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Ambassador Oversight Act aims for more qualified US diplomats abroad

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Ambassador Oversight Act aims for more qualified US diplomats abroad
Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, supports a bill that aims to weed out unqualified political appointees from serving as US ambassadors abroad. (Photo courtesy of AAD)

Back in 2009, then-Ambassador Cynthia Stroum was so unpopular with her own staff at the US Embassy in Luxembourg that several embassy officials requested transfers to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet Stroum—a wealthy Seattle venture capitalist who had given $500,000 to President Obama’s election campaign—quit before the State Department issued a scathing report about her aggressive, some said bullying, management style.

And in 2014, campaign donor Colleen Bell, Obama’s pick as US ambassador to Hungary, couldn’t answer even basic questions about that country when her nomination came up before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. No surprise, considering her expertise on the set of The Bold and the Beautiful. Yet the TV soap opera executive had donated more than $2.1 million to Obama’s re-election campaign.

Even worse, Obama’s nominee for US ambassador to Norway, Greek-American hotel magnate George Tsunis, admitted he had never been to that country, wasn’t aware it was a constitutional monarchy and incorrectly labeled one of Norway’s ruling political parties a hate-spewing “fringe element”—earning a sharp rebuke from the late Sen. John McCain.

Tsunis never did make it to Oslo. But last month, the man who had given $988,550 for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid and eight years later generously donated to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was sworn in as the new US envoy to Greece.

“That by itself tells you why we need quality checks when it comes to ambassadors,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the Washington-based American Academy of Diplomacy.

Neumann, a former US ambassador to Algeria (1994-97), Bahrain (2001-04) and Afghanistan (2005-07), is an ardent supporter of the Ambassador Oversight and Transparency Act, which is co-sponsored by two Senate Democrats, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Ambassadorships-for-cash a bipartisan problem

Among other things, the bill would require the president to detail how a nominee’s language skills, foreign policy expertise and experience have prepared that nominee to effectively lead US diplomatic efforts in the specific country in which he or she has been nominated to serve. It would also require increased disclosures of a nominee’s contributions to political campaigns.

“Our ambassadors are critical to building and maintaining the relationships we need to protect not only our own safety and security, but that of our allies around the world,” Kaine said in a prepared statement. “While we have had excellent ambassadors from outside the Foreign Service, I remain concerned by the growing trend of presidents nominating campaign donors who may not have the expertise necessary for these positions.”

About 70% of US embassies around the world are generally headed by career diplomats; the remaining 30% of ambassadors are political appointees. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Kaine added: “Requiring presidents to justify their nominations and be more transparent about a nominee’s political campaign contributions will ensure that the men and women of the State Department are led by ambassadors of outstanding integrity and ability.”

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Require non-career nominees to better demonstrate their competence. This includes the nominee’s language skills and extent of knowledge and understanding of the history, culture, economics, and politics of the country where their potential post is located.
  • Increase transparency in financial disclosure. Current law requires nominees to disclose all political campaign contributions they and their family members have made in the past four years. This legislation would increase that disclosure period to 10 years and require them to also report funds they have “bundled” or collected from other donors.
  • Increase oversight of non-career ambassadors. Specifically, this legislation would require all U.S. citizen embassy staff to complete an anonymous survey that assesses the leadership of the post’s ambassador, and authorize the Foreign Service to refer performance deficiencies to Office of the Inspector General.

Maintaining the 70-30 ratio

Neumann, whose 400-member nonprofit organization of former senior diplomats is strictly nonpartisan, said that historically, career diplomats have accounted for 70% of all ambassadors, with political appointees making up the remaining 30%.

The ratio of appointees took a sharp dip during the Carter administration and reached a peak under Donald Trump—44% to be exact, according to the American Foreign Service Association.

Politico, quoting the Guardian, reported that “among ambassadors serving in 10 of the choicest cities in Europe and the Caribbean, the average amount raised per posting in the last election was $1.79 million.”

Interestingly, for the first 100 years or so of American independence, there were no career diplomats. Among notable political appointees overseas: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

A pedestrian plaza in Luxembourg, a plum assignment for big donors to presidential campaigns. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“There have been non-career ambassadors who were very good, and others who were positively an embarrassment to the United States,” Neumann said. “And it’s not just one party or another. During the Obama administration, at least three ambassadors resigned before their inspection reports were made public because they were so bad.”

No wonder that political appointees almost never serve in critical posts such as Afghanistan; generally, they get sent to cushy places like the Bahamas or Switzerland. Neumann said he’s not opposed to political appointees in itself, but in holding them to higher levels of scrutiny—and not approving their nominations only because they gave money to someone’s election campaign.

“Every administration seems to have rewarded campaign donors by giving out ambassadorships. It’s the one real leftover of the spoils system before we got civil service reform [under President Theodore Roosevelt],” he said. “Every so often, people get serious and try to reform the system—and usually they fail.”

Yet without any GOP backing, the bill has little chance of passage in a Senate split 50-50 between both parties.

Both Democrats and Republicans, Neumann said, “are aware that at some time in the future, they could be a nominee, or their party could be in power and they’ll need to reward people, so they’re not keen to give that perk away.”

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