Our Voice: Stop packing embassies with president's top donors

August 4, 2013 

We're over being disappointed when President Obama's actions run counter to his campaign promise to "change how Washington works."

But a recent report by Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington, D.C., bureau regarding political patronage in Obama's nominations for top embassy assignments was more than disappointing.

Assigning key diplomatic posts to top campaign donors has been common practice for presidents for decades, but Obama's decision to perpetuate and expand this questionable practice is alarming.

Our shrinking planet is fraught with danger, and our interests would be best served by filling diplomatic openings with the most qualified professionals rather than political cronies.

Obama has nominated more donors, friends and supporters -- nearly double -- than his predecessors since the start of his second term, Kumar reported.

Of the 41 ambassadors selected since the beginning of the year, 23 -- or 56 percent -- are political appointees with little or no diplomatic experience, according to the American Foreign Service Association. Nine of the appointees helped collect more than $500,000 each for Obama's campaigns.

The practice has been so commonplace that it's tempting to dismiss Obama's actions as business as usual -- even though it's galling to see him ramp up the number of political appointees to diplomatic posts while promising change.

But protecting American interests -- not broken campaign promises -- is the real concern.

During the last 30 years, 85 percent of ambassadorial appointments to major European countries and Japan, and nearly 60 percent of appointments to a wider group of emerging global powers such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, have been political, according to the association.

The organization has issued a statement decrying the practice:

"The American Foreign Service Association continues to urge that only experienced and qualified members of the Foreign Service be appointed to represent the United States as ambassadors. AFSA believes that America is best served -- as in the case of its uniformed military -- by having experienced and knowledgeable career officers fill all positions in our career diplomatic service.

"Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto 'three-year rental' of ambassadorships. The United States is alone in this practice; no other major democracy routinely appoints nondiplomats to serve as envoys to other countries."

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 states that "contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission." But it's easy to appoint big donors while denying that money is a factor.

"The administration looks for the most qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told Kumar. "Being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one."

It's not just Obama bashers who think that disclaimer strains credibility.

After Matthew Barzun, a Louisville entrepreneur who served as finance chairman for Obama's re-election campaign, was nominated earlier this month as the new ambassador to Great Britain, more than one British newspaper questioned the assignment.

"President Obama has appointed his chief fundraiser to the glamorous position of ambassador to Britain, continuing the long but controversial tradition of rewarding campaign donors with coveted embassy posts," Britain's Daily Mail newspaper noted.

Career diplomat Thomas Pickering told the Daily Mail the process "has the effect of diminishing perhaps the sense that the U.S. is treating these countries with the respect that they deserve."

It's the wrong message. Congress should strengthen the Foreign Service Act of 1980 to ensure that diplomatic posts are going to the most qualified applicants, not the highest bidder."

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