When President Obama nominated Caroline Kennedy in 2013 to serve as America’s ambassador to Japan, there were those who had their misgivings. On the celebrity social circuit, Kennedy knows her game — daughter of the lionized JFK, enthusiastic supporter of Obama, and guest earlier this month of the Obama family at their summer holiday enclave on Martha’s Vineyard.
But Kennedy came to her ambassador’s post with no foreign policy experience, no particular background in Japan or Asia generally, and apparently not much skill at running the $93.6 million-per-year operation that is the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
This embassy is one of America’s most important outposts, representing American interests to a strategically vital democratic ally and economic partner in an increasingly troubled region. Japan faces a militarizing, expansionist, and economically roiled China, an aggressively rearming Russia, and a nuclear-arming North Korea.
But almost two years into Kennedy’s ambassadorship, the U.S. Embassy in Japan is a mess.
To be fair, the report gives Kennedy good scores for ethics, noting that the Ambassador has “made clear” that “she wants all her activities to be conducted in accordance with U.S. government regulations.” Though it’s far from clear that this message has translated into practice. The report lists numerous problems of waste and mismanagement, including one that sounds especially intriguing in view of the controversy surrounding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email practices. (Boldface is mine):
OIG’s Office of Evaluations and Special Projects conducted a review and confirmed that senior embassy staff, including the Ambassador, used personal email accounts to send and receive messages containing official business. In addition, OIG identified instances where emails labeled Sensitive but Unclassified were sent from, or received by, personal email accounts.
There’s a lot more, including:
“Living Quarters Allowance Not in Compliance with the Foreign Affairs Manual”
“Actual lodging cost not properly justified”
“Premium Class Train Tavel Policy Does Not Comply With Department Regulation”
“Extra Travel Costs Inappropriately Approved for Using Indirect Routes”
“Employee Evaluation Reports do not Reflect Demonstrated Weakness”
Then there are the overarching problems that speak directly to the Embassy’s impaired effectiveness in matters not just of compliance with regulations, but having to do with the formulation of U.S. foreign policy.
Buried on page 12 is the note:
Embassy Tokyo’s reporting on foreign policy, regional security and bilateral issues is not meeting the needs of senior officials for in-depth, multi-sourced analysis.
The OIG report states bluntly:
The Ambassador does not have extensive experience leading and managing an institution the size of the U.S. Mission to Japan.
According to the OIG, Kennedy relies on “two key senior staff members”: a career Senior Foreign Service Deputy Chief of Mission, and a Chief of Staff, “an individual with experience in public relations, but not in foreign affairs.”
The OIG report does not provide the name of this foreign policy novice who serves as Kennedy’s chief of staff, but we may infer that this individual is Debra DeShong Reed, whom Kennedy brought with her to work at the Embassy in Tokyo in 2013.
The OIG report notes:
[T]he role and authorities of the Ambassador’s chief of staff are not clearly defined, leading to confusion among the staff as to her level of authority, and her role in internal embassy communications.” This has led to problems such as “a misunderstanding on the part of the chief of staff and the Ambassador regarding the responsibilities of an embassy public affairs operation,” and this is turn has led to “confusion and inefficiency among public affairs staff.”
It just keeps getting worse, including the item on “Daily Activity Report: Widely Read But no Substitute for Analytic Reporting.” It seems the Embassy provides a lively digest of one-paragraph briefs on who’s coming, going, and meeting in between. Apparently there’s good gossip value here, but at the Tokyo embassy — despite over-staffing of direct hires in the departments such as the economic section — this has become “a substitute for in-depth, multi-sourced reporting,” which is the real bread-and-butter of good foreign policy formulation.
How bad a foreign-policy dereliction does that state of affairs add up to? The OIG report begins by under-scoring the importance of Japan: the world’s fourth-largest economy, America’s second-largest source of foreign investment, a base for 50,000 U.S. troops, and one of the State Department’s “most important missions in terms of its size and the U.S. interests for which it is responsible.”
For a better sense of the disarray at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, it’s worth at least browsing through the entire OIG report, which concludes with 65 recommendations (three of them redacted) ranging from bringing the Embassy into compliance with State Department rules on security, expenses, and cash, to the development of clear lines of responsibility and a more appropriate use of resources for the formulation of actual foreign policy.
To this I’d add a 66th recommendation. There’s a long history at State of political appointees serving as ambassadors, but to ably represent U.S. interests to a country as important as Japan, celebrity is not enough.