The Cable

Obama nominates Democratic campaign bundler for top Asia post

On the same day he visited his boyhood home of Indonesia, President Obama nominated David Carden, a securities lawyer and top fundraiser from his presidential campaign, to be the United States’ first ever resident ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But to Washington’s Asia policy community, Carden is  a complete unknown. Carden, ...

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On the same day he visited his boyhood home of Indonesia, President Obama nominated David Carden, a securities lawyer and top fundraiser from his presidential campaign, to be the United States’ first ever resident ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But to Washington’s Asia policy community, Carden is  a complete unknown.

Carden, who chairs the securities litigation and SEC enforcement practice at the law firm Jones Day, partnered with his wife Rebecca Riley to raise at least $500,000 for Obama’s campaign. The campaign didn’t disclose exact fundraising figures for their biggest bundlers, but Carden and Riley were among Obama’s top 35 fundraisers.

Obama’s presidential campaign raised at least $76.5 million from “bundling,” a means by which supporters who have exceeded their personal contribution limits round up contributions from friends, family, and associates and present them to the campaign in one big bundle.

Carden’s selection is another example of the White House’s tendency to give diplomatic posts to those who filled its campaign coffers, rather than regional experts or seasoned diplomats. Other examples of the phenomenon include the appointment of investment banker Louis Susman as ambassador to Britain, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Daniel Rooney as ambassador to Ireland, entertainment mogul Charles Rivkin as Ambassador to France, and California lawyer John Roos as ambassador to Japan.

The appointment comes at a crucial time for the Obama administration, which is actively attempting to deepen its engagement with Asian nations. The success or failure of that effort will, in large part, be linked to the performance of America’s first envoy to ASEAN who will live in Jakarta and work on this issue full time. ASEAN is also a key avenue through which the U.S. is addressing the rise of China and ASEAN countries are looking to Washington to match the increased pressure and influence being brought to bear on the region by Beijing.

The choice of Carden, who has limited diplomatic or regional expertise, came as a surprise to many in the Asia community that he will now be working with on a daily basis.

“We don’t know him,” said Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He doesn’t have a lot of experience in Southeast Asia as far as I can tell. I still don’t know the rationale for matching him up with this job.”

As an international securities litigation attorney, Carden has dealt with cases involving Asian clients, including in Indonesia, Singapore, China. He’s also dealt with clients from England, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and many other countries, according to the Jones Day website. He has represented several major financial firms, including Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch. (The latter three no longer exist).

If confirmed by the Senate, Carden would be the second U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, but the first to actually live in the region. Scot Marciel, who did the job from Washington while being dual-hatted as the deputy assistant secretary of state for southeast Asia, is now the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. The U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, which Marciel heads, will serve as the location for Carden’s new staff.

Carden’s job will be to work with the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, prepare for big ASEAN meetings and visits, and build up an institutional foundation for U.S. interaction with ASEAN particularly on issues related to business, trade, and investment.

“David Carden has been working and developing investment opportunities in Asia since the early 1990s — a market that he, like the president, long ago identified as critical to increasing U.S. exports and trade,” a White House official told The Cable. “As the first resident ambassador to ASEAN, Mr. Carden will work to implement the president’s plan to double exports over the next five years, as well as ASEAN’s mission to accelerate economic growth in the region, strengthen ties between the ASEAN nations and the United States, and promote regional peace and stability.”

Bower said that Carden’s appointment probably signals the end of the notion that the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN might also be named the Special Envoy to Burma, as some, such as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), have advocated.

“He would really be out of his depth to do both jobs, and you would risk putting ASEAN back in the Burma box again,” Bower said, referring to previous American tendencies toward avoiding full engagement with ASEAN because the brutal Burmese regime is a member.

The uncertainty surrounding this new position is exactly why some Asia experts think Carden’s selection was a risky choice.

“Given that it’s a new position, the very fact that there are no rules for what the U.S. resident ambassador does, I would prefer to have someone with extensive diplomatic experience,” said Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Someone with a diplomatic background is more preferable because you’re not just dealing with one country you can bone up on, you’re dealing with 10 countries.”

Not that bringing in a new face is necessarily bad, Auslin noted. For example, Obama’s selection of campaign fundraiser John Roos to be U.S. ambassador to Japan at first worried Tokyo, but seems to be working out now.

But the ASEAN post is also unique because there are so many details that have yet to be ironed out regarding how Carden would interact with Marciel, the other nine U.S. ambassadors to ASEAN, the State Department, etc.

“We already have ambassadors to all of these nations, now we are going to have someone on top of that structure. We just don’t know how much of this has been thought out,” Auslin said.

Carden’s Senate confirmation hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, will offer a glimpse into how much he knows about the region he would be moving to, and how much he has thought through his role as America’s top envoy to Southeast Asia. But some see his selection as an indication that the White House is not happy with its system of appointing powerful envoys with broad mandates to run specific regions or issues.

“Either they want somebody like Holbrooke to come in and lead or they are just giving out titles and the real policymaking will still be centered back here in Washington,” Auslin said. “We just don’t know how this is going to work out.”

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