A group of former diplomats whose ranks include all living ex-secretaries of state has urged Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain to commit to reducing significantly the number of political ambassadorial appointments if either of them becomes president.
Such a pledge has been a nonstarter in the past, when the promise of plush postings overseas lured large campaign donations. But analysts say the change is doable in the era of Internet-based fundraising.
The American Academy of Diplomacy sent letters to the two presumptive presidential candidates last week, proposing several criteria for choosing non-career ambassadors, including foreign affairs experience, communication and persuasion skills, and leadership abilities.
“Given the demanding tasks ambassadors confront daily in leading our diplomatic missions, the academy recommends the candidates commit to appointing only the most qualified ambassadors, preferably from the career Foreign Service,” the group’s chairman and president, Thomas R. Pickering and Ronald E. Neumann, said in the letter.
“The academy believes a new target in the area of 10 percent of non-career appointees should be adopted,” they added. “This percentage has historically been at a 33-percent average level since President Kennedy’s administration.”
Although cutting the number so drastically might have turned away some campaign fundraisers and donors in the past, analysts say, it would not make a big difference now because of the large amount of money the candidates have been raising online.
“It might be perfectly fine in today’s climate, where you can raise more money over the Internet than ever before,” to make a pledge such as the one the academy has called for, said Steven Hill, director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation.
“With Barack Obama raising so much money over the Internet, it might be easier for him to agree to something like this, because perhaps he’s not as dependent on large donors who want that kind of quid pro quo,” Mr. Hill said.
Spokesmen for both the Obama and McCain campaigns declined to comment on the academy’s proposal.
All ambassadorial appointees undergo a two-week training course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, which career diplomats say is not long and substantive enough to teach someone with no foreign policy or any government experience how to represent the United States abroad.
President Bush’s ambassador to a European country, who had been a businessman before his appointment, acknowledged to The Washington Times in 2003 that he was not sure where exactly that country was on the map when he received a call from the White House asking him to serve there.
At the same time, career diplomats say that a qualified political appointee sometimes makes a better ambassador because of his or her personal relationship with the president.
“There is no question that we’ve had outstanding non-career ambassadors,” Mr. Neumann said, such as Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff who was ambassador to Japan during Mr. Bush’s first term.
John Samples, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, said presidents are “entitled to have close political allies as ambassadors,” and that he does not “buy the argument” in the academy’s letter.
“This advice would make the president hostage to the career foreign policy staff - a group that may or may not support the larger political aims of his presidency,” he said.
Mr. Neumann, who was ambassador to Afghanistan until last year, said the academy is not suggesting abandoning the practice, but limiting it to the most qualified candidates.
“The American people wouldn’t use a toothpaste that has not been certified by the government or drive over a bridge that wasn’t built according to the highest standards,” he said. “Why do people think that anyone can do foreign policy?”
John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union of American diplomats, said the Foreign Service Act of 1980 “made an effort to establish minimum qualifications for ambassadors, but the law clearly was not as effective as the drafters had hoped.”
“It is up to the president to decide who to nominate for ambassadorships,” he said. “However, the Constitution empowers the Senate to make the final decision on which nominees to confirm, and also gives the Congress the power to establish qualifications for positions and set other limits.”