Association’s new guidelines for ambassadors don’t have any teeth

Al Kamen
Columnist February 20

The cringe-inducing performances in recent weeks by some of President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees have raised expectations that the American Foreign Service Association will weigh in next week with some revolutionary guidelines to revamp the nomination process.

Don’t count on it. Thoughtful, yes. Explosive, hardly. Our sense of the guidelines, which AFSA began working on last summer, is that they’re fairly anodyne suggestions, not a call for stricter criteria.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

An early draft listed a handful of general criteria to evaluate ambassador wannabes: “Leadership, character and proven interpersonal skills.” “Understanding of high level policy.” “U.S. interests and values.” Management skills. And knowing something about foreign affairs in general and the relevant country in particular. (Putting that one last apparently bothered some board members.)

“What we would like is that everyone appointed to these posts meet the same standard of qualifications, and that includes our people,” said Kristen Fernekes, spokeswoman for AFSA, which represents more than 16,000 Foreign Service personnel. AFSA is not going to rate nominees the way the American Bar Association does with judges.

“It is our intent to provide this document as a useful tool to everyone who participates in the nomination and confirmation process,” Fernekes said.

The AFSA board approved the new guidelines in early January — before Obama bundler-nominees Colleen Bell (tapped for Hungary), George Tsunis (Norway) and Noah Mamet (Argentina) faced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The panel approved Bell and Tsunis and hasn’t voted on Mamet. (Some Foreign Service folks have taken to calling them, most unfairly and uncharitably, Larry, Curly and Moe.)

Also, the AFSA board approved the draft on a 17 to 5 vote, we hear, with all four former ambassadors on the board voting against the guidelines, apparently feeling the new ones watered down the 1980 Foreign Service Act’s useless section on ambassador selection.

That section also orders new ambassadors, within six months of being at their overseas posts, to send the Senate and House foreign affairs committees “a report describing his or her own foreign language competence” in the country’s main language. We’re told no one files these.

The act also says that campaign contributions “should not be a factor” in picking ambassadors.

Quick Loop Fix: Maybe Congress could change the “should not” to “shall not” and put in criminal penalties for violators? That might lead to some improvement, at least where complete novices are sent to really dicey diplomatic posts, such as Argentina and Hungary and, now, a very upset Norway.

By sea, not by land

There’s chatter that former House member Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), who was named head of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. seven months ago, may be moving to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Both agencies are in the Transportation Department.)

This got enviros, unsure of her green bona fides, worried about her being in charge of an agency that deals with fuel-efficiency standards and such.

NHTSA employees might get concerned about her management style. We recall a Sunlight Foundation study in 2012 showing that Sutton had the highest staff turnover rate in the House over a period of two years.

(We know what you’re thinking, but GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota had only the fourth-highest staff turnover rate.)

Thursday afternoon, after a couple of tries Wednesday and then Thursday morning to contact Sutton, a spokesman wrote to say that there’s “absolutely no truth” to such rumors and that she’s staying put at the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.

So worriers should just relax.

Secretive regimes

And now, more news from the front in the never-ending battle to pry formerly secret documents from the Pentagon. The latest skirmish involves a 50-plus-year-old, formerly “top secret” document going back to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The National Security Archive sent a Freedom of Information Act request for the information years ago for the 40th anniversary — and then the 50th (it’s a patient organization) — of the crisis, which ended when Moscow removed its missiles from Cuba and Washington removed its missiles from another country.

Among the documents the Pentagon sent over was one that talked about having inspections certifying the missile removals by people “enjoying confidence” of the Soviets, us, the Cubans and [deleted].

The National Security Archive appealed. The organization’s director, Tom Blanton, tells us that while the Pentagon “wouldn’t give up the name” of the country where Washington placed missiles, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had broadcast it on Moscow radio at the time and the State Department had published it many years ago in its history of the crisis. (As had countless histories of the events.)

Still not good enough for the Pentagon, which turned down the appeal in a denial letter from William Brazis, deputy director of administration and management.

The Air Force, meanwhile, has been much more forthcoming, releasing the full text of a Joint Chiefs of Staff document from that period, proposing provocative actions such as a hilarious “virtual” amphibious assault plan. (After all, the actual assault, at the Bay of Pigs, didn’t work out so well.) The chiefs also proposed an extensive “sabotage campaign against power facilities” and also to “assassinate leading Russians and Cuban communists.” The Pentagon excised those portions.

The National Security Archive is putting out the documents Friday.

Oh, and the name of the top-secret country? It’s Turkey. (But don’t tell anyone where you got that.)

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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