Obama Can Bring Change With His Ambassadorial Picks

By Morton Abramowitz
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has repeatedly stated his intention to change the culture of Washington. He promises to drive the money changers (the lobbyists) from the temple, to reduce the partisanship and to appoint people who can actually do the job -- not just his political supporters. This will require enormous sustained effort while he faces major domestic and international obstacles.

But there are changes he can make of a lesser sort, on his own, without legislation, that can significantly affect Washington and make clear his dedication to serious reform. Some involve things he can simply tell his team to do. Take the appointment of ambassadors.

Obama can publicly declare that he will not appoint ambassadors who have in effect secured their posts through financial contributions and who have little background to merit any such appointment. Indeed, he can further state that he will permit the appointment of non-career ambassadors -- usually 30 to 40 percent of our ambassadors -- only if they are uniquely appropriate for the job. Otherwise, ambassadorial positions will be reserved for experienced, capable career officials.

Clearly there are non-career people who can do the job of ambassador better than many members of the career service. Some bring a breadth of perspective and a relationship with the president not often found in career diplomats. Mike Mansfield, Edwin O. Reischauer and Elliott Richardson come to mind. (Some governments like to have a close friend of the president's as ambassador to their country, but that doesn't work unless the political ambassador is able and has the knowledge, insight and experience to serve the United States and the host country well.) But, unfortunately, many political ambassadors from past Democratic and Republican administrations have clearly been unqualified. Of course, so have some Foreign Service officers. The difference is that the career system makes mistakes, not political payoffs.

Changing our way of picking ambassadors could rid us of a long-standing political tradition not found in other countries. And it could do so without excluding from ambassadorships able people who are not career diplomats. Money and friendship may or may not coincide with merit, but they do not normally compensate for insufficient experience and commitment. This concern has been expressed by the American foreign service community -- including organizations such as the American Foreign Service Association and the American Academy of Diplomacy, which propose limiting non-career ambassadorial appointments to 10 percent.

Many of our best people do not want to work their way through a laborious career-development process in the government, often because they are capable of rising to the top more quickly in other professions. Add to this the fact that even a long-term career in the State Department does not guarantee that one will rise to a top position. That certainly further diminishes the appeal of the Foreign Service, and it is particularly discouraging when many of the most important jobs are reserved for political appointees. In fact, not many talented professional career diplomats can become ambassadors under current practices, especially at the larger, more prestigious posts. And now, with a huge number of Obama's capable supporters looking for jobs in the Washington-based foreign policy bureaucracy, career diplomats are likely to be even more shortchanged as the number of good jobs declines at home. Worse, many stars of the Foreign Service have left early.

The big question is: What sort of State Department do we want? Not many secretaries of state care much whether they leave a department that is better than the one they inherited. As a result, it is widely believed that the State Department has been weakened over many years (as has the entire government, for that matter). And while it is encouraging to see so many people wanting to work for an Obama government for idealistic reasons, it hardly means they want careers in government service. Clearly, it is past time to invigorate the State Department, to manifestly stress merit and to keep its best people from leaving.

Obama has emphasized the need for aggressive diplomacy and greater multilateralism to resolve difficult international issues. That stance has already helped win him much international support. Having a dedicated, highly competent Foreign Service should be important to him in this effort. Changing the ambassadorial appointment process would also indicate that Obama really is prepared to break with tradition and challenge Washington's less-admirable mores.

The writer, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was a Foreign Service officer for more than 30 years.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company