Obama’s ambassador picks turn into embarrassment

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The tradition of appointing campaign fundraisers to ambassadorships is coming back to embarrass President Obama and his diplomatic corps with nominees who are ignorant of the countries in which they’ll be working.

Two of Mr. Obama’s former campaign “bundlers” who each raised more than $500,000 for his elections, Noah Bryson Mamet and George Tsunis, admitted in Senate hearings that they’ve never visited the countries where they are to serve as ambassadors. The president nominated Mr. Mamet for the top diplomatic job in Argentina and Mr. Tsunis for the post in Norway.


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Aside from never having set foot in the countries, both nominees shocked senators and other observers with their minimal knowledge of those nations, even after they’d had time to prepare for their confirmation hearings.

Mr. Tsunis, for example, didn’t know that there is no Norwegian president, the country instead having a prime minister as its head of government and a ceremonial king as head of state. He also said the Norwegian government had denounced a party that is a member of its ruling coalition.

The Buenos Aires Herald lamented in an editorial that Mr. Mamet displayed “ignorance and misgivings” about life in Argentina.

“It’s embarrassing for the administration,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And it’s demoralizing for the professional foreign service. This general pattern suggests that money talks at the highest levels.”

Mr. Obama came into office promising to change the role of money influencing politics. But where ambassadorships are concerned — postings in such inviting countries as Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands — Mr. Obama has surpassed his immediate predecessors in rewarding political supporters with the sweetest assignments.

From 2009 through last week, 37 percent of Mr. Obama’s diplomatic appointments went to political appointees. The American Foreign Service Association said that’s more than George W. Bush (30.02 percent), Bill Clinton (27.82 percent) and George H.W. Bush (30.3 percent). Ronald Reagan gave 38 percent of his diplomatic posts to political appointees.

Government watchdogs say that while all presidents play this game, Mr. Obama is getting blowback because he promised to change Washington’s political culture.

“The problem for Obama is that he promised he was going to do something different, and then he didn’t,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “So he just looks hypocritical. It’s just business as usual.”

She said Mr. Obama is “doing exactly what every other president does.”

But she added, “If you’re going to be ambassador to Norway and get up there and say you had no idea it’s a constitutional monarchy, it seems like maybe you should have studied up. Maybe we don’t care about Norway — that seems to be the message.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney defended the administration’s record Wednesday in appointing qualified ambassadors.

“The president takes an approach where he finds qualified nominees for these posts from a variety of walks of life, and in that, he’s not different from his predecessors,” Mr. Carney said. “Being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one.”

He pointed to Charles Rivkin, former U.S. ambassador to France who served as a finance chairman for Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, and John Roos, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, as political appointees who “have been widely noted as enormously effective and successful.”

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