nuland woman stating “Fuck the EU” in circumstances where it could get out. But then, she’s one of the evil Cheney advisors. If only Romney had lost and we had gotten a Democratic foreign policy team instead…..

  • she’s one of the evil Cheney advisors

    Is she? She was Strobe Talbott’s Chief of Staff. She’s also the prime suspect in the Benghazi cover-up (if there was a Benghazi cover-up).

  • ... Link

    During the second Bush Administration she was one of Cheney’s chief foreign policy advisors, and was later ambassador to something or another. She’s also married to one of the Kagan boys. She’s part of the deep government that’s always in power.

  • ... Link

    She was US Ambassador to NATO during the Bush Administration.

    She’s definitely one of the “professionals”. I mean, you expect that the people who bought an ambassadorial position to be largely worthless (regardless of party or President), but the pros aren’t supposed to be worthless.

  • TastyBits Link


    … but the pros aren’t supposed to be worthless.

    Did you intend to rattle my cage?

    Did she attain her position because of merit or connections? Is there somebody else who has more ability to do the job but does not have the connections she has? Is it possible for a regular person to obtain the connections to eventually get her job?

    She is a perfect example of why concentrating power is a bad idea. She works for money not ideology. She will work to rig the game for whomever is in charge, and do not be fooled into thinking that the figureheads are in charge.

    Rather than be the turd in the punch bowl, I will get into the partisan spirit. It is all Bush’s fault. The tax cuts caused deep debt, and now, the US cannot afford top quality ambassadors.

  • PD Shaw Link

    “appointing unqualified political allies as ambassadors was nothing new”

    I suspect our idea of qualifications has changed, and its probably pretty hard to sort out some of today’s hacks because they don’t have a public life, but a closed political life. There is a difference btw/ a Ben Franklin whose personality and skills were publicly known and admired, and a wealthy heir that bundles campaign contributions at upscale parties in Beverly Hills, or golfs with the right people.

    Through the middle of the nineteenth century there was an educated elite that spoke French and had a classical education that included geography and world history. If an ambassador did not speak French (even if sent to the Court of St. James), I think a presumption might arise that he should be considered unqualified.

    I’m not sure when a professional class of foreign service arose, the American Consular Association formed in 1918, and its the descendants of this group that are framing the debate. And I suspect that framing made no sense prior to WWI.

  • ... Link

    TB, you can usually assume that I’m being sarcastic when speaking of someone in the government being competent, at least above local services. But here I was being (what my wife would accusingly call typically) idealistic. Much as I dislike foreign service types for their tendency to go native, they should at least have a certain level of competence on a functional level.

    In the case of Nuland, however, we are dealing with someone that is deeply embedded in the nation’s governing elite. As such, actual performance doesn’t matter. And it’s not just who she knows but that people will want to know her and her family as well. It’s a two-way street. And IIRC, this all goes back to Yale and the Ivies – the connections start early and if you can’t get in early, you can’t get in at all, usually.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    @Dave Schuler

    Yes, everything with this President is politics and the solution to every problem is more PR damage control:

    After seven years of litigation, two trips to a federal appeals court and $3.8 million worth of lawyer time, the public has finally learned why a wheelchair-bound Stanford University scholar was cuffed, detained and denied a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii: FBI human error.

    FBI agent Kevin Kelley was investigating Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 when he checked the wrong box on a terrorism form, erroneously placing Rahinah Ibrahim on the no-fly list.

    What happened next was the real shame. Instead of admitting to the error, high-ranking President Barack Obama administration officials spent years covering it up. Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and a litany of other government officials claimed repeatedly that disclosing the reason Ibrahim was detained, or even acknowledging that she’d been placed on a watch list, would cause serious damage to the U.S. national security. Again and again they asserted the so-called “state secrets privilege” to block the 48-year-old woman’s lawsuit, which sought only to clear her name.

  • TastyBits Link

    @Ben Wolf

    I do not think that this is strictly attributable to the Obama Administration. This is part of the increasing security state, and everything threatens the security of the US.

    Am I the only one that thinks DNI James Clapper is a clown. Whenever I see him testifying, I keep looking for Larry and Curly.

  • jan Link

    ” She’s also the prime suspect in the Benghazi cover-up (if there was a Benghazi cover-up).”

    Nuland was the voice box for the State Department. Her government service, though, has cross-hatched both the R and D parties. However, now she is definitely a defender of the current party in power – the dems. IMO, she seems smart, smooth and detached from personal responsibility — just doing the job she is supposed to do — a hired, loyal bureaucratic hack.

    In the case of Benghazi, Nuland’s job was to mute the state department’s involvement, brushing off any whiffs of incompetency or mistakes made by the SOS in repeating the delusional Rice talking points, even though everyone knew they were false, keeping Hillary Clinton’s hands clean, out of the fray of a negative legacy in anticipation of her 2016 POTUS run. That sacrificial statement Hillary made, saying she was to be held “responsible,” was conveniently void of follow-though or genuine efforts to clear up nagging congressional questions. It was simply a gesture of gratuitous lip service to appease the public during the similarly gratuitous investigative farce, held by the Accountability Review Board, who saw no reason to question Clinton or Patrick Kennedy about the events surrounding Benghazi — the top people in the state department. They didn’t even take notes on Gregory Hicks testimony — the last person to talk to Stevens! How could such a, sloppy, bs-loaded inquiry, into a deadly 9/11 terrorist attack, months before a presidential election, not be considered a cover-up!!!!

  • jan Link

    Am I the only one that thinks DNI James Clapper is a clown. Whenever I see him testifying, I keep looking for Larry and Curly.

    Everybody is covering the rear end of everyone above them.

  • Ben Wolf Link


    That’s generally what governments do with secrecy, abuse it. However I’m not aware of any previous administration continuously using state secrets privilege to protect itself from things like this. Except the Nixon Administration, that is.

  • PD Shaw Link

    There should be a presumption that the Attorney General goes to jail after his/her term of office. My reaction to the FBI story is not one of a malevolent despot luxuriating in unchecked power; its one of fearful bureaucrats, scared of the People and what might be said about them. The Attorney General should be a grown up in the room, exercising independence, but they are almost always playing defense for their buddies.

  • There should be a presumption that the Attorney General goes to jail after his/her term of office.

    I’ve long thought that about Illinois governors. It would certainly save a lot of muss and fuss. This

    My reaction to the FBI story is not one of a malevolent despot luxuriating in unchecked power; its one of fearful bureaucrats, scared of the People and what might be said about them.

    is a pretty darned good description.

  • ... Link

    I will second the second part of Schuler’s 8:37pm comment. Makes it no less shameful, of course….

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