Commentary: Buying ambassadorships is as American as apple pie

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 22, 2013 

The United States prides itself on having a market economy. But does that philosophy really have to extend to the selling of government jobs as well?

It has long been apparent that the corrosive effect of money on politics is not only here to stay, but also getting worse. Thanks to the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, the money that anonymous billionaires, corporate CEO's and others can pour into attack ads is unlimited.

The effects were obvious this fall. In the 2008 presidential election, the two candidates spent a total of a billion dollars. This time around they each spent a billion dollars. Such mountains of cash are raised from supporters, many of whom bundle their own contributions together with those of others. In 2008, both Senator McCain and Senator Obama each had a bit over 500 bundlers. In 2012, there were over 750 such “volunteer fundraisers” supporting the president’s reelection. Mr. Romney refused to reveal who his bundlers were.

Even taking office has become a growing opportunity to buy influence. For the presidential inauguration in 2009, contributions were limited to $50,000 per person and no corporate money was accepted. This time corporations are being encouraged to kick in up to a million dollars.

But perhaps the thinnest veiled examples of pay-to-play Washington style is the practice of giving big campaign contributors an embassy of their own. For the last half-century about 30 percent of ambassadorial appointments have been political appointees and the remainder have gone to career diplomats.

The former are always clustered in Western Europe and the tropical paradises of the Caribbean. In the history of our diplomatic relations with Britain and France, there has been a career officer as ambassador only once in each capitol.

To be sure some political appointees are political allies of the president, retired generals and other notables who often bring diversity as well as ability to the job. But all too often those named have no real international credentials, little government experience and it is clear their greatest attribute is the heft of their checkbook and that of their friends.

The current ambassador in London was such an effective bundler that his nickname was the vacuum cleaner. When he was nominated, journalists asked what his credentials for the office were and the best the White House spokesman could do was to say that he spoke the local language.

His successor may be even less qualified. There are persistent rumors that Anna Wintour will be the next American envoy to the Court of St. James. She is the editor of Vogue and the role model for the character played by Meryl Streep in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.” She is a citizen of the United Kingdom as well as the United States so it may not be clear which government she is serving. But she is one of the President’s biggest bundlers.

Some would say that being ambassador in London is not all that challenging given the closeness of the relationship between the two countries. But it is not that easy a job. The embassy has a staff of nearly a thousand employees from 41 different agencies that handle a $68 million budget and 18,000 official visitors each year.

And treating that staff badly is not something that goes unnoticed. The Inspector General of the State Department does a periodic review of all embassies and puts the reports online. The one for Luxembourg was so bad that the political appointee there resigned as it was made public. Her management skills were such that people were volunteering for Iraq and Afghanistan in order to shorten the time they had to work for her.

And we don’t always see eye to eye with the British. Her Majesty’s legal authorities have decided that an attack on Iran would violate international law. So if those armchair field marshals who are eager to drag us into another war succeed, we may well be an army of one with a fashion maven defending us.

Obama originally ran for president saying he was going to do things differently in Washington. It is easy to promise change, but once in office often difficult or unappealing to actually implement it. So unless public opinion forces an end to the practice, the selling of ambassadorships will continue to be another example of American exceptionalism since no other serious country fills such jobs the way we do.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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