Dollars to diplomats: How to become an ambassador in a plush foreign outpost

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 30, 2013 


Caroline Kennedy in 2012


— There’s the vice president of global licensing and retail at the television network HBO, the senior managing partner for a consulting firm based in Chicago and a Miami trial attorney who makes a living suing insurance companies.

Each raised more than a half million dollars for President Barack Obama’s political campaigns. In turn, Obama tapped each to be an ambassador, one of the most coveted posts an occupant of the Oval Office can offer.

Obama has nominated a number of major donors to plum diplomatic posts, from Spain to the Dominican Republic, Australia to Singapore. While the practice is anything but rare for U.S. presidents in modern history, Obama has nominated more donors, friends and supporters – nearly double – than his predecessors since the start of his second term.

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, which keeps a tally. Nine helped collect more than $500,000 for Obama’s campaigns, though it could be much more because certain campaign finance reports list only the range of the donations.

Just last week, Obama nominated former first daughter Caroline Kennedy, whose influential endorsement helped him secure the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008, as ambassador to Japan.

“It’s long been a practice,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization that studies campaign contributions. “It’s a process that reinforces the notion in American politics that you can buy your way to the most powerful man in the world.”

But Obama’s actions stand out because he promised to be different.

As a candidate, he pledged to decrease the influence of money in politics and push for a series of changes from eliminating donations from corporations to his inaugural festivities, to fighting a court decision that allows unlimited corporate donations “We’re going to change how Washington works,” he often said.

Many of his promises went unfulfilled, either because he did not lobby for them or changed his mind about supporting them, government watchdog groups say. His ambassadorial picks indicate that – in yet another way – he’s engaged in business as usual, the same quadrennial tradition as his predecessors.

But the White House says Obama reduced conflicts of interest in campaign financing by calling for bills free of earmarks and directed agencies to stop appointing lobbyists to boards and made government more transparent, by releasing reams of documents, including White House visitor logs.

Presidents have long offered ambassadorships to friends, supporters, donors and those owed a favor.

About 28 percent of President Bill Clinton’s ambassadors were political appointees, according to the foreign service association; about 30 percent of George W. Bush’s ambassadors were as well. Those numbers include appointees who retain the rank of ambassador but may not have served in a foreign country, such as envoy to the United Nations.

So far, Obama’s nominations are about 35 percent political, slightly higher than the one-in-three historical average.

“The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades,” according to a statement by the foreign service association, which represents thousands of career foreign service officers. “Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto ‘three-year rental’ of ambassadorships.”

Obama owes more donors thank-yous because he raised more money than any previous presidential candidate – $1 billion in 2012 and $750 million in 2008 – and because his early money used in a tough primary against Hillary Clinton was particularly important.

Together, his ambassadorial choices and their families have contributed $5.3 million to Democratic candidates, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. They donated almost $1.1 million to Obama – $611,346 to his political campaigns and $484,936 to his inaugural festivities. And they collected more than $5.4 million for Obama from other donors.

“Americans are sick of the perpetual campaign and the president who can’t seem to deliver on the change he promised,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

During his transition to the White House, Obama told Americans they could judge his political appointees for their professionalism and quality. “I am proud that such experienced and committed individuals have agreed to serve the American people in these important roles. I look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead,” he said in a statement announcing some of the most recent nominations.

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

The Foreign Service Act of 1980, which lays out employment terms and conditions, states that “contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.” But that does not preclude a president from appointing donors.

The most sought-after posts are not surprising. They’re in glamorous and exotic locales in Western Europe, Central America and Asia, while career foreign service officers end up in dangerous or troublesome spots around the globe, such as the Republic of the Congo, Libya and the Ukraine.

Matthew Barzun, a Louisville entrepreneur who served as finance chairman for Obama’s re-election campaign, will reside in the neo-Georgian townhouse with the largest private garden in central London after Buckingham Palace as the new ambassador to Great Britain. Washington lawyer John Philips will live in a 16th century villa set in one of the last large private gardens in Rome as ambassador to Italy and San Marino.

In a recent study, a pair of Pennsylvania State University researchers, Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis C. Jett, computed theoretical prices to be nominated to most desirable nations – those that are “not obscure, dangerous, poor or of low interest to tourists.”

They found that politically connected ambassadors were more likely to be posted to countries in the Caribbean, North America and Central America, but that donors had a better chance of being stationed in Western Europe, according to their report, “What Price the Court of St. James’s? Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America.” Those who donated or raised more than $550,000 had a 90 percent chance of being sent to Western Europe.

Rufus Gifford, a former creative executive affiliated with 20th Century Fox and finance director for Obama’s re-election campaign, is headed to Denmark. Denise Bauer, former finance chairwoman for Women for Obama, is off to Belgium. Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a former Obama White House political director, will be stationed in South Africa.

Some nations don’t seem to mind hosting U.S. diplomats who they think have the ear of the president. But others bristle at the prospect of ambassadors who are there largely because of the number of zeros on their campaign checks. After Barzun was nominated earlier this month, more than one British newspaper questioned the “long but controversial tradition of rewarding campaign donors with coveted embassy posts,” according to Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.

It doesn’t help that Obama has run into trouble with some of his political appointees.

At least three have been subject to negative State Department inspector general’s investigations. Two resigned, while a third is disputing allegations of sexual misconduct.

Two weeks ago, Obama re-nominated major contributor Timothy Broas – a Washington lawyer whose initial selection was dropped last year after a drunk-driving arrest, a charge that was later reduced – to be ambassador to the Netherlands.

James Jeffrey, a former diplomat who retains the title ambassador and now serves as a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said no one disputes that Obama is allowed to nominate whomever he wants because specific qualifications are not laid out, but that selecting political appointees discourages those who spend their careers in the foreign service.

“My problem is we’re going to lose really good people in the foreign service,” he said.

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