THE BLOG
12/11/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

A New Danger to U.S. Interests in Europe: Political Appointees

Angela Weiss via Getty Images

Hungary is undergoing a troubling backslide from democracy. Viktor Orban, the country's prime minister, has overseen a widespread crackdown on dissent, stamped out independent journalism and cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the tensest chapter in post-Cold War West-Russia relations. What makes these trends especially worrying is that Hungary is a member of NATO and the European Union.

The United States should take the growing threat of Hungary's rejection of democracy seriously. With the ambassador posting in Budapest open, it had the perfect opportunity to appoint a skilled and adept regional expert as ambassador to guide U.S. interests in the country. But, instead, the Obama administration opted for Colleen Bell, the producer of the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, who has as much regional expertise on Central Europe as, well, a producer of a soap opera.

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Bell as the next U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Bell is the latest in a growing and troubling trend of political appointees with woefully insufficient experience being sent to represent U.S. interests in some of our most important allies in Europe. George Tsunis, CEO of a hotel company and Obama's nominee for ambassador to Norway, revealed in his cringe-worthy confirmation hearing that he didn't know Norway was a constitutional monarchy and had never been to Norway.

In her confirmation hearing, Bell fumbled over the basic question of what constitutes U.S. strategic interests in Hungary. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest struggled to defend the nomination at a press briefing, saying Bell was "obviously somebody who has succeeded in, you know, in the business world," while steadfastly denying that the millions of dollars she raised in Obama's reelection campaign had anything to do with her appointment.

Hungary is a country teetering on the verge of authoritarianism. Orban came to power in 2010 and was reelected this year, thanks in part to rigging campaign finance reforms in his party's favor and bias state media coverage, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported in its election monitoring. He uses phrases such as "illiberal democracy" when outlining his vision of the future of Hungary. He is dismantling independent media, allowing attacks on minorities to go unpunished, undermining an independent court system, weakening opposition parties, and guiding his country toward a one-party system. The bigger worry is that Orban's success, combined with the lack of action by the EU and NATO, will embolden extremist political parties in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to emulate Hungary.

Both Democrat and Republican administrations are at fault for appointing campaign donors as ambassadors. When generous campaign donors are handed posts in Luxembourg and the Bahamas, where they can't do much harm for strategic national interests, the practice is deplorable but bearable. Hungary is different: the United States desperately needs a respected diplomat with regional expertise to make clear the costs of the Orban government's dangerous policies and help alter Hungary's undemocratic trajectory.

In many ways, Hungary served as a poster-child of the promise of the democratic ideals the Euro-Atlantic community represents. It was one of the first countries to transition from a communist government in the 1989 revolutions that swept across Europe and dissolved the Soviet Union. Its tough free market reforms in the early '90s reaped significant economic benefits in the decades to follow. It joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004 as part of the West's broader efforts to revitalize Central Europe and anchor the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace in its newest members.

Hungary used to embody the promise of the West. Now, the United States and its European allies need to ensure Hungary doesn't embody a failure of the West. The EU and NATO are struggling with how to respond to Orban, making a strong U.S. voice in Budapest even more critical. The Obama administration is ratcheting up pressure on Orban's government, becoming more direct and public with its criticisms and even banning certain officials in Orban's government from entering the United States. But what good are the actions when no one can take the top U.S. envoy in the country seriously?

The United States has developed a bipartisan tradition of essentially selling ambassador posts to top donors. Bell's confirmation has rightly provoked criticism and should be reversed. Rewarding big donors may be politically expedient to the president, but it must not be allowed to trump U.S. strategic interests in Europe.

Robbie Gramer is Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He writes in a personal capacity.