The death of Samuel W. Lewis, former ambassador to Israel, a few weeks ago once again raised the touchy issue of the nature and competence of America's diplomats.
Mr. Lewis played a major role in the Camp David peace talks that resulted in a heralded treaty between Egypt and Israel. He had a profound knowledge of both countries and superb negotiating skills, qualities essential to successful diplomacy in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, these qualities are being increasingly ignored by Presidents who seem more anxious to reward political donors than appoint skilled, competent career foreign service officers, no matter how important the countries in question are to the national interest.
President Obama, who in 2009 promised to appoint more professional diplomats, has outdone his predecessors in nominating a huge number of political appointees, many, if not most, of them lacking the language, cultural and negotiating skills required for their jobs. Some of them have already proved an embarrassment to the President in their hearings before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
None more so than Noah Bryson Mamet, the nominee to the post in Argentina, the third largest country in South America, who has never visited the country and displayed an astonishing ignorance of Argentina's politics. The president's nominee to Norway, George Tsunis, who raised $1.3 million for the Democratic Party in 2012, did no better before the Senate Committee, claiming that Norway had a president rather than a king. And Colleen Bradley Bell, a prolific fundraiser and soap opera producer, who is headed out to Hungary, an important and testy NATO ally, was unable to describe to the Committee America's interests in the country.
Matthew Barzan, a financial bundler who raised $2.31 million for the President, was named to the ambassadorship in Great Britain, arguably our closest and most important ally, while another Obama donor, Denise Bauer, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney, was nominated for the post of Belgium, headquarters for NATO. Italy, Australia, South Africa, Germany and Spain apparently are also slated to receive political appointees.
One would have thought it important for the U.S. to have experienced diplomats in such key countries. We are probably the only major democracy that still dispenses ambassadorship as rewards for political friends and donors.
According to the American Foreign Service Association, 53% of the ambassadorial appointments made in President Obama's second term were political. During his over five years in office, fully 37% of his appointments have been political.
This compares to a 30% record under President George W. Bush and 28% under President William Clinton. Where is all that hype about "hope and change"?
Some defenders of Obama's nominees point out that political ambassadors like Walter Mondale in Japan, Sargent Shriver in France and John Huntsman in China have done an impressive job of representing American interests overseas. That is true, but these men were outstanding individuals with enormous accomplishments and skills. Few, if any, of today's political appointees can match their qualifications.
You can't compare them with the likes of former Senator Max Baucus, a not very distinguished chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who is slated to go to China but doesn't speak Chinese, or Caroline Kennedy, a current appointee to Japan, who has little to show in her record other than being a Kennedy.
Part of the problem is the change in the way our foreign policy has been run in recent years. More control and influence over policy have been given to presidential staff and National Security Council members, thereby diminishing the importance and prestige of State Department representatives, both at home and in the field. For the most part, ambassadors no longer seem to have the responsibility and power they once enjoyed. With their influence curtailed, it is not surprising that presidents and their advisers should underestimate the importance of their credentials and skills.
But they do so at their peril and that of the country. We have seen the key roles that our ambassadors overseas have played in not only setting but also implementing policies. Sam Lewis is only one prominent example. We need their analytic skills, their linguistic competence and their negotiating abilities. The national interest is too important to sacrifice to a group of financial donors, political hacks and presidential buddies.
President Obama needs to rethink his policy of ambassadorial appointments. He should commit himself to nominees who have the necessary qualifications to be successful and influential ambassadors. And he, or whoever advises him, should initiate a speedier and more rational process of filling ambassadorial vacancies.
There is no excuse for failing to nominate an envoy to Ireland for over 14 months.
The President's record of ambassadorial appointments is appalling, if not shameful. With so many international crises facing this country, we cannot afford to have anything less than the most accomplished people running our ship of state.
The author is a former foreign service officer.