The Washington Post

New guidelines won’t change pay-for-play ambassadors

The cringe-inducing, bumbling 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 nominations process.

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

An early draft listed four 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 that country and about foreign affairs.” (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,” Kristen Fernekes, spokeswoman for AFSA, which represents more than 16,000 foreign service personnel, said Wednesday. AFSA is not going to assess nominees and give a score on them, like the American Bar Association does with judges.

“We’re not trying to produce a report card,” Fernekes said. “It is our intent to provide this document as a useful tool to everyone who participates in the nomination and confirmation process.”

The AFSA board approved the new guidelines in early January — before Obama nominees Colleen Bell (tapped for Hungary), George Tsunis (Norway), and Noah Mamet (Argentina) testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee 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 guidelines on a 17-5 vote, we hear, with all four of the former ambassadors on the board voting against the guidelines, apparently feeling the new ones actually watered down the 1980 Foreign Service Act’s actually useless section on ambassador selection.

That section also orders new ambassadors, “within 6 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, like Argentina and Hungary and now, a very upset Norway.

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



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Al Kamen · February 20, 2014

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