Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 1998 to 2000.
Two Norwegian lawmakers have nominated Edward Snowden, the bête noire of U.S. intelligence, for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is quite possible that this is the Norwegians’ way of showing their displeasure and shame at having the Obama administration nominate a completely unqualified person to be its ambassador to Oslo.
The nominee, a Long Island campaign bundler named George Tsunis, made a fool of himself during his Senate confirmation hearings last month. He was unaware of some of the most basic facts about Norway. He admitted never having set foot in the country, and he seemed to think that Norway, a monarchy, has a president. He also had no idea which political parties constituted Norway’s governing coalition, even though, as ambassador, he would be dealing with them. It seemed, as some later tweeted, that Tsunis had not even bothered to read the Wikipedia page for Norway.
President Obama does a disservice to Norwegians, to himself and, above all, to the people of the United States by sending such an unqualified person to represent him and us in the capital of a long-standing NATO ally. (I wonder if Tsunis knows that Norway is a member of NATO and not the European Union.) Instead of goodwill, he is engendering anti-American sentiment. Norwegians are likely to conclude that all they are worth to Obama is about $1.3 million — the sum Tsunis bundled or contributed to Obama’s reelection campaign and other Democratic efforts in 2012.
The United States claims to value the efforts of diplomats — a point the president reiterated in his State of the Union speech last week. So why do so many seem to think that diplomacy is a profession that anyone can engage in? If you had a plumbing problem, would you call your friendly ambassador to fix it? What message is the president sending to Foreign Service officers and to former and current ambassadors of distinction?
The Obama administration’s appointments suggest that the president isn’t being honest when he says that diplomacy is important to him. Yet the administration clearly values diplomacy — officials, including the president, have emphasized that the ongoing negotiations with Iran are the way to resolve the nuclear impasse. Would Obama consider making Tsunis our negotiator? Of course not. Yet it’s illogical, and insulting, to presume that Norwegians are such wonderful and civilized people — and hence unlikely to cause any problems with Washington — that we can afford to send someone on a taxpayer-funded three-year junket to enjoy the fjords.
Even the argument that Norway is an unproblematic post for a political appointee does not pass muster. Obama’s ambassador-designate to Hungary, Colleen Bradley Bell, is a television soap opera producer (“The Bold and the Beautiful”) and also was a money-handler for the president’s reelection campaign. What qualifications does she have to be ambassador to a country in crisis? Hungary’s democratic institutions are under severe threat from the governing party, and extremists have been targeting minorities. Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union. Unfortunately, when asked by Sen. John McCain, Bell was incapable of identifying the U.S. strategic interests in Hungary.
This is not a criticism of political appointees per se. There are times when a political appointee is far more suitable for an appointment than a career ambassador. The Saudis have always taken comfort from having someone close to the president appointed ambassador, in the belief that such a person would provide better access to the White House. I have my doubts, but they may be right.
There have also been political-appointee ambassadors who would have rivaled, and possibly surpassed, the best the State Department could produce. One such person is Felix Rohatyn, an investment banker who managed New York’s financial crisis negotiations in the 1970s. President Bill Clinton appointed Rohatyn, a fluent French speaker, ambassador to France. He was extraordinary; I served in the State Department then, and at times colleagues and I would read Rohatyn’s diplomatic cables — he wrote many himself — for the sheer pleasure of their clarity, analysis and style. He probably knew as many people in Paris as he did in New York. As an American, you could not be anything but proud to have Rohatyn as ambassador. Unfortunately, some current nominees are a modern version of the 18th-century French practice of the sale of offices. Then, the income derived went to finance state activities; now, it is for financing campaigns.
Both Democrats and Republicans reward those who helped their campaigns. But for a president who just told the nation of his commitment to reducing inequality, this practice of rewarding unqualified people, whose “good deed” is to have bundled campaign funds, is particularly jarring.
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