US political appointees draw fire over plum postings

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US foreign policy circles are complaining about the record number of political appointees, especially big donors to President Barack Obama, getting plum postings at embassies around the world.

While the practice of thanking big presidential campaign donors with chief of mission postings is common in the United States, it is rarely used by other world powers.

And Mr Obama's Democratic administration has stood out in this regard, after a series of gaffes by ambassador picks during Senate hearings were met with sarcasm by Republican critics and the press who said they were unqualified.

According to the American Foreign Service Association, which counts 16,400 current and retired diplomats among its members, the number of political appointees serving ambassadorships has broken all records at 37 percent.

In recent decades, the rate has been an average of 30 percent of posts going to people close the president and 70 percent to career diplomats.

Worse, according to the professional organisation that scrutinises every diplomatic nomination, the rate reached 53 percent during Mr Obama's second term that began in January 2013.

That's far and above the rates of between 27 and 38 percent under the administrations of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

"It is a real concern for career diplomats," AFSA president Robert Silverman told AFP.

"We want a debate about qualifications, and not about political influence or donations."

The organisation refuses to discuss specific cases but lists all the White House's "political" appointees to head foreign missions, chief among them critical allies such as Britain, Canada, China, the European Union, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations.

Mr Max Baucus, who is set to soon replace Mr Gary Locke as US ambassador to China, namely admitted to lawmakers during his confirmation hearing: "I am no real expert on China."

Liberal comedian Jon Stewart, who is generally supportive of Mr Obama's policies, mocked Mr Obama's choices to travel to Argentina, Iceland and Norway for not having ever travelled there.

"Is there a rule that ambassadors can't have set foot in the country they're going to ambassador? Would it ruin the surprise?" he quipped, noting all three of those picks had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mr Obama's campaign.

Mr Obama's rival Republican National Committee then jumped on the bandwagon, releasing an "Ambassadors for Dummies" guide.

Step 1 suggests to "bundle hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Obama campaign." The guide then asks to "find the country of your appointment on a map" and "visit the country. For at least one day."

The rumblings began when million-dollar donations bundler and Chartwell Hotels chief executive George Tsunis, who raised about US$1.3 million (S$1.6 million) for Mr Obama and the Democratic Party, testified at his hearing to be confirmed as ambassador to Norway.

In addition to admitting he never visited the Nordic country, Mr Tsunis said the constitutional monarchy has a president and described the anti-immigration Progress Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, as being part of "fringe elements" that "spew their hatred" and have been denounced by the government.

Mr Noah Mamet, who raised more than half a million dollars for Mr Obama, admitted he knew nothing about Argentina or even the Spanish language, despite being nominated to serve in Buenos Aires.

The nominee for ambassador to Hungary, soap opera producer Colleen Bell, who helped collect US$800,000 for the Obama campaign, could only repeat generalities about US strategic interests and priorities despite growing concern over some lawmakers' positions towards Jews and other minorities.

With the White House expressing continued confidence in the nominees, The Los Angeles Times asked: "The question is, how much confidence should the American people have in Obama's judgment in ambassadors?"

Mr Silverman noted that political appointees were a far less frequent occurrence among US allies.

"The British have uniformly sent their career diplomats, the Japanese and the French (did), our top allies," he added.

"They have confidence that those are the types of people who will be most likely to do good for their countries in the US because they know the US well, they have the background working with Washington."

His group will present guidelines February 25 on the "necessary qualifications and qualities of a successful chief of mission" prepared by a group of 10 ambassadors representing eight administrations.

The State Department, however, stands its ground. It insists that political campaign donations have nothing to do with diplomatic nominations.

"Either giving or not giving money doesn't affect either way. It doesn't make you more or less qualified," deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters this week.

"We believe all of our nominees are incredibly qualified."

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