- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

Imagine a simple change, a meaningful difference in foreign relations: abandon the practice of using ambassadorships as payoffs, or gifts. This is not intended to demean the intelligence, character, patriotism or abilities of recipients of this irrational largess. They are not the issue - the policy is.

The United States is the only developed nation routinely naming about a third of its ambassadors on the basis of financial contributions, or on who rather than what they know. A lack of extensive, hands-on expertise in the complicated, sometimes critical processes of protecting and advancing America’s manifold interests is nothing to be ashamed of. It certainly disqualifies anyone from attempting to manage an embassy, however, especially since political appointees prefer embassies in the more important, busier - and more comfortable - countries.

Every organization lists extensive experience as the primary employment requirement at senior levels. The rationale is understandable. Managers must be familiar with the work if, as ambassadors are directed and expected to do, they are to supervise those performing it.

This requires solid grounding in the esoteric, often fractious Washington arena, in which many agencies work on formulating foreign policy. In theory, the secretary of state has overall responsibility for coordinating the process, but no agency can tell another agency what to do. Only the White House has that authority.

Foreign policies are only words, however, until implemented, and that takes place overseas, where more than 30 agencies have personnel and programs. Embassies and their component agencies constantly deal with, not in any particular order: economics, human rights, trade, military affairs, democratization, labor, development, information, politics, terrorism, narcotics, science and technology, environment, visas, regional cooperation, internal stability, immigration, agriculture, multilateral affairs, intelligence, refugees, intellectual property rights, citizen protection, staffing, budget, operations, personnel, security, morale, and much more.

By federal law and presidential directive, an ambassador (referred to in those documents only as “chief of mission,” the operational title) is the personal representative of the president, and has “full responsibility for the coordination, direction and supervision of all Executive Branch agencies” in their country of assignment. The objective is to inject a measure of coordination and control at the implementation end, which is less difficult and more efficient than at the formulation end.

To perform effectively, ambassadors must have the knowledge and background required to supervise all employees in carrying out their various duties promptly, properly, and in accordance with the overall objectives laid out in Washington. To expect a beginner to deal competently with these matters reveals a lack of understanding of the word “experienced.”

Organizations spend years training people to serve capably at lower levels, decades for middle and upper levels. Beginners cannot do so at the top, because there is no on-the-job training program for bosses, who are expected to know the work. Apprentice ambassadors may have high levels of intelligence, energy and accomplishments, all of them irrelevant, since at most they can deal competently with only a very small fraction of the total job.

Career ambassadors are not automatically more capable, effective or intelligent than political appointees, but they do have the compelling, undeniable advantage of experience. They know the rules, the machinery, the players, the procedures, the cultures, the languages, the history, the methodology. In short, they know the work.

Despite the irrefutable logic of relying on experienced professionals in all other lines of endeavor, the current spoils system has advocates, who put forward the following arguments.

Presidents nominate whomever they chooseAbsolutely, they are his personal representatives. Theoretically, the only criteria would be expected performance, but political ambassadorships reflect The Joy of Patronage. The Founding Fathers gave the Senate “advise and consent” control over nominations, but it routinely confirms all but the most egregiously unqualified.

Other nations welcome political ambassadors.Wrong. No foreign government wants a beginner, especially one representing the hyper-power. Press comments and editorials have complained that a novice indicates the relationship is not considered important.

Businesses do the same. Genuine beginners are only brought in as senior executives, at headquarters, the strategic level. No company puts neophytes in charge of manufacturing facilities, the functional equivalent of embassies, where the focus is tactical - management and supervision.

Political ambassadors can raise issues directly with the president. Maybe, but is that good? It would only be done to bypass the National Security system, to advance the host nation’s interests. If not close friends, often the case, they might not get through, let alone discuss an arcane subject.

Noncareer appointees can bring fresh perspectives. Sophistry. That attempts to make inexperience a qualification. Dealing with the competing interests of other nations, often involving contentious issues, can make new approaches irrelevant, or even counterproductive. Note also that Washington agencies are run by outsiders, who can inject whatever fresh perspectives are actually needed.

The concept applies in civilian control of the Defense Department.Wrong. Civilians are never given command of troops, planes or ships. Some countries sold commissions, until familiarity with warfare was recognized as a better qualification than money.

There have been some excellent political ambassadors. That statement underlines the basic problem. They are not chosen on the basis of experience, qualifications or anticipated performance. This results in many marginal performers and a few genuine embarrassments. Some are mentioned in the December issue of the Washington Diplomat, “Reformers in the U.S. Call for Fewer Ambassador Daddy Warbucks” (www.washdiplomat.com).

Political ambassadors only need a good deputy to do an effective job. Sophistry. What possible use would a good deputy have for a novice ambassador? The phrase painfully describes a figurehead, whose most meaningful contribution would be to keep out of the way. If true, anyone could launch a space shuttle, (“Push that button,”) or perform open heart surgery, (“Cut this thing.”)

Our global involvement is constant, massive, important, and can suddenly become serious in unexpected places and times. There is far too much at stake to place the always complicated and significant, sometimes critical responsibilities of ambassadors in the hands of unqualified political appointees. America requires and deserves better than using its most important overseas positions as party favors for the inexperienced.

Edward Peck is a former chief of mission in Iraq and Mauritania and served as executive secretary of the American Academy of Diplomacy, evaluating for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the qualifications of more than 200 career and noncareer ambassadorial nominees.

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