- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama said Friday that he wants to rejuvenate the State Department by recruiting younger staffers and prefers civil service officers as ambassadors.

Mr. Obama said he is focused on immediately filling appointments that are critical, such as the ambassador to Iraq, and hasn’t given much thought to the others.

He also said he has spoken to Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton about “rejuvenating” the State Department.

“I want to recruit young people into the State Department to feel that this is a career track that they can be on for the long term,” he said at a news conference following his formal announcement of his final intelligence nominations.

Mr. Obama has long stressed the need for diplomacy in approaching foreign policy, and promised on the campaign trail to expand the number of foreign service officers who serve abroad. He also said he would open foreign consulates that had been shuttered.

A reporter asked whether Mr. Obama would follow the tradition and name political donors to coveted ambassador positions. The president-elect said “there probably will be some,” though he added that his preference is that civil service officers serve when possible in ambassador posts.

“It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants, but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service,” he said, adding that any of his appointees would be high-quality professionals.

About one-third of the ambassadorships are now held by noncareer appointees.

Over the summer, the leaders of the American Academy of Diplomacy urged Mr. Obama and Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain to pledge that they would reduce political appointments to just 10 percent of ambassadorships if elected.

“Given the opportunity that we believe will exist to commit our nation to active diplomatic engagement with the world in pursuit of America’s interests, the new president will need to pay close attention to these appointments,” the group wrote.

It also said the ambassadors should have “the qualities of leadership, judgment and management required of their demanding positions.”

The group said some noncareer ambassadors are understandable, but added that “too often ambassadorships have served as political rewards for unqualified candidates.”

The current State Department declined to comment and a Clinton spokesman referred questions about the president-elect’s comments back to the Obama transition team. Mrs. Clinton’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

During the news conference, Mr. Obama said the Iraqi ambassador post is “very important.” He noted that current ambassador, Ryan Crocker, has done “outstanding work,” though hinted that he would be replaced because of his long tenure.

“He has been a remarkable public servant. … [He] is one of the unsung heroes in terms of reducing violence in Iraq. But he has been serving there a very long time in a very difficult post,” he said.

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