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U.S. Ambassadorships and Obama's Big Campaign Donors

by Magnifico Fri Feb 20th, 2009 at 04:36:53 PM EST

For all the money small donors brought to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, I doubt a small donor's name will ever be floated for an ambassadorship. Small money donors are not rewarded with access or ambassadorships.

The Washington Post is reporting Louis Susman, a "mega-fundraiser" for Obama, may get "primo" ambassador job. Susman, "who gave and bundled some major bucks" for Obama's campaign is likely to be nominated as the next U.S Ambassador to the United Kingdom, pending the outcome of "negotiations".

What makes Susman qualified to represent the United States to one of America's closest allies? First, he raises gobs of money for Democratic candidates! Last year alone, he contributed $118,187 to 36 different candidates or political action committees.

In 2004, Susman helped raise $247 million for John Kerry. "Susman was an early backer of Obama's -- getting on board even before Obama declared his candidacy in early 2007 -- and was one of the campaign's biggest bundlers."

Second, Susman helped contribute to the global economic financial crisis! Up until he retired on February 1, 2009, Susman was vice chairman of Citigroup Global Markets.

According to ABC News, Citigroup lost $8 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008 while Citigroup took in $45 billion in bailout money from U.S. taxpayers (aka small donors). But that's okay, because "Susman raised $300,000 for Obama's inaugural committee."

Last month, as the president-elect, Obama said he would still appoint big donors to ambassadorships. As Bloomberg News reported, Obama said:

"There probably will be some" political appointees serving abroad, Obama said at a news conference yesterday. "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."

While this isn't a new practice, George W. Bush, for example, rewarded Sam Fox, a major Republican fundraiser, with the ambassadorship to Belgium after Fox donated $50,000 to Swift Boat Veterans For Truth in 2004, I think it is a sad slap in the face of American taxpayers who have to bailout Citigroup and a tin ear to small donors who contributed to a campaign of change that promised to limit the influence of money in politics.

In June 2007, Obama said:

"I refuse to accept the Washington logic that you cannot find thousands of talented, patriotic Americans willing to devote a few years to their country without the promise of a lucrative lobbying job after they're done," Obama said.

So what about the reverse? Can a patriotic American raise millions of dollars for a presidential campaign without the "promise of a lucrative" ambassadorship after they're done? What about the millions of dollars raised by the small contributions donors to the Obama campaign? Where are their ambassadorship rewards?

Obama has more than 170 ambassadorships open to nominate truly qualified men and women to represent the country. Does Obama think the change we voted for last November means continuing to have American democracy being represented by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans?

I think that a wealthy, well-connected banker, such as Susman, who has been part of the collapse of the financial system of the entire world is a horrible choice to represent the United States of America.

In 1997, George Kennan, a retired U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and career officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, challenged America's "Diplomacy Without Diplomats?" in Foreign Affairs. According to Keenan:

Heading the diplomatic mission is always the chief of mission, normally the ambassador or, in his absence, the charge d'affaires. The principal concern that the ambassador, as the personal representative of the president, must have at heart is of course the promotion of the national interest of the United States.

Is it in the national interest of the United States to hand out ambassadorships as spoils of a hard fought political campaign? No. Is American diplomancy best served by having Susman in Britain? No.

What American foreign policy needs demand is ambassadors be appointed based on their diplomatic merit and achievement. We need the best diplomats representing us, not political moneymen. Keenan wrote:

There is, first, the perennial resistance of the Washington bureaucracy to the creation or operation of any civilian government institution not fully amenable to its influence, and its jealousy of rivals that might share in its privileges and prestige abroad. Then there is the widespread ignorance, throughout the government and beyond, of the traditional institutions of diplomacy, along with a sweeping unawareness of even the reasons why a professional diplomatic and consular apparatus for representation of the U.S. government abroad should exist at all. These deficiencies of knowledge and understanding affect the press and other media no less than they do wide circles of the government.

Finally, there are the strong egalitarian tendencies in contemporary American society, tendencies that prefer a relatively low level of uniformity -- if necessary, even mediocrity -- to any hierarchical differentiation that suggests one person might be better than another for any particular government job. And on top of this, Americans persist in the notion that the diplomatic service is dominated by effete snobs from monied and socially distinguished backgrounds, serving in places where there ought to be only "real Americans" attached exclusively to popular standards and scorning diplomatic niceties and conventions.

I think President Obama, who attracted the support of notable foreign policy Democrats, such as Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden, should do better in his ambassadorial nominations.

I think Obama, who majored in international relations at Columbia University, should know that U.S. diplomacy and thus the American democracy would be better served by having professional diplomats as ambassadors representing the nation's image and best interests. Last year in Berlin, Obama said:

True partnership and true progress requires constant work and sustained sacrifice. They require sharing the burdens of development and diplomacy; of progress and peace. They require allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.

That is why America cannot turn inward. That is why Europe cannot turn inward. America has no better partner than Europe. Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe as strong as the one that bound us across the Atlantic. Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

As small donors for change to Obama campaign and as American taxpayers, I believe we should demand the best diplomats as ambassadors and not reward the wealthy elite. For this is not building a new bridge across the globe, but rather such appointments continue to use the old bridge of political spoils. I think the president does not signal to the nations of the world he values a democracy where merit matters more than wealth if he appoints wealth over merit to represent the United States. I believe America does not signal its respect to another nations by sending a campaign supporter to represent us.

There is still time for President Obama to change course on his ambassadorial nominees. As the story in the Post notes, negotiations are still in the air.

Keenan quoted Jules Cambon, a former French diplomat, who noted in 1925 that:

Democracy will always have ambassadors and ministers; the question is whether it will have diplomats.

Will American democracy have diplomats as ambassadors? Are ambassadorships tacitly for sale to the highest campaign fund raiser?


Cross-posted from Docudharma.

Could someone explain how ambassadors are selected in European nations?
by Magnifico on Fri Feb 20th, 2009 at 04:38:04 PM EST
I think it's somewhere along the right school/right family/right university plus long term career in the Foreign service.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Feb 20th, 2009 at 05:00:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dependent on country.

No such thing as right school or right university in Germany. I don't know what are the selection criteria here, but that for sure doesn't matter. Will be some bureaucratic decision as in other non-political offices.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Fri Feb 20th, 2009 at 05:10:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I couldn't agree more with your message. Too often, important diplomatic posts go to presidential and party favorites based on campaign contributions.

Generally, the big European postings are reserved for high powered (wealthy and influential) political appointees while a smattering of lesser postings also end up headed by not so wealthy or influential political appointees.  Really important postings in much less desirable locations (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan), and those in poorer countries generally go to career diplomatic officers.  As with anything, there are exceptions.

Despite the continuation of the spoils system inherent in American politics, I have met some excellent political appointee ambassadors and some lousy ones. Likewise, not all career diplomats appointed  ambassadors make good ones.

 I think what galls me most of all is that in America, except in a minority of cases, one has to be wealthy to become influential. All of the political appointee ambassadors I've met have been wealthy.  The money that came with the job was of little importance to them and some times the people that have to work for them (the professional diplomatic staff) are also of little importance.  In one case, I recall, the ambassador even paid for his own armored car and staff.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Fri Feb 20th, 2009 at 10:53:42 PM EST
Why do rich people want ambassador posts, if they even pay for their staff? Couldn't they make holidays in the foreign country without ambassadorship?

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 11:11:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Your guess is as good as mine, and the reasons probably vary with the person.  For some I think it may have something to do with prestige and adding the title to their collection of life accomplishments. "Uncle Henry was ambassador to the UK, or knighted", etc, etc.  Although in this case it has less to do with having accomplished something than having the money/power to purchase it. But I would guess they don't see it that way.  Others may genuinely have a desire to serve their country, party or president, or just want to accomplish specific goals. I've never met an ambassador who didn't appear  concerned, strongly motivated, and hard working. Unfortunately, these factors alone don't guarantee excellence in performance.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 01:16:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What does excellence of performance consist of? Does this question even make sense if put in a general way? Or is excellence purely a match between the person and the situation? Is diplomacy more an art than a science?

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire
by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Sun Feb 22nd, 2009 at 02:33:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think excellence of performance does mean different things almost too numerous and situationally dependent to list.  The likelihood of an excellent outcome is more than just a match between the person and the situation. But the likelihood of a positive performance is something that those selecting future ambassadors should consider.

Career diplomats who are lucky enough to be selected for ambassador positions serve in only one such post.  Exceptional ones get a second, usually consecutive, posting and only rarely is one chosen for more than two.  A good example of such rarity is Ryan Crocker, US Ambassador to Iraq.  He was also ambassador to Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. A true expert on the Middle East. What makes him different from all the others?  You will note in the Wiki article that he makes the following statement about the role of an ambassador:

Upon being asked about changing administrations and changes within administrations impact the job of a diplomat by Whitman College magazine, Crocker gave the following reply[2]:

Each administration has its own priorities and style. The job of the career foreign service officer is to offer his best advice as policy is formulated and then to implement that policy. Our elected leaders need to have confidence that we will carry out policies to the best of our ability.

In other words, he/she offers his/her best advice and even if that advice is ignored (as it was by Bush on ging into Iraq) he/she still carries out the policies of the elected official to the best of his/her ability. One could criticize the acceptance of a position under such restraints, but given the circumstances of the career, you're either a player or you're not.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Feb 22nd, 2009 at 10:00:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wish I could rate reply that a 5.

The only thing I have to go on (thus far) is Kiesling's Diplomacy Lessons, where he makes one distinction I've found useful: the organizational pitfall of having a bureaucratic yes-man (which is likely done simply because it's the path of least resistance) and those with the background, intellectual weight, and character to dissent. Which isn't just a state department problem, yet I've seen people out there (Foreign Affairs magazine is a prime offender), supposed foreign relations heavyweights, doing nothing but reiterating what had become received wisdom. Which we've seen time and again to be flawed.

It must be an entirely different matter on the ground out there, I wouldn't know. What I would like to see from State is a diplomacy which is culturally/politically informed and client oriented (I'll have to diary my thinking on that particular choice).

Right now, I'm reading a report on the formation of the Afghan constitution from December 2003. In it, the current problems we see there were predicted. Yet, we (again) made the choice at the time, to follow our short-term ends by backing a process and a document whose final version differed greatly from the public draft and was cobbed together in secret. Karzai wanted power vested in him, and he got it, even though it is well known that authoritarian regimes have vital weaknesses which have made themselves manifest since.

I see some diaries in my future.

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Sun Feb 22nd, 2009 at 11:23:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I look forward to your future diaries.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Feb 22nd, 2009 at 12:14:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course you know who now heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? None other than my own Senator John Kerry.

It was widespread practice of the Bush administraion to make political appointments to ambassadorial posts. In Eastern Europe, they became something of a joke. Evidently an ambassador sent a written request to the Polish (I think it was) foreign ministry - along with a pre-crafted reply it was hoped the minister would sign and return.

Nice catch on the Kennan. John Brady Kiesling in Diplomacy Lessons makes the same point about the direction emanating from the Washington bureaucracy, who saw "the big picture." Who were more devoted to their careers than anything else. Who acted more like the US Chamber of Commerce than representing even the realpolitical interests of the US, never mind any kind of humane, ethical policy. The Kiesling is a decent read. I recommend it.

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Fri Feb 20th, 2009 at 11:20:09 PM EST
That's not change I can believe in!

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill
by r------ on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 12:58:58 PM EST
All you peoples are completely missing the dot, uhhh boat, uhhh well, you've all missed it.

Ambassadorshipsboughtappointments are highly sought after because:

  *  You can eat in all the best restaurants on the gubmint dole.
  *  You can write off virtually everything because you're always doing ambassadoring.
  *  You can add a third dementian to your resume, embossed.
  *  You can write off your wife's gowns, especially if she's the ambassador.
  *  When life gets boring being a Master of the Universe, you can read secret cables.
  *  You can bet on sports outcomes using encrypted satellite phones.
  *  AND, you can throw killer parties with all the babes you wanted to meet invited, especially if they're up for an Oscar.
  *  Only rarely do you get a dressing down from a Putin or a Sarkocnit or a Chinese guy, and even then you have the full weight and power of the world's best spinmeisters on your side.
  *  not that it's really important, but you get gifts of all the best things from the country you're busy amb*ass*adoring, and the really good ones you get to keep (if your lawyer is tops.)

I've been "angling" (that's a joke with a nod to Mr. Angleton) for the Maldives myself.  I believe i can best represent President Obama in a land where it's easy to tan, even if the locals are already tan.  Actually i believe i've brown-nosed the right people, i will represent you all correctly, and i don't see what you're getting in such a snit about.

Have you no allowance for shame?

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 01:40:34 PM EST
The diplomatic and social skills required to raise the millions of dollars that are attributed to Susman and others like him, all by personally convincing thousands of powerful peers to fork over that kind of money, is really rare and quite meritorious.  It's exactly the skill set needed to be both a forceful negotiator as well as a relationship builder.  Thumbs up for Susman in the UK!
by santiago on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 11:31:05 PM EST
Will he be coming here expecting a cash handout for the US?

I think you may be overestimating the skills required. Because what's interesting is just how cheap politicians are in the US.

$300,000 gets you $8bn. Ka-ching! With that kind of ROI, it's not going to be hard to get cash out of anyone who can count their fingers.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Feb 22nd, 2009 at 07:12:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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