It’s been a tough few weeks for President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees. For three prominent campaign fundraisers and one former U.S. senator nominated to diplomatic posts, the confirmation process has revealed deficiencies in their knowledge of the countries where they intend to serve. Here are the roughest moments faced by Obama’s nominees (so far).
* Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), U.S. ambassador to China
During his Jan. 28 confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to China -- a nation with which the United States has a particularly complex relationship -- the six-term senator did himself no favors when he declared that he is “no real expert on China” in response to a question from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
SEN. JOHNSON: So what do you think would motivate them to initiate the air defense identification zone? How does that further that goal?
SEN. BAUCUS: Senator, I'm no real expert on China, but it's my strong belief that Chinese people are just as proud as we Americans are proud. And I think unfortunately the Chinese leadership is taking advantage of that pride to test America in the South China Sea or the East China Sea. And it means we've got to stand up. It's the old thing in life, being fair but firm. Be fair to understand, shows you can work with people, they can trust you. But firm, uh uh, we're not going to be taken advantage of. And that is vitally important here for the United States, in my judgment.
STATUS: Despite his admitted lack of expertise, Baucus was confirmed on Feb. 6.
* Noah Mamet, U.S. ambassador to Argentina nominee
Pro tip: When the president nominates you to be an ambassador to a country you’ve never visited, book a trip before the confirmation hearing.
Under questioning from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Feb. 6, Mamet acknowledged that he has not, in fact, ever been to the country where he plans to serve as America’s top diplomat.
SEN. RUBIO: Yeah, I just want to take off on that point and say that you stated it accurately, Mr. Chairman. And here's what I would add. Mr. Mamet, have you been to Argentina?
MR. MAMET: Senator, I haven't had the opportunity yet to be there. I've traveled pretty extensively around the world, but I haven't yet had a chance.
Mamet raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign.
STATUS: Not yet confirmed.
* George Tsunis, U.S. ambassador to Norway nominee
How do you know if your confirmation hearing is not going so well? When you find yourself thanking a senator from the opposing party for the “save” when you are clearly struggling to answer his question. That’s exactly what Tsunis, CEO of Chartwell Hotels and a top Obama bundler who raised nearly $1 million for the president’s reelection campaign, did during his Jan. 16 confirmation hearing when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) let him off the hook with a followup question (you can watch the cringe-inducing exchange beginning at the 0:40 mark in the video above). And it got worse from there.
When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Tsunis about Norway’s domestic politics, it turned downright ugly.
SEN. MCCAIN: Great answer. Mr. Tsunis, following last year's parliamentary elections, Norway's conservative party now had a center- right coalition, as you know, that will include the anti-immigration party called the Progress Party. What do you think the appeal of the Progress Party was to the Norwegian voters?
MR. TSUNIS: Thank you, Senator. It's a very seminal question. Generally Norway has, and is very proud of, being a very open, transparent, democratic parliamentary government. One of the by- products of being such an open society and placing such a value on free speech is that you get some fringe elements that have a microphone, that spew their hatred. And although I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them, we're going to continue to work with Norway to make sure --
SEN. MCCAIN: The government has denounced them? The coalition government -- they're part of the coalition of the government.
MR. TSUNIS: Well, I would say -- you know, what? I stand -- I stand corrected.
SEN. MCCAIN: I seriously --
MR. TSUNIS: The -- I stand corrected and would like to leave my answer at they are -- it's a very, very open society and that most Norwegians -- the overwhelming amount of Norwegians and the overwhelming amount of people in parliament don't feel the same way.
SEN. MCCAIN: I have no more questions for this incredibly, highly qualified group of nominees.
STATUS: Tsunis has yet to be confirmed.
* Colleen Bell, U.S. ambassador to Hungary nominee
How does a Hollywood soap opera producer become the nominee to lead the United States’ embassy in Budapest? She raises more than a half million dollars for President Obama.
Bell had the pleasure of sharing her Jan. 16 confirmation hearing with Tsunis, who was not the only nominee to enjoy a pummeling at the hands of McCain that day.
In the exchange below, McCain struggles to get direct answers to his questions on the American relationship with Hungary.
SEN. MCCAIN: Ms. Bell, do you think that U.S.-Hungarian relations are in a good place?
MS. BELL: Senator, thank you very much for this important question. I think that there are aspects of our bilateral relationship that are -- that are very strong. We do have a strong military cooperation. Law enforcement cooperation is also very strong. Hungary works on a variety of different peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and long-term peacekeeping mission in the Balkans. And also, they have provided troops to Afghanistan and continue to do so.
That being said, I do think that there is opportunity to improve the bilateral relationship. I think that that's -- there are a variety of ways of doing so and are not necessarily all mutually exclusive. If confirmed, I look --
SEN. MCCAIN: Great. For example?
MS. BELL: For example, to work to build the military cooperation that we do have at this point and also promote business opportunities for U.S. companies and also continue to work these governance issues, discuss these governance issues.
SEN. MCCAIN: So what would you be doing differently from your predecessor, who obviously had very rocky relations with the present government?
MS. BELL: If confirmed, I look forward to working with the broad range of society --
SEN. MCCAIN: My question was, what would you do differently?
MS. BELL: Senator, in terms of what I would do differently from my predecessor, Kounalakis --
SEN. MCCAIN: That's the question.
MS. BELL: Well, what I would like to do when -- if confirmed, I would like to work towards engaging civil society in a deeper -- in a deeper --
SEN. MCCAIN: Obviously, you don't want to answer my question. Do you think democracy is under threat in Hungary?
MS. BELL: I think that there are definite -- there are absolutely signs of an erosion of checks and balances in Hungary. I do think that I think that there is a centralization of executive authority that has taken place. I do think that the media freedoms are compromised.
SEN. MCCAIN: Do you think are -- what are our strategic interests in Hungary?
MS. BELL: 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 --
SEN. MCCAIN: I'd like to ask again what our strategic interests in Hungary are.
MS. BELL: Our strategic interests are to work collaboratively as NATO allies, to work to promote and protect the security, both -- for both countries and for -- and for the world, to continue working together on the cause of human rights around the world, to build that side of our relationship while also maintaining and pursuing some difficult conversations that might be necessary in the coming years.
STATUS: Bell is still awaiting confirmation.
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