The nominee to be U.S. ambassador to, say, Hungary should be able to explain what the U.S. strategic interests are in that country — right?
But Colleen Bell, a soap opera producer and President Obama's appointee to be U.S. envoy to that European country, struggled to answer that simple question during her recent confirmation hearing.
"Well, we have our strategic interests, in terms of what are our key priorities in Hungary, I think our key priorities are to improve upon, as I mentioned, the security relationship and also the law enforcement and to promote business opportunities, increase trade ..." she responded, grasping for words, to a question by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on Jan. 16. (You can see the full hearing here.)
As McCain tweeted later about the confirmation hearings that day: "You can't make this up."
President Obama used to say that he wanted to rely more on career diplomats to serve as U.S. ambassadors. But the State Department's professional association, the American Foreign Service Association or AFSA, says that he has named a higher percentage of political appointees than his predecessors. He's given plum assignments to political donors such as Bell, who have made headlines recently with embarrassing gaffes at their confirmation hearings.
The AFSA has been so worried about how ambassadors are chosen that it's drawing up a list of basic qualifications for the job: knowing, for example, what U.S. interests are in the country where they are going to work.
The report, to be released later this month, comes at a time when there's been increased scrutiny of Obama's picks.
The AFSA, which keeps track of appointments, says in his second term so far, Obama has named a record number of political appointees, more than half, as compared to other recent presidents, who tend to name donors and friends to about one-third of the ambassadorial posts.
Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, doesn't have anything against political appointees: His father was one.
However, unlike some of the campaign "bundlers" — wealthy fund-raisers who bundle contributions from a variety of donors — getting nominations in the Obama administration, Neumann's father was a professor of international relations, who had traveled and written extensively about the Middle East before serving as ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
"He was an enormously competent appointee who served four presidents, three embassies and two parties, which is kind of unusual," Neumann says of his father. The two men used to joke that they "came into the foreign service together" — his father at the top and Neumann at the bottom.
So Neumann, who like his father served as ambassador to Afghanistan, tries to take an even-handed approach, saying all ambassadors, whether political appointees or career diplomats, need to be vetted properly.
"There is a law, which both parties ignore, about ambassadors needing to be qualified: the Foreign Service Act of 1980," Neumann points out. "People still get through even if they are manifestly not qualified."
There have been some particularly tough confirmation hearings lately, though. The same day McCain quizzed Bell, the Arizona senator was also perplexed when the nominee to become ambassador to Norway, hotel executive George Tsunis, described a party in that country's ruling coalition as "a fringe element." And then there was the recent grilling of Obama's pick for ambassador to Argentina.
At times it's a good idea to have someone with the president's ear out in key countries around the world. But Robert Silverman, president of the AFSA, says most other major powers don't do things this way.
"They send us career professional diplomats as ambassadors," he says, suggesting that "those countries know that career professionals are the people most likely to further their country's interests in the United States. It is a simple matter of sending the right people to the right jobs."
That's why he asked a group of former ambassadors — five political appointees and five career diplomats — to draw up the soon-to-be published list of the basic qualifications for U.S. ambassadors.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
President Obama used to say he wanted more career diplomats to serve as ambassadors overseas. But the State Department's professional association says that so far, he's named a higher percentage of political appointees than his predecessors. That means plum assignments for political donors. And several of his appointees have had embarrassing moments at their confirmation hearings.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Former Ambassador Ronald Neumann doesn't have anything against political appointees.
RONALD NEUMANN: My father was a political appointee.
KELEMEN: But unlike some of the donors getting jobs overseas now in the Obama administration, Neumann says his father was a professor of international relations who had traveled and written extensively about the Middle East, before serving as ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
NEUMANN: He was an enormously competent appointee who served four presidents, three embassies and two parties, which is kind of unusual. But the...
KELEMEN: So he didn't come up through the Foreign Service, as you did.
NEUMANN: No. No. And we used to joke that we came into the Foreign Service together - he at the top and I at the bottom.
KELEMEN: So Neumann, who, like his father served as ambassador to Afghanistan, tries to take an even handed approach. He says all ambassadors - whether political nominees or career diplomats - need to be held up to scrutiny.
NEUMANN: There's a law which both parties ignore about ambassadors needing to be qualified - the Foreign Service Act of 1980. And people still get through even if they're manifestly not qualified.
KELEMEN: There have been some tough confirmation hearings lately, though. The Obama administration's choice to be ambassador to Hungary, soap opera producer Colleen Bell, had a tough time explaining what U.S. interests are in Budapest. It was a question from Senator John McCain of Arizona, who also sounded perplexed when the nominee to become the ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, called a party in that country's ruling coalition a fringe element.
GEORGE TSUNIS: Norway has been very quick to denounce them. We're going to continue to work with Norway to make sure...
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The government has denounced them? The coalition government - they're part of the coalition of the government.
TSUNIS: I would say that - you know what - I stand corrected.
KELEMEN: McCain has tweeted articles are about his exchange, saying: You can't make this up. He ended his questions with a note of irony.
MCCAIN: I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.
KELEMEN: The professional association for career diplomats keeps records on how many ambassador postings go to political appointees.
BOB SILVERMAN: After one year in the second term of the Obama administration, there are record numbers of political appointees. That's a matter of record.
KELEMEN: The president of the American Foreign Service Association, Bob Silverman, says more than half of the nominees so far in this second term are political. Recent presidents have given about a third of the postings to political appointees. At times, it's a good idea to have someone with the president's ear out in key countries around the world. But Silverman says most major powers don't do things that way.
SILVERMAN: They send U.S. career professional diplomats as ambassadors. And you might ask why they do so. And it's quite clear that those countries know that career professionals are the people most likely to further their country's interests in the United States. It's a simple matter of sending the right people to the right jobs.
KELEMEN: The American Foreign Service Association is so worried about the trends in Washington these days, that it's drawing up a list of qualifications that it believes any ambassador should have to represent America abroad. And it hopes congress and the White House will take note.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.