The Washington Post

The politics of diplomacy: Counting donors and embassy appointments of presidents


Career diplomats are looking at the most recent data on President Obama’s ambassadorial appointments, and they don’t like what they see.

The career types have often grumbled about the White House’s penchant for going Hollywood or Wall Street and rewarding what critics think are clueless fat-cat fundraisers with plum posts — even to places that require some political dexterity.

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

Now the Foreign Service folks are looking at numbers that indicate Obama may have a tough time matching the average career-vs.-political split of his immediate predecessors.

As it stands, 36.5 percent of Obama’s 318 ambassadorial appointees and nominees have been non-career people, according to the American Foreign Service Association.

In contrast, George W. Bush’s two-term average was 30 percent, while Bill Clinton’s was 27.8 percent. George H.W. Bush averaged 31.3 percent in his four years. It should be noted that Obama only has a handful of likely political spots left to fill — France, Finland, and a few others — and the percentage of politicals is pretty much certain to drop before 2016. So there’s little cause for hyperventilation.

But it’s not clear his numbers will go down all the way to the Bush-Clinton-Bush averages, the career folks say.

In addition, the White House has been making political picks for embassies in countries that have usually seen those spots filled by career diplomats. For example, 50 percent of Obama’s appointees have been political in 10 countries where the percentages of political appointees has historically ranged from 31 percent to 38 percent. (There was even one political appointee to Burma, which has always gone to career diplomats, but the nominee was uber-qualified.)

It should be noted that Ronald Reagan ended up appointing a much higher percentage of political ambassadors than any of his successors, coming in at 38 percent, a figure that Obama is not going to approach.

Grading on a curve

During Wednesday morning’s confirmation hearing for Jeh Johnson to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. Tom Coburn had a confession: Congress isn’t very smart.

At least not relative to the bright light before them.

The Oklahoma Republican praised Johnson’s intellect, claiming that it “is far above mine and most members of Congress.”

“Which is exactly what we want,” he concluded.

Coburn had tough questions and warnings for Johnson, the former top Pentagon lawyer whom President Obama picked to run the department after the departure of Janet Napolitano. He indicated, though, that he thought Johnson would ultimately win the Senate’s approval.

Smarter than Congress? Perhaps that’s faint praise.

The anti-Houdini

Some people are really clumsy. Some trip over their own feet, some drop their forks, and others . . .

According to an Associated Press report from London, “a spy whose naked, decomposing body was found inside a padlocked gym bag at his apartment likely died in an accident with no one else involved, British police said Wednesday.”


In what sounds like a scene from a TV crime procedural, “police concluded — after several reenactments — that it was possible for [the now-deceased] to climb inside the sports bag and lock it,” the AP reports.

Unsurprisingly, questions remain.

That explains the cigars

It seems a young crocodile at a German zoo is having a politically inspired identity crisis.

Zookeepers at the Hoyerswerda zoo in Saxony had given the facility’s new arrivals — seven little reptile hatchlings — names that evoked their Cuban homeland.

One of them, who had been dubbed Fidel, quickly gained a thuggish reputation, reports the German edition of the European news organization the Local, “for his aggressive behavior towards his siblings, whom he would regularly attack and bite.”

And that’s when his name became problematic. Cultural groups, including one that has given generous donations to the zoo, complained about the political overtones, even though zoo officials say they didn’t mean to make a statement. “Nobody intended it to be a direct reference to dictator Fidel Castro or indeed a glorification of him as a person,” said the director of the zoo, which is located in what was once communist East Germany.

Still, not wanting to offend, they changed the moniker to Fidelio. At least for now. The newspaper notes that the little creature is too young for the bloodwork that would confirm its gender, so it’s possible he’s not a he after all.

The backup name is Fidelia.

With Emily Heil

The blog:
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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