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Harvard Crimson on Political Appointee Ambassadors

Harvard Crimson

The University Daily Since 1873 Updated: Wednesday, April 26, 2006 6:10 PM

America’s Shaky Ambassadors

Published On Wednesday, April 26, 2006 1:14 AM

Meet Jim Oberwetter, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, America’s largest
oil supplier and a key strategic partner in the war on terror. Mr.
Oberwetter had never set foot in the desert kingdom before he became
Ambassador two years ago. His resume boasts a stint as chairman of the
American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of over 400 oil
and gas interests in Washington D.C., and work lobbying for the Dallas
Chamber of Commerce, but no knowledge of Arabic. More importantly
perhaps, his former employer, Hunt Consolidated Oil, gave $250,000 to
Bush’s reelection campaign. Mr. Oberwetter is, in short, a typical
American ambassador.

Across the Atlantic, Britain’s last American representative was William
S. Farish, millionaire horse breeder and Bush family friend, perhaps as
famous for gifting Bush Senior the White House dog, Millie, as for
anything else. Reputedly shy by nature, Farish decided not to hold press
conferences for the year preceding the Iraq War and further condemned
America’s already abysmal reputation in the British press by refusing to
answer journalists’ phone calls. In fact the British public noticed
little difference when he left thirteen months ahead of schedule,
leaving America’s embassy to its closest ally leaderless for a year. He
was succeeded in 2004 by Robert Holmes Tuttle, owner of the Beverly
Hills based Tuttle-Click Automotive Group, and contributor of $198,725
to GOP causes over the last presidential term. Like Oberwetter, neither
Farish nor Tuttle had previous diplomatic experience.

Such stories mark a broader trend of ambassadors appointed for
patronage, not skills. From the Floridian property developer serving as
Ambassador to Portugal to the Ohio industrialist turned Ambassador to
Germany—who apparently compensated for his lack of German language
skills with a $561,995 donation to the GOP—experience is no longer a
prerequisite for appointment. Instead, fundraising, campaigning, and
lobbying ability at home now determine who will represent America in
foreign lands.

It wasn’t always this way. The ambassadorship to the United Kingdom was
once seen as a breeding ground for national leaders—five ambassadors
went on to the Presidency, four to the Vice Presidency, and ten to serve
as Secretaries of State. Benjamin Franklin used his diplomatic posting
to France to secure support in the War of Independence. Thomas Jefferson
honed his political skills in dealings with the French revolutionary
governments while posted there.

Of course, defenders of our current batch of ambassadors rightly point
out that this administration was not the first to put the suitcase of
cash before the diplomatic caché. Presidential scholars suggest the
shift came last century, when Franklin Roosevelt appointed an especially
generous donor, Joseph Kennedy, as his Ambassador to Britain. Since then
it has all been downhill. President Nixon is reputed to have once told
his Chief of Staff that “anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at
least give $250,000.” In 1980, Congress even felt the need to legislate
that campaign contributions may not influence ambassador selection.

That law clearly hasn’t worried the present administration. Four-fifths
of America’s current ambassadors to European Union nations gave
donations to Republican campaigns in the last election cycle. Latvia has
the honor of hosting a former Bush ‘super ranger’—someone who raised
more than $300,000 for the 2004 campaign. In all, Bush’s first 35
political appointees to the diplomatic corps gave an average of $141,110
to GOP campaigns between 1999-2000.

This would be almost comical, if it were not for the dire effects that
bad ambassadors can have. America’s war on terror depends on winning the
hearts and minds of the world’s people as much as it depends on any
military campaign. Unfortunately, a recent survey from the Pew Research
Center suggests that America is losing the public relations war. The
report stated that 70% of global respondents agreed it was “good for the
US to feel vulnerable after the attacks [of September 11],” 80% of
Middle-Eastern respondents felt that “US policy caused September 11,”
and a majority of Pakistani citizens expressed confidence that bin Laden
would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

This administration has acknowledged the danger of such negative
perceptions, appointing former Bush aide Karen Hughes as Undersecretary
of State for Public Diplomacy with the explicit mission of improving
America’s image abroad. Yet it is the face on the ground that is most
visible. And in the United Kingdom, that face now happens to be one of a
Beverly Hills car dealer.

America’s predilection for lousy ambassadors also has serious practical
consequences. The Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, like any other ambassador,
is charged with managing America’s trade relationships, maintaining
strong ties with the government, and coordinating responses to terrorist
threats. And contrary to popular myth, these are not duties that can, or
should, be undertaken by lower level, if more experienced, bureaucrats
in the embassy. When prime ministers, journalists and police chiefs
communicate with an American embassy they want to speak to the person in
charge because they know that only one person is directly accountable to
the President. And in Saudi Arabia right now that person is a Texan oil
lobbyist on sabbatical.

John F. Kennedy ’40, in the fourth 1960 Presidential debate, pledged to
“throughout the world appoint the best people we can get, ambassadors
who can speak the language, not merely people who made a political
contribution.” Today, in an age of globalization and terrorism, the need
is greater than ever. That means having an ambassador to Saudi Arabia
who can speak Arabic and explain America’s actions in a hostile region.
It means having an ambassador to the United Kingdom who will engage a
cynical British public in open debate. More than anything it means
taking seriously once more how we select the bearers of the American
eagle abroad.

Lewis Bollard ’09 lives in Grays Hall.
Reader Comments
There are 1 comments for this article. | Show/hide comments | Post a comment

RE: America’s Shaky Ambassadors
Your article notes what President Kennedy "said" in the Presidential
Debates. But how about what he actually DID when he made his own
appointments? The fact remains that Democrats have been no better than
Republicans in this regard, and as your article notes it was a Democrat
president who arguably started this silly tradition with the appointment
of Kennedy's own father to the Court of St. James. To the extent the
author has identified a legitimate problem, this problem will NOT be
fixed until there is bipartisan legislation that removes from every
President the ability to make presidential appointments to such
important positions. After all, exactly what is wrong with requiring
that EVERY Ambassador be a career foreign service officer? To those who
argue that these ambassadors may not be sufficiently supportive of the
President's policies, I remind them that the Secretary of State will
continue to be a Presidential appointment and the Secretary of State can
remove ANY foreign service officer from any position for any reason.

Posted by Barry K. Simmons, Foreign Service Officer | 4/26/2006 1:15:06 PM
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