Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Ambassadors

Detail from Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533, copied by Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve.
From the Most Corrupt President Ever department:

You may have gotten an enjoyable giggle last week from Jon Stewart on some of the incompetents that President Obama has nominated to represent our country in the capitals of Hungary, Norway, and Argentina (among who knows how many others). But the reason we watch Stewart, you know, is that his comedy often provides a truer picture of what's happening than the Villagers do, and when you find him in agreement with the Washington TimesFox, and an extremely purse-lipped Washington Post, that could be a sign that he's missed his bus and jumped into a cab share with a dangerous crowd.

Every US president naming the hundreds of ambassadors and ambassadorial officials that lead American foreign policy implementation all around the world nominates a [jump]
certain number of "politicals"—people from outside the career foreign service who may be getting the job for reasons other than qualifications, including being a friend of the president's, or having made a really humungous contribution to the president's campaign, I'm sorry to say.

Nobody quite approves of this exceptionally American phenomenon, and President Obama, for one, has said he'd like to correct it. That made it kind of sad back in 2009 when Michele Kelemen reported on NPR that he had nominated a bunch of politicals himself, and then last week, when she reported it again (well, it was such a terrific story the first time, why not?), backed up by the spectacle of John McCain skewering some hilariously bad nominees before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, and a report from the American Foreign Service Association (or a report of the report; the report itself seems not to have been issued yet) suggesting hard statistical evidence that Obama's nominations are actually worse than anybody else's. Really?

Well, just bear with me here. Of the 327 people Obama has nominated to ambassador-level positions so far, 121 are politicals, or 37%, compared to 30% over the course of George W. Bush's two terms, and just shy of 28% for Bill Clinton. Worse, so far in his second term he has been nominating more politicals than career diplomats, at a shocking rate of 53%!

Which made me wonder. Really?

Maybe not so much. It depends, you see, to some extent, on when you look at the numbers. In June 2007, for instance, when George W. Bush was midway through his seventh year in the presidency, he was at a cumulative rate of 37% political nominations, 133 out of 370. We don't have a running total for the second term alone, as AFSA has provided for Obama, but there's surely no reason to think it was any less than 53% at this two-and-a-half-year point. Denny Wilkins, a blogger at the website Scholars & Rogues, found (with slightly different calculations, from the State Department's Office of the Historian):
nearly four out of every 10 of his nominees for ambassador have been “non-career appointees” — or what many would consider “political” appointees. Neither his father nor President Clinton had such a high percentage.
President Bush’s 36 percent rate exceeds the 29 percent of President Clinton’s ambassadorial nominees who were non-career appointees. During George Herbert Walker Bush’s presidency, about 31 percent were non-career appointees.
Is this possible? Could Bush really have turned around at this point and nominated just three more politicals among the 83 nominations he had yet to make in the rest of 2007 and 2008, to work his way back down to a career figure of 30%? In a word, yes. And it makes sense if you think about it. The period after the election and inauguration is when you're taking those congratulatory phone calls  and inevitably requests, and so it's logical that it should also be when you're making the payoffs. Afterwards, you're just responding to actual foreign policy needs, like OMG, we need an envoy in Lower Slobovia, and then you make professional appointments.

So it turns out that you really can't say Obama is any worse than Bush at this juncture. He's just in the first year of the term, coming off the payoffs and getting back to serious work. In fact in a true comparison of the two presidents in midterm, he's got somewhat better numbers, because the Bush number is for just the confirmed nominees, and if you count only those for Obama, 97 politicals out of 282, he's at more like 34%. To get a proper comparison we're just going to have to wait until 2017, and by then, for all we know, Obama will have made it down to a Carteresque 26.73%. Oh, by the way, guess who the all-time leader in crony-hiring as seen in AFSA's tables is: St. Ronald of Reagan, of course, at a phenomenal lifetime 38%! Mid-term or end-term, made no difference to him—every day was patronage day.

I'm afraid the AFSA is giving us a bit of a pile of shit here. They're doing something like Reporters Without Borders reporting this week that the US has "plunged" from 33rd to 46th place on the World Press Freedom Index, on the basis of statistical procedures that Wapo's Max Fisher has shown are totally spurious: attracting attention to their truly valuable work with a bunch of irresponsible, distorted clickbait.
The Repatriation of the English Ambassadors. Vittore Carpaccio, 1500.
It's also the case that some political nominees are totally justifiable on their own merits. The first one on the Bush list (alphabetized by country name) is Zalmay Khalilzad (ambassador to Afghanistan 2003-05, Iraq 2005-07, United Nations 2007-09), who may have been the single most competent and knowledgeable hire (at least in that first posting) that benighted administration ever made. (Not that, given the Bush idea of foreign policy Khalilzad had to work with, it was ever going to help.)

On the other hand, one of the Bush political nominees noted by Denny Wilkins was ambassador to Canada David H. Wilkins (no relation) from 2005:
He’s a friend of President George H.W. Bush and raised more than $200,000 for President George W. Bush in the 2004 election. Ambassador Wilkins and his immediate family contributed $33,050 to Republicans over the course of the 2000, 2002 and 2004 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Apparently, he’d only been to Canada once — 30 years before his appointment — as part of military service.
Another was John Price, ambassador to the nation of Mauritius from 2002 to 2005:
He was one of President Bush’s most significant moneymen, raising and donating nearly $700,000.... side note about Ambassador Price: “[A] Utah jury found guilty in a 2001 civil case of ‘intentionally deceptive’ practices in cheating two former business partners out of almost $1 million from a New Mexico shopping-mall deal in 1994.”
It was a situation crying out for the intervention of some sterling, incorruptible character like—I don't know, maybe like Senator John McCain. But it somehow didn't happen.

It would be interesting if there was some systematic way to compare the politicals for qualifications; to get an idea of how many of them are Zalmay Khalilzads and how many David Wilkinses, Bush vs. Obama, one by one. The alphabetical order of the AFSA list is as arbitrary an order as any, and I thought I'd just work through the first few countries. Obama hasn't named any politicals to the embassy of Afghanistan (or Iraq or the United Nations) to map against Khalilzad, but the next few work fine and show, to my mind decisively, that Obama just has a much better class of cronies than his predecessor did.

J. Thomas Schieffer, ambassador to Australia (2001-2005) and Japan (2005-2009). No known experience with Australia or Japan or any international capacity (he did get an MA in International Relations, U. Texas at Austin, 1972). But he was Bush's partner in Ballpark Development, Houston, and president of the Texas Rangers. (Wikipedia)

Robert D. McCallum, ambassador to Australia (2005-2009).
McCallum had never been to Australia prior to his appointment and had had no previous involvement with the country, or indeed with foreign policy at all. The position of U.S. Ambassador to Australia is traditionally held by friends or political associates of the President, rather than by career diplomats, since Australia is a close ally of the U.S. and the post is considered a highly desirable one. (Wikipedia)
Obama's ambassador to Australia is a political too, but a little more than just a Friend of Barack: John Berry, former head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Director of the National Zoo, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget at the Department of the Interior, and first openly gay US ambassador to any G20 country. He's given tons of money to Democrats too, but I still think he might know what he's doing.

Obama's ambassador to Japan is of course Caroline Kennedy, a big donor to his campaigns. She may not have a lot of experience in Asian affairs, but she's taken pretty seriously by the Japanese public:
“She’s going to be enormously well received not only by the Japanese government, but by the Japanese people. She’s a serious person,” said [former ambassador Walter] Mondale, who was struck by the outpouring of public enthusiasm around Kennedy’s visit with the imperial family: “When she took her short buggy ride to meet the imperial family, there were thousands of people outside on the route cheering her on. Every new ambassador takes that route, but no one’s gotten the reception that she received.”
They seem to like her being more famous than J. Thomas Schieffer, for whatever reasons. Heh, and when Mondale was sent to Japan he was a political (Democrat), too.
Raffaele Schiamiossi, ca. 1608, Don Antonio Manuele de Funda, Ambassador of the King of Kongo to the Holy See. 
Lyons Brown, Jr. ambassador to Austria (2001-2006) had some semi-real qualifications:
Mr. Brown is a former member of the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, to which he was appointed by President Reagan in 1988, and reappointed by President H.W. Bush in 1990 and 1992 and by President Clinton in 1994.... The honor of Chevalier de L'Ordre du Merite Agricole was conferred on Mr. Brown by the French Government in 1974, and he was appointed an honorary consul of France in 1975.
How he would have responded to Senator McCain's questions is unclear. He did, however, contribute $80,000 to the Bush-Cheney Recount Fund in November 2000.

Susan R. McCaw, ambassador to Austria (2006-2007). No known experience (Council of American Ambassadors). A "major donor" to the Bush 2004 campaign and that was just the beginning.

David F. Girard-Di Carlo, ambassador to Austria (2008, apparently one of those three political nominees of Bush's last 18 months). No known experience (Wikipedia). One of the 100 Rangers (people who have raised $200,000 or more in campaign contributions) of the Bush 2004 campaign.

Obama's ambassador to Austria is Alexa Wesner, whose German mother and Latvian father are immigrants to the US, so she likely speaks German.
Ms. Wesner is the founder of Be One Texas and four other state-based organizations (The Texas Civic Engagement Table, Engage Texas, Progress Texas, and the Texas Research Institute) designed to provide a lasting progressive infrastructure in Texas. The spectrum of activities spans civic engagement, organizational collaboration, voter empowerment, voter turn-out, primary research and both direct and collaborative messaging. She has served on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the boards of Lifeworks (homeless youth), Breakthrough (a path to college for disadvantaged youth), Arthouse (contemporary art), The Blanton Museum of Art, GenAustin (raising self esteem in and empowering young girls) and the Austin Film Society. She has served on the board of advisors of the Austin Museum of Art, and the Downtown Austin Alliance’s Parks Committee to preserve Austin’s downtown parks and urban spaces. Ms. Wesner is an avid triathlete and, in 2003, qualified for the World Triathlon Championships as a member of the U.S. National team.
Yes, she's given the Democrats some $300,000, but she's more than just a pretty checkbook.

J. Richard Blankenship, ambassador to Bahamas (2001-2003). No known experience.
partner in the Capital South Group, an investment banking firm whose home office was in Jacksonville, Florida, and a close friend of Jeb Bush (Wikipedia)
He was apparently a pretty lively ambassador, too, and became something of an expert afterwards, developing a syndicated column for newspapers in the Caribbean and founding the firm Global Investment Advisors:
It is thought Global Investment Advisers is currently involved with interdiction efforts of governments in the Caribbean and South America. It is known Global Investment Advisers has clients in Mexico and is conducting intelligence gathering, according to Mexican Police Authorities. 
The Congressional Record notes the following political contributions by the ambassador-designate and family members as of November 2001, when his nomination was being considered by the Senate Foreign Relations committee:
1. Self: $1,000, 2000, George W. Bush for President, Inc.; 
     $5,000, 2,000, Republican Party of Florida Federal Account 
     ($1,000 refunded July 26, 2001); $20,000, 2000, Republican 
     National Committee.
       2. Spouse: Kandra L. Blankenship, $1,000, 2000, George W. 
     Bush for President, Inc.
       3. Children and Spouses: None.
       4. Parents: Dean Blankenship, $200, 1999, Republican 
     National Committee; $440, 2000, Republican National 
     Committee;; $1,000, 2000, George W. Bush for President, Inc.; 
     $100, 2000, Republican National Committee; $100, 2001, Ann 
     Blankenship, $1,000, 2000, George W. Bush for President, Inc. 
     Christine M. Blankenship, and Helen D. Jones, none.
       5. Grandparents: All deceased.
J. Richard Blankenship gave $7450 to the RNC State Elections Committee in January 2001 through his wife's veterinary clinic in Jacksonville and then took it back as a refund the subsequent May. WTF? How does this relate to the numbers he reported to the Senate? They sound kind of different to me! And besides, he's the only recipient of a refund on this list, and why? Had the party sold him a defective product? There's really something to scrutinize here—hey, Senator McCain? Wake up, Gramps!

Obama's ambassador to the Bahamas is Cassandra Butts, former Deputy White House Counsel focusing on domestic policy and ethics and current Senior Adviser to the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Among an alarming number of other things. Her foreign policy experience seems to be limited to serving as an observer in Zimbabwe's 2000 elections, but her administrative résumé is as long as your proverbial arm. She was a classmate of the president's at Harvard Law School. I don't find any record of political contributions at all. Senator McCain will be getting his chance to make fun of her on Monday—let's see how he does. Something tells me she can handle herself just fine.
Cassandra Butts.

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