Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Update April 9, 2014 link to the letter itself: Senior Diplomats Call for Rejection of Ambassadorial  Nominees,” DiploDenizen March 10, 2014.

Update February 27, 2014:  “Take Politics Out of Diplomacy,” USA Today column by Thomas Pickering and Nicholas Kralev. 

Update February 26, 2014:  So Why Doesn’t Some Senator (hint Senator McCain)  Put a Hold on the Nominations of Tsunis and Bell?  And why did these nominations clear Senate Foreign Relations?

It’s rare that I agree with John McCain, but his recent grilling of George Tsunis, the administration’s inept nominee for Ambassador to Norway, was right on target.  Face it, Tsunis’ testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was downright painful.  This farce will not soon be forgotten because, if nothing else, his testimony will live forever on YouTube – easily obtained through Google, Yahoo or some other search engine not to mention featured on the February 17, 2014  PBS Newshour special “What Does It Take to be an American Ambassador?” 


Meanwhile, “The Washington Post” has been having a field day. Here’s just one example.  And another (Kamen column Feb. 26) But where’s the venerable “New York Times?”  This has become the story of the week. Or at least one of them.  Hello there, New York.   Are you still there? Did I miss something?

The Senate has yet to act on Tsunis’ nomination. Several equally unqualified nominees including Noah Mamet for Argentina (someone who has yet to set foot in the country) and Hungary (soap opera producer Colleen Bradley Bell whose ignorance of Hungary and US interests there also shine proudly on video) sit in Senate limbo. Let them stay there.  Or better yet the Obama administration should withdraw the nominations of this troika of misfits or the Senate should reject them outright.  The Senate does have the prerogative to “just say no.”  

This includes Senators on both sides of the political divide.  Or, perhaps would some Senator please put a hold on these and any other equally questionable Ambassadorial nominations coming down the pike for – let’s say about the next three years?

Then the administration should be far more careful in naming future replacements.   Maybe once AFSA posts its ambassadorial qualifications list it can be used as a gauge – if the organization comes up with a one that is more than in Diplopundit’s words “underwhelming.”

The good news:  a bipartisan team of Menendez (D-NJ) and Rubio (R-FL) challenged Mamet’s qualifications for the Argentina job.  Looks like these Senators’ work is cut out for them in the days and months ahead.

The crucial but unsung DCM

But here’s another piece of good news of which most Americans are unaware:  the US government has a system in which career Deputy Chiefs of Mission (DCMs) run our embassies when no US Ambassador is in country and often when they are.  This actually, happens pretty frequently – at least it did in my experience – and for lengthy periods of time.  DCMs are professional Foreign Service Officers assigned to oversee an embassy’s internal workings as well as fill in for absent Ambassadors in dealings with the government and people of the country in which the embassy is located. 

DCMs must also “manage up” in cases of political appointees especially when said appointee is actually in the country.  This is why it is often the toughest job in the Foreign Service.  Best occupied by a former consular officer with strong social work credentials.  E.g. someone highly experienced in managing difficult people used to getting their own way.  

Political Generals long gone:  why not political Ambassadors?           

After the Spanish-American War, the US military was turned into a professional service – from the very highest ranking officer to the lowliest private.  The purchasing of generalships particularly during the Civil War produced some of the worst debacles imaginable and the spoils system for the US military was confined to the ash heap of history before World War I.

But the spoils system has lingered on – indeed flourished – on the civilian side of the federal government despite the introduction of the 1924 Rogers Act which supposedly brought professionalism to diplomacy.   The far more recent Foreign Service Act of 1980 states in part (emphasis added): “Positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstance will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.”  The usual ratio has been 70% career versus 30% spoils (aka political) but the Obama administration has gone well over the top in rewarding campaign funders especially since his reelection in 2012.  This is closer to the Reagan administration’s use of the ambassadorial spoils system than any other president in recent memory.

Yet if this president believes what he said in his most recent State of the Union address – that  “America must move off a permanent war footing. . . . in a world of complex threats,” and that “our security and leadership depends on all elements of our power – including strong and principled diplomacy”  then it also behooves him to ensure that this country has the best qualified diplomats his administration can find.  It can’t be all that hard. White House please give it a try.       

From the WV archives:

A Primer for First Time Political Ambassadors.