Ambassador picks show not a lot of change

Posts going to political supporters

By Matthew Lee
Associated Press / May 29, 2009
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WASHINGTON - President Obama pledged to bring change to Washington, but he is continuing one of the capital's most entrenched traditions: rewarding political supporters with ambassadorships.

After suggesting he would try to reduce the number of political appointees and boost the number of career diplomats serving as American envoys abroad, his early record is mixed. Obama's first picks are drawn heavily from political and fund-raising circles, raising concerns about inexperience and patronage.

His selections include a retired general, a Republican governor, campaign advisers, lawyers, and several generous donors to the 2008 campaigns of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton - among them two wealthy investment bankers and a California entertainment executive who together are responsible for more than $1 million in campaign contributions.

Although analysts stress it is too soon to judge the administration's ambassadorial appointments - there are currently 173 ambassador-level positions in the State Department - so far only five of Obama's 18 nominated or confirmed envoys are career diplomats.

The move has generated angst among some foreign service veterans who worry about career prospects and anxiety in some foreign capitals, where the selection of a political appointee is seen as a barometer of how seriously the United States takes its bilateral relations. Career diplomats say the minimum requirements for an ambassador are speaking the language of the country, knowledge of that nation and its neighbors, and at least some foreign policy experience. Without such qualifications, US policy and influence can suffer.

On Wednesday Obama nominated 12 ambassadors, only four of whom are career diplomats. The career diplomats were nominated for posts in Brazil, Iceland, Kosovo, and Sri Lanka. If confirmed, the eight political appointees will serve in Argentina, Britain, Denmark, France, Japan, India, the Vatican, and the African Union.

John Roos, the nominee for Japan, is a California technology lawyer and campaign fund-raiser who collected at least $500,000 for Obama's campaign. Louis Susman, who would serve in Britain, is a former Citigroup vice president from Chicago who raised at least $100,000 as an Obama bundler. He also contributed $50,000 for Obama's inauguration. Charles Rivkin, the nominee for France, is a former financial analyst at Salomon Brothers who runs a California entertainment company and who raised more than $500,000 for Obama. And Laurie Fulton, picked for Denmark, is a corporate lawyer in Washington who raised between $100,000 to $200,000 for Obama.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs defended Obama's choices, describing them as "a group of committed individuals and proven professionals."

But some diplomatic specialists worry that if the pattern of politically driven selections continue, they could prove disheartening.

"There have been some very distinguished noncareer appointees, but the problem is you also have some very undistinguished noncareer appointees," said Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. "Ambassadorships are not there as political favors."

Neumann, a retired three-time ambassador, cowrote a letter to Obama and GOP presidential candidate John McCain last year with another former high-ranking US diplomat, Thomas Pickering, urging them to reduce the number of political appointees from the traditional level of about 30 percent to 10 percent.

The American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents US diplomats, has argued similar points. "The United States should not continue to be the only country that routinely appoints unqualified people," said Steve Kashkett, the association's vice president.

Before his inauguration, Obama told reporters his general inclination was to have career foreign service officers in critical ambassadorial posts "wherever possible," in part to help recruit young people into the State Department.

At the same time, he said it would be disingenuous for him to suggest he wouldn't make any political appointments.

Obama has said he will nominate Pittsburgh Steelers owner Daniel Rooney as ambassador to Ireland. Rooney was not a contributor but campaigned heavily for Obama in Pennsylvania.