In the Loop: Obama didn't quite end ambassadorial cronyism

By Al Kamen
Friday, October 23, 2009

Just after the election in November, we wrote that an Obama administration was likely to eschew "the traditional sale of most ambassadorships, so aptly carried on during the Bush administration." The chatter was that the new team would pick political types, but with some foreign policy cred -- as the Clinton administration tended to do -- and maybe reduce the percentage of politicals in favor of more career Foreign Service officers.

Yeah, well, we must have been eschewing something. The fat-cat contributors naturally got the plum postings, as usual.

But judging from data compiled by the American Foreign Service Association, the career employees union, it appears that Obama is on track to reduce, at least marginally, the percentage of jobs going to contributors and cronies. While there are still a lot of vacancies, AFSA officials project that Obama is likely to end the year appointing fewer political folks than either Bush or Clinton to the 181 ambassadorial postings -- but still too many, as far as the career diplomats are concerned.

About 30.1 percent of Bush's ambassadors during his eight years were political folks, AFSA found. Clinton's average, 33 percent politicals, was higher, but Clinton's folks were a mix of non-career people who actually knew a lot about the countries or regions to which they were named and pure cash types -- our favorite was hotelier Larry Lawrence for Switzerland, the guy whose body was exhumed from Arlingon National Ceremony when it turned out he lied about being in the Merchant Marine.

If Obama's first-year total ends up slightly lower than Bush's, then Obama's eventual four-year -- or eight-year -- percentages will probably be clearly lower than his immediate predecessors', we're told, because the first round of appointments tends to skew more to paying off politicals than do the later rounds.

Of course, the politically connected still get the finer spots in the Caribbean and Western Europe. As the accompanying chart shows, the career diplomats head to somewhat less delightful (even nasty) postings in Central Asia (100 percent career since 1960), the Middle East, Africa and South America.

Since 1960, no Foreign Service officer has ever run the embassy in Dublin and only one, Ray Seitz, has gone to the Court of St. James's in London. On the other hand, no political appointee has ever gone to Chad and only one has gone to Bulgaria. See AFSA's full data at

Secretary Kerry?

There was much excitement in Washington over news that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), after much sustained cajoling in Kabul, had persuaded Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election to ease concerns about the election he stole.

There was Kerry pictured in Kabul, jawboning Karzai. Then Wednesday, there he was briefing reporters standing outside the White House. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, briefing reporters Wednesday, actually called Kerry "Secretary Kerry," thus fulfilling, for that oh-so-brief moment, Kerry's long-standing wish to run Foggy Bottom.

Obama met for an hour in the Situation Room on Thursday morning with top aides for a video briefing with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, in Kabul, about the political situation there. With Obama were national security adviser James Jones, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, NSC Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, speechwriter Ben Rhodes, homeland security adviser John Brennan, and deputy national security advisers Tom Donilon and Doug Lute.

Foreign policy folks wondered: where was the S-Rep? That would be Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a long answer to that. The short answer is Kerry did the heavy lifting because Holbrooke couldn't persuade Karzai to do anything, maybe because they have what the diplos call a "strained relationship."

Radio Free Taliban

Good news for international broadcasting folks. This interesting tidbit was in New York Times reporter David Rohde's series this week on his seven months in captivity after he was kidnapped by the Taliban. Rohde escaped in June.

"The tribal areas were more developed and the Taliban more sophisticated than I expected," he wrote. "They browsed the Internet and listened to hourly news updates on Azadi Radio, a station run by the American government. But then they dismissed whatever information did not meet their preconceptions."

See? Proof that, despite some problems with transmission facilities, U.S. public diplomacy efforts are working. Even the Taliban crazies are tuning in. But wait a minute. There was some information that did meet their preconceptions?

Czar before the horse

We got an invite from J. Richard Knop of the World Affairs Council about "an exciting program luncheon on the 'International Challenges of Cyber-Security' to be held Nov. 16 at the McLean Hilton. Knop was looking for corporate sponsors for the luncheon.

"Our Chairman, Frank Kramer, will chair the discussion," Knop said. "Frank has been selected as the new Cyber Czar and is currently being vetted. It will be announced shortly. He just authored a definitive book on the international aspects of cyber-security. Please keep this confidential."

We certainly will. Kramer, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Clinton administration, sounds like a good bet for the job. But a knowledgeable White House official insists no cyber-czar has been selected. Well, maybe because the vetting's not done?

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