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Ambassadors: Do patronage picks matter?

American presidents rewarding top campaign fundraisers with plum ambassadorships has long been common practice for both parties. But should "bundlers" get these jobs? Are they qualified?
Image: John Roos
John Roos (right), testifies on July 23 during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to be U.S. Ambassador to Japan.Shawn Thew / EPA file
/ Source: NBC News

American presidents rewarding top campaign fundraisers with plum ambassadorships has long been common practice for both Democrats and Republicans alike.

But President Obama, who has vowed to “change the ways of Washington,” has not only continued this tradition of his predecessors, he has outpaced them.

So far, 57% of Obama’s picks for ambassador positions — 34 of 60 — have been political appointees, or people not considered career Foreign Service, according to the American Foreign Service Association. Fourteen of those, or 23 percent, are bundlers. Bundlers are individuals who raise large amounts of money for a candidate by "bundling" together smaller contributions from others. For 2008, anyone who a raised more than $50,000 for candidate Obama are considered bundlers.

In the past 50 years, the average percentage for political appointees has been about 30 percent, according to AFSA. The practice increased under George W. Bush — 36 percent of his picks were political. (Jimmy Carter appointed the least at 24 percent.)

Because many of the political appointments are made early on in a presidency, Obama’s percentages will likely decrease; as more ambassadors are named, more are likely to be career Foreign Service. 

At a January news conference, then-President-elect Obama did acknowledge that "there probably will be some" ambassadors chosen who were top donors. “It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service,” he said.

The White House is focused on the 30-percent target, but not necessarily reducing the number. Groups like AFSA have advocated for the average to be lowered to 10 percent.

Some foreign policy observers say that if Obama is not going to change the practice, then perhaps some of these posts should be eliminated all together. They argue the positions are outdated, a waste of money, and have long gone to political appointees who may have little prior knowledge of the region to which they are assigned.

Others aren’t convinced. They say removing these posts would reduce access to key leaders, be seen as a “slap in the face” to other countries, and, they stress, one never knows when — or where — a crisis could happen.

We’ve come a long way
The 14 bundlers Obama has picked so far have been appointed to some pretty cushy locales, including Austria, the Bahamas, Belgium, Belize, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Japan, Morocco, South Africa, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, Sweden, and the U.K./Northern Ireland.

Most of these places the U.S. hasn't struggled with of late.

We’ve come a long way since John Adams. Adams, who became the burgeoning republic’s second president, was a high-profile ambassador to places like France, England and Holland. But that was at a time when it took more than a month to get across the Atlantic (nor were there any modern communication conveniences, like telephones, much less the Internet.

So why not just get rid of these posts and save American taxpayers the money they front for pricey residences in these places?

As David Rothkopf, a former Clinton deputy under secretary of commerce for international trade policy, wrote for Foreign Policy last month: “If a job is meaningless enough to be entrusted to someone who is unqualified to do it, do we really need to fill that post?”

Rothkopf is the author of “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making.” In an interview with NBC, he gave a two-pronged argument for nixing these posts: First, if you can appoint someone who has no experience for the job, you can’t really value that job —someone else, who knows what’s going on, is doing the real work of the embassy; and Second, the job is outdated, created hundreds of years ago to bring sealed missives from one country to another.

He calls these ambassadors largely ceremonial and that the senior government officials in those countries “don’t want to deal with an ambassador,” Rothkopf said. They’d rather deal with their counterpart in the American government.

‘Yes, they matter’ — still
Barbara Bodine — a lecturer at Princeton’s Wilson School and former ambassador to Yemen, who has argued it’s time to stop selling ambassadorships — has said flatly of these bundler posts that “Yes, they matter.”

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“Our relationships with these countries — the British, the French, the Chinese, the Japanese — are important,” she said, adding later, “You need ambassadors — modern communication notwithstanding.”

In fact, she argued, because of technological advances, “You need an ambassador even more.”

She said that during her time in Yemen, for example, her Yemeni counterpart would often have already checked out American broadcast news and read the New York Times and Washington Post by 7 a.m. Because of that, she argued, countries need a qualified ambassador who can get face time to explain first-hand a country’s perspective.

“If you remove the ambassadors,” she said, “that is a political slap in the face. That’s what you do to a country you don’t like. You need someone there who can speak to them.”

She also stressed that though a country may seem “safe” enough for a bundler, you never know where a crisis could strike.

“If you have somebody who doesn’t understand diplomacy as practiced,” Bodine said, “you can make missteps you don’t need.”

For example, in 1989, she was assigned to Kuwait, a country seen then as a “quiet, resort place where nothing happened,” Bodine said. There was talk in 1989 that a “Texas banker buddy” of George H.W. Bush would be assigned to the country. Bodine said “luckily” that didn’t happen, because on Aug. 2nd, 1991, “all hell broke loose.”

That was the day Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, which led to the U.S.’s involvement in the first Gulf War. Bodine said a career ambassador was in charge then and knew what to do without missing a beat.

“You never know where the stuff is going to hit the fan,” she said, adding, “The complexity of problems is not a job for amateurs — even a talented amateur.”

But Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine, said there can be an advantage to having an appointee who is close to the president, because one can often “pick up the phone and call” directly.

He cites Henry Catto, who was friendly with George H.W. Bush, and served as Bush’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

“The British appreciated that he could pick up the phone once or twice a year” and call President Bush. “They appreciated he could go to the top.”

Pifer, though, acknowledged that others “have not been very popular.” And Catto had previous diplomatic experience, though he was not a career Foreign Service Officer. He had gotten his start in Texas Republican Party politics.

Bodine, though, downplayed the notion of a political appointee’s access to the president.

“The idea that they have a direct line to the president” doesn’t hold up, she said, because “the president doesn’t run foreign policy [on a local level] on a day-to-day basis.”

Both Bodine and Pifer argued that not having an ambassador reduces access and would also have a negative impact on morale among Foreign Service Officers, who have spent decades hoping to rise to an ambassadorship. Getting rid of a post, they said, only further reduces their chances.

‘A learning curve’ and a point of contention
Pifer said another problem with bundlers as ambassadors is “a learning curve.”

A new ambassador coming in from the political world has a lot to learn, he said. Many are “smart, sober, accomplished people heading to an important position and want to succeed.”

But many face challenges, because of their gaps in knowledge of international diplomacy. New ambassadors get a two-week crash course of sorts before being sent off, Pifer said. Usually during these sessions, the career officers are allowed to leave early, and the political appointees have to stay much longer. During one of these trainings, Pifer said he could tell which of the political appointees would succeed and which wouldn’t.

“Four of five really seemed to understand,” he said. One didn’t quite get it, and that person’s tenure “turned out to be rocky,” Pifer said.

One place where many in the foreign policy community said they are concerned the learning curve may be too steep is Japan.

Many have been critical of Obama’s pick, John Roos, a CEO of a Silicon Valley law firm. He has no experience in international diplomacy and does not speak Japanese. He did, however, raise more than $500,000 for Obama’s campaign. He has been a Democratic presidential fundraiser for more than two decades — for Walter Mondale, Bill Bradley and John Kerry.

Rothkopf, who argues — however rhetorically — for axing many of these bundler posts, does not argue for getting rid of the ambassador to Japan.

“But we sent an I.P. lawyer there,” he said. “You talk about political change and what we end up with is business as usual. The actions suggest that you don’t value the job. … When you have an ambassador, make it count.”

Rothkopf and many others interviewed for this story said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for Harvard professor Joseph Nye for the Japan post. Nye has written about the U.S.’s relationship with Japan and penned the book, “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.”

But President Obama opted for Roos, a move that angered many Clinton loyalists and raised eyebrows in the Foreign Service community.

Even though “Japan tends to be political appointees,” as Pifer said, the political appointees often had great stature. Walter Mondale, Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker are examples. Their appointments sent the message to Japan that it was respected by the United States. With the pick of Roos, the Japanese have expressed concern that the U.S. values its relationship with China more, for example.

The White House says that’s not true. “The president and John Roos have a very close personal relationship,” an administration official said. “And it's important for any nation to have an ambassador who has Washington's ear.”

Rust Deming, a 38-year Foreign Service veteran who was Mondale’s No. 2 in Tokyo and now a professor of Japan Studies Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, said he argued for Nye, but is “optimistic” Roos will be successful.

“I supported Joe Nye because of his exceptional experience and qualifications, and I was disappointed that he was not selected by the president,” Deming wrote in an e-mail for this story. “That being said, Roos is clearly more than a bundler. He is bright, energetic, curious, and very much aware of the gaps in his knowledge. He is clearly trusted by the President and will have easy access to him when the need arrives, something the Japanese and other countries attach importance to. He has a strong team of professionals in Tokyo and Washington backing him up, and he underlined this in his confirmation hearing. I think he will prove to be a successful ambassador.”

There are examples of top fundraisers who have worked out. Many cited, for one, the late Pamela Harriman, a top Bill Clinton fundraiser who later served as ambassador to France.

But “more broadly, there are many stories of political appointees who lack qualifications and do not serve our country with distinction,” Deming said. “I am sure many are true, and I would like to see more FSOs (Foreign Service Officers) get major ambassadorial posts. At the same time, ambassadors are the president's personal representatives, and he has the obligation and duty to select from the broad range of qualified Americans that extend beyond the Foreign Service. Often this is to the benefit of our country.”

And Deming, who worked for four political appointees, called Mansfield and Mondale “world-class statesmen,” who “brought to their positions qualities and experience that no Foreign Service Officer could match, and our country is the better for it.”

Change they can believe in
Still, many hoped President Obama would reduce the number of patronage picks. They have been disappointed so far, but hold out hope.

“I think that there was at least some surprise” based on what candidate Obama had said that “we might move away from this,” said Susan R. Johnson, president of AFSA. “There’s some disappointment to see that that hasn’t been the case.”

Johnson stressed it’s too early, however, to make a final judgment.

“But it’s a bit alarming so far,” Johnson said.

Money, money, money
Even though the practice of rewarding fundraisers with ambassadorships is looked down on and not employed by other Western nations, getting rid of the posts entirely isn't likely, most agree, because of the complications involved and the message it would send to allies. Most would, instead, prefer hiring the most qualified candidates for the jobs.

But while that seems simple enough, eliminating patronage picks isn’t likely to happen any time soon either because of the influence of money on the American political system.

“As long as there have been big campaign contributions, big fundraisers have gotten plum assignments,” said Georgetown professor Clyde Wilcox, who studies campaign finance. “Our political process makes it really, really difficult to assemble coalitions.”

Wilcox points out that “even during the Lincoln presidency, people who marshaled together political machines needed to be accommodated.”

Abraham Lincoln picked Simon Cameron as his first secretary of war, for example, despite allegations of cronyism, favoritism and corruption. Cameron had delivered key Pennsylvania delegates for Lincoln on the second ballot at the 1860 convention, helping the eventual 16th president win the Republican nomination. Cameron, however, proved not up to the task of Secretary of War. He was a poor administrator and handed over contracts without competitive bidding. Lincoln later shipped him off — making him minister to Russia.

“Rewarding your political supporters is as old as the republic,” Wilcox said.

Domenico Montanaro covers politics for NBC News.