Memo to Obama: Handing Embassy Jobs to Big Donors Can Be Dangerous

From the former ambassador to Jamaica who called the island country's citizens "idiots" and "children" to the Singapore ambassador who didn't know there were two different Koreas, the spoils system has produced some doozies.


While serving as the American ambassador to Singapore from 1978 to 1980, Richard Kneip turned to his staff and asked, according to his then-deputy, “You mean there was a war between India and Pakistan? What was that all about?” Another of his questions, also according to his staffer: “Did you say there are two separate Korean governments? How come?”

Previously a lifelong resident of South Dakota — where he’d served as governor before his ambassadorial appointment — and with obviously large gaps in his knowledge of the world, Kneip wasn’t the most logical choice as the top U.S. envoy to Singapore. But he, like scores of ambassadors before and after him, got the gig because of his political ties with a president — in this case, Jimmy Carter.

Since President Barack Obama took office promising “to reform the political-appointee process” and hold nominees to a “standard of proven excellence,” he’s come under fire for falling far short of that pledge. Rather than reform the process, he’s actually used the spoils system for ambassadors more than his recent predecessors.

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed two of his most contentious nominees, both former campaign contributors, in very narrow votes. Noah Mamet, now ambassador to Argentina, has never visited the country and doesn’t speak Spanish. As for the new ambassador to Hungary, Colleen Bell’s main claim to fame is that she was a producer for the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. Still awaiting confirmation is George Tsunis, nominated as ambassador to Norway. He badly botched his confirmation hearing in January when he referred, among other things, to Norway’s (non-existent) president.

But as wildly unqualified as these nominees may be, they’re far from the first amateurs the United States has credentialed to represent it overseas. In fact, U.S. presidents have been using ambassadorial appointments to reward their political supporters since at least the time of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. In 1971, President Nixon told his chief of staff that “anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000…. I’m not going to do it for political friends and all that crap.”

And these nominees have been botching their confirmation hearings or, worse, their jobs, for just as long. At his 1957 hearing, Maxwell Gluck, President Eisenhower’s nominee for ambassador to Sri Lanka and the wealthy founder of a clothing store chain, admitted he couldn’t pronounce the name of the country’s prime minister and cogently observed that among the Sri Lankan population there are “people who are friendly and unfriendly.” In 1989, the Senate declined to confirm real-estate heiress and President George H.W. Bush campaign donor Joy Silverman as ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean owing to her utter lack of professional experience or even a college degree.

Posh and wealthy donor Vincent de Roulet, Nixon’s nominee for ambassador to Jamaica and many other people’s nominee for worst American ambassador ever, publicly referred to the island’s citizens as “the most spoiled race of people in the world,” “idiots,” and “children.” He later bragged that he’d strong-armed the country’s prime minister-to-be into agreeing not to nationalize the country’s bauxite industry with the threat that he’d otherwise intervene in the country’s elections. When de Roulet left the country after four years, the Jamaican government declared him persona non grata.

Then there was John Gavin, a former actor and businessman appointed by President Reagan as ambassador to Mexico, whom a 1986 article in the Los Angeles Times described as a man with “an instinctive ability to antagonize just about everyone whom diplomats usually try to cultivate.” For example, “even before the Senate confirmed him, Gavin presided at a White House meeting for Mexican newspaper luminaries at which he told the representative of Excelsior, probably Mexico’s most powerful journal, that the newspaper was a ‘Red rag.’ For good measure, he called Mexico’s foreign minister — who luckily was not present — a ‘Red.'”

Mexican government representatives, in turn, gave Gavin the cold shoulder, and the country’s press called him “trash.” At the end of his five-year tenure, Mexican officials greeted his farewell speech with silence, none of them able to muster up anything kind to say. Finally, a well-known comedian offered some token words. “The implication was clear,” the Los Angeles Times recounted. “To the Mexicans, Gavin was still little more than an actor.”

William Wilson, another Reagan political nominee and the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, resigned after it came to light that he had met with Muammar al-Qaddafi and was in contact with other Libyan officials — at a time when the United States was working to diplomatically isolate Libya and impose strict economic sanctions.

The ratio of political appointees to career Foreign Service officers in ambassadorial positions has remained more or less consistent since the 1950s, hovering around 30 percent political nominees and 70 percent career diplomats. Obama’s proportion of political nominees has risen slightly above the average, particularly in his second term, when around 40 percent of his nominees have been political picks. Over the course of his presidency, 33 percent of his confirmed ambassadors have been political nominees. Those figures are comparable to the ratios during the Kennedy and Reagan presidencies.

Although critics have bemoaned this large number of political appointees as the source of U.S. diplomatic incompetence, another legendarily bad ambassador was a career member of the Foreign Service. Henry Lane Wilson was appointed by President Taft as ambassador to Mexico at the start of the 1910 revolution and is another candidate for America’s worst ambassador ever. Described by one historian as an “inveterate alcoholic, apostle of dollar diplomacy, and conspirator in Mexico’s internal affairs,” Wilson encouraged a bloody coup against Francisco I. Madero by Gen. Victoriano Huerta — the sort of role usually reserved for the CIA rather than a credentialed diplomat — before being fired by President Wilson.

Clearly, the State Department can’t win them all with career diplomats, either.

Photo credit: Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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