- - Monday, March 17, 2014

”I’m no real expert on China.” Sobering words to hear from the man nominated by President Obama to be U.S. ambassador to China.

That’s what Sen. Max Baucus said during his confirmation hearing in January when asked some detailed questions about U.S.-China policy.

At least Mr. Baucus had actually been to China. Not all of President Obama’s nominees for ambassadorships can say that.

Consider this exchange between Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Noah Mamet, during the latter’s confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Argentina:

Mr. Rubio: “Mr. Mamet, have you been to Argentina?”

Mr. Mamet: “Senator, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to be there. I’ve traveled pretty extensively around the world, but I haven’t yet had a chance.”

Others have displayed an alarmingly flimsy grasp of how politics work in the country where they would serve.

For example, when Sen. John McCain asked George Tsunis, prospective ambassador to Norway, “What do you think the appeal of the Progress Party was to the Norwegian voters?” Mr. Tsunis called them a “fringe element” that “Norway has been very quick to denounce.”

At which point, Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, noted that the Progress Party is part of Norway’s coalition government. “I stand corrected,” Mr. Tsunis replied.

Let’s ask a more basic question: Why are there political ambassadors?

Over many years of traveling around the world, I have had the opportunity to meet some extraordinary women and men who have served as U.S. representatives on virtually every continent. Some have been career Foreign Service officers; others have been political appointees.

By and large, these individuals have performed yeoman service to represent our country under often difficult and challenging circumstances.

I remember long sessions with former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat appointed by Jimmy Carter and reappointed by Ronald Reagan to the critically important post of ambassador to Japan. He was later succeeded by House Speaker Tom Foley, and then by Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican.

Today, the post of ambassador to Japan is held by a famous person whose qualifications for appointment to the embassy in Tokyo are, well, limited.

Caroline Kennedy may have caught the fancy of the Japanese people, but her qualifications to represent our nation in one of the most important posts internationally are not obvious.

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