The PJ Tatler

Why Do We Send So Many Stupid, Unqualified People Overseas?

President Obama’s ambassador-designate to Argentina, mega-fundraiser Noah Mamet, may know a thing or two about bundling cash for politicians but when it comes to the country he has been chosen to represent U.S. interests, not so much.

Mamet has never been to Argentina, nor is it known if he even speaks the language. His performance at his confirmation hearings bordered on low comedy as he demonstrated a cluelessness that, in any other context, would be amusing.

Except it’s not funny. Argentina may implode economically in the next few months, with repercussions to be felt throughout South America. What possessed President Obama to nominate this nitwit for such an important post?

As this story in Politico points out, Mamet isn’t the only ignoramus to be nominated by the president for an ambassadorship. Nor is President Obama the only chief executive to nominate people for important overseas posts based not on their expertise or knowledge, but on how much money they raised for the candidate.

Recently, a colleague of mine from the Foreign Service told me about a former U.S. ambassador to Sweden who, some years ago, had passed out in the snow, too drunk to get up. He had been partying hard during an outing in the countryside. Fortunately, an embassy officer found him in time to save his life. America’s boozy man in Stockholm was a non-career political appointee—no surprise. The fellow who saved him was a professional diplomat. And the roles the two men played that night is emblematic of a familiar routine.

That was the thought I had earlier this week when word came that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had approved nominations of President Barack Obama’s latest batch of ambassadorial picks—including a couple of first-time diplomats whose cringeworthy performances during their testimony suggested they’ll need to rely heavily on their Foreign Service staff to keep from embarrassing the United States. Of course, we have little reason to worry about longtime Montana Senator Max Baucus, whose appointment to serve in China the Senate passed unanimously on Thursday. But some wealthy campaign donors with backgrounds a bit further afield from public service should give us concern. They’ve already embarrassed themselves.

When hotel magnate George Tsunis, Obama’s nominee for Oslo, met with the Senate last month, he made clear that he didn’t know that Norway was a constitutional monarchy and wrongly stated that one of the ruling coalition political parties was a hate-spewing “fringe element.” Another of the president’s picks, Colleen Bell, who is headed to Budapest, could not answer questions about the United States’ strategic interests in Hungary. But could the president really expect that she’d be an expert on the region? Her previous gig was as a producer for the TV soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She stumbled through responses to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) like, well, a soap opera star, expounding on world peace. When the whole awkward exchange concluded, the senator grinned. “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees,” McCain said sarcastically.

For the purposes of comparison, Norway’s ambassador to the Washington is a 31-year Foreign Ministry veteran. Hungary’s ambassador is an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years.

President Obama took office promising to limit the practice of appointing fundraising whales to ambassadorships. How’s that working out? “His second-term appointments have gone to political allies more than half of the time,” reports Politico.

Since World War II, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, that number has been lower: About a third of the ambassador posts have been offered to non-professional diplomats.

We are the only industrialized nation that choose ambassadors based on their prowess in raising money for a successful presidential candidate. You might ask how these diplomatic non-entities could make it through a Senate confirmation hearing? Easy. Grease the skids with some donations:

In addition to a long-standing gentleman’s agreement that the out-of-office party will rubber stamp diplomatic nominees, wannabe ambassadors now spread campaign contributions to key senators to clinch an ambassadorial nomination. In the last two Congresses, for example, George Tsunis contributed to the campaigns of five senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and current Chairman Robert Menendez, as well as to the Senate Majority PAC. Before Tsunis paraded his ignorance before the Foreign Relations Committee, New York Senator Charles Schumer gave a gushing introduction. Tsunis had donated $4,600 to Schumer’s campaign fund in 2009.

This state of affairs is not likely to be rectified anytime soon. If there is a GOP president in 2017, you can bet some of his first nominees for ambassadorships will be his biggest contributors. Neither party wants to be the first to upset the applecart and change the system. The whales are too important to the eventual success of presidential campaigns to deny them what they feel is owed to them for their labors.