The micro-review of Dennis Jett’s American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats is this: Since 1960, 72 percent of America’s ambassadors to Western Europe and the Caribbean have been political appointees, their primary if often only qualification being that they donated obscene amounts of money to the guy who won the presidency. America is the only first world country that hands out ambassadorships as overt prizes of corruption. Many/most of these political ambassadors have done mediocre-to-poor jobs, and no one does much of anything about that, or even seems to care. Likely the only way to reform this sad system is to reform big money politics in America.
Getting to Know Our Ambassadors
Author Dennis Jett, himself a two-time career ambassador (meaning he served as a State Department diplomat, rising through the ranks to one of its highest positions) is now a professor of international relations and founding faculty member of the School of International Affairs at Penn State University. His book is one of the few (only?) volumes that parses the idea of politically-appointed ambassadors outside of a partisan rubric, and is the only one I am aware of that fully details the actual process and mechanics of becoming an ambassador. It also manages to be a quick, entertaining read, all at the same time. While Jett does not traffic in gossip, his book is filled with anecdotes and details that reveal the at times pathetic actions of America’s representatives abroad.
How about the one whose signature accomplishment was a new mattress for her residence? The one who was absent from her assigned country almost half the time? The ones who stumbled in front of the very host country officials they were supposed to get to know? The one who insisted on singing popular tunes at all of his formal dinners, drowning out critical sidebar interactions? The one who… well, you get the idea.
A Little History
Professor Jett’s book begins with a history of America’s ambassadorship, noting that an early attempt to reform the spoils system so angered one job-seeker that he assassinated President Garfield. Things only went downhill from there.
Various well-meaning moves by Presidents from Taft to Teddy Roosevelt failed to budge the spoils system through Republican and Democratic administrations. Along the way presidents stopped trying to change the system and began to openly embrace it as a tool to reward both individual donors and, the whales of any campaign, the “bundlers,” those connected individuals who not only drop off millions of their own money, but get their wealthy friends to do the same.
It would be foolish to expect someone not to want something in return for their cash.
The Best and the Worst
To be fair, Jett offers his share of criticism to ambassadors in general (about 70 percent are in fact State Department careerists, though as noted, career diplomats are disproportionately assigned to hardship posts; some 14 percent of African embassies are run by career Foreign Service Officers.)
One of the most overriding criticisms is the lack of standards and definitions of success for an ambassador. Easier to delineate are the points of failure, and Jett’s book has far too many examples for any taxpayer to be happy about. The problems range from ambassadors who seem to have little-to-no interest in the job save some social aspects and the title itself, to those who hamstring an embassy through mis- or micromanagement.
The better ambassadors (surprise!) use the resources at hand well, rely on their career No. 2 (the Deputy Chief of Mission, or DCM) to handle most of the internal embassy management, and respect the chain of command. Add to that an ambassador who is willing to work with not only the State Department personnel under his/her direct authority, but also the many other Federal workers in a modern embassy, never mind the ever-growing military presence abroad, and you have a recipe for success. The book is clear what happens in the inverse.
American Ambassadors is also an excellent resource for those seeking to learn more of the inside baseball side of the American ambassador game. Jett surveys the roles of women, African-Americans and gay ambassadors, and charts the changing way race and religion have played out in assignments. Readers get to see the lengthy actual questionnaire used to vett Obama’s appointees, guidelines drawn up for successful ambassadors by informed third parties, and examples of the Letters of Instruction three presidents wrote as “marching orders” to their new envoys. These resources are likely of more use to a student, researcher or potential political appointee than a general reader, but are not uninteresting to browse.
Reform to a spoils system so deeply embedded in the way someone gets elected to the White House depends on reform of how someone gets elected to the White House. This is a task far beyond the scope of Jett’s book, though he touches on some ideas. Recent Supreme Court decisions that allow virtually unlimited corporate funds to flow nakedly into the system won’t help.
So if you can’t do away with the spoils system, the only alternative left is to better prepare the political appointees. Making Dennis Jett’s American Ambassadors required reading for every person up for consideration would be a hell of a start.
Full Disclosure: Like Jett, I also was a career Foreign Service Officer. Unlike Jett, I never rose beyond the middle ranks. Jett also cites my issues with the Department of State as an example of the perils of dissent inside the organization.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
You don’t have to know anything, or have any specific background or training, to be the president’s personal representative abroad and conduct foreign policy on behalf of the World’s Most Powerful Nation (c). You do have to donate heavily to the president to buy one of those appointments.
Back during my own 24 years working for the State Department as a diplomatic serf my mother asked what I’d have to do to make ambassador. The answer was simple: dad needed to die young, and mom should donate the entire inheritance to the winner of the next presidential election. I’d get appointed and hobnob with State’s elite!
For so many reasons, I am glad dad is still alive.
What is an Ambassador?
The U.S. ambassador is the head of the embassy in a particular country, and serves as the senior representative for the United States there. S/he interacts personally with important leaders of the host country, negotiates on behalf of the U.S. and serves as America’s public face and mascot, appearing in the media, making public appearances and hosting social events that in some parts of the world are the primary venue for serious business. Some say it’s an important job. Guys like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson did it once.
Embassies are otherwise primarily staffed by foreign service officers, folks from the State Department who are diplomatic professionals. The question here is between those two groups– political hacks or trained professionals– who should be an ambassador?
Is the U.S. Exceptional?
The U.S. is exceptional, because every other major country in the entire known universe answered the question already: being an ambassador is a job for professionals. It makes sense that a person who likely has already served in a country, who probably speaks the language and who is familiar both with U.S. foreign policy and the mechanics of diplomacy might do a better job than a TV soap opera producer who turned over $800,000 to the president’s campaign (true; see below.) Why, in almost any other setting other than U.S. politics, that would be called corruption.
A quick note to people of the internet. Every political party in power doles out ambassadorial appointments as patronage, and has, from the 19th century to the present day. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, the Boston Tea Party and all the rest did it and do it. Obama is slightly ahead of the 30 percent historical average, though many pundits are over-weighing his second term picks because he is filling his First Class (i.e., political posts) before the generally mediocre locations allocated to career jobs. This is true bipartisan sleaze, an issue we can all get into regardless of our views on other issues.
Yet despite the clear record of patronage, the State Department insists that political campaign donations have nothing to do with diplomatic nominations. “Either giving or not giving money doesn’t affect either way. It doesn’t make you more or less qualified,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters this week. Talk about your credibility. You could almost watch it drain out of the spokeswoman as she spoke the words with a straight face.
Why It Matters
Many, many politically appointed ambassadors are frighteningly unqualified. Sure, many don’t have a clue about the country they’ll serve in and very, very few have any language skills or experience in diplomacy. Some haven’t even been abroad, except maybe a bus tour or two. The latest crop, however, are reaching new heights of stupidity:
–The nominee to China admitted he’s no expert on China;
–The nominee to Argentina never set foot there and speaks no Spanish. Same for the nominee to Iceland, who never visited and also does not speak Spanish, though that is less important in Iceland;
–The nominee to Norway insulted their government in his Senate approval hearing (he was approved by the Senate anyway!)
–Then there is Colleen Bell, the nominee for Hungary, whose qualifications include being the producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful” TV soap opera, and of course raising $800,000 for Obama. She stammered her way through testimony to the point where John McCain basically begged her to just shut up as a kind of mercy killing.
Political Appointees in the Wild
What happens to these kinds of boneheads abroad is not hard to imagine. Some wonderfully extreme cases include the American ambassador to Finland, who sent out official Christmas cards with him in “Magic Mike” beefcake poses and whose signature accomplishment is basically renovating his own office. A political appointee ambassador to Kenya paralyzed his embassy with personnel demands, including internet access in his executive toilet. The political appointee ambassador to Belgium was accused of soliciting sexual favors from prostitutes and minor children.
As for many other political appointees, some, like Caroline Kennedy in Japan, understand they are just living photo-ops and stay out of the way of the adults working (which may sum up Kennedy’s entire life.) A few appointees become sentient and actually turn out to be decent managers based on their business backgrounds before being sidelined by State’s incestuous culture. The best political appointees are old pols like Howard Baker, whose Washington connections and political savvy make them at least effective stooges for the president’s personal political agenda, if not always America’s.
Why It May Not Matter
The bad news is that there are equal inconsistencies on the side of State Department professionals who become ambassadors outside the political appointee spoils system.
Many, especially to smaller nations (think Africa, parts of the Middle East), have spent most of their careers in the neighborhood, and have built up significant, trusted relationships. Many of these career ambassadors got to know young leaders long ago, and have kept the relationship intact as those men and women ascended into positions of authority. Pretty cool to call your old buddy and sort out a diplomatic problem using first names and shared experiences as a base.
There are exceptions to excellence; watch one of our career ambassador’s in a Congressional hearing not know how much money his embassy is spending in Afghanistan nor the U.S. death toll for the year.
Unfortunately, even for out-of-the-way places, it is very hard to make it to ambassador without sucking up to State’s big shots, even if you have the chops to do the job well. Every careerist at State (i.e., everyone) wants that title, the big house and the limo that comes with the job. As an autocracy, just being the most qualified for anything inside State is rarely enough. That leaves plenty of suck ups, wankers and toadies of the higher ups mucking around to get into an ambassador’s chair. It’s unavoidable.
The last sticking point on why foreign service officers can make lousy ambassadors is the dual nature of the job. While in most cases the ambassador’s primary task is headline-level “policy,” s/he also is the head of the embassy. Many administrative and personnel issues rise to the ambassador’s office. Most State Department ambassadors have gotten as far as they did based nearly 100 percent on those policy things, and many thus make very poor managers. The best defer the decisions to their own management staff; the worst dive in, wielding power without responsibility and the very worst use the position to settle old scores and promote the interests of their own lickspittles.
Why It Really, Really Doesn’t Matter
Critics of political appointee ambassadors inside State are quick to point out that people don’t get appointed as generals in the military. Senior leaders in the Army are expected to have come up through the ranks. Admirals have captained ships. Marine generals have eaten snakes, that sort of thing.
The reason big campaign donors don’t get appointed as generals in the military is because what generals do can matter, matter beyond at least embarrassing the nation. Not to say all or even most generals make the right calls, but to say that generals need technical knowledge of the services they work for, and the decisions they make literally affect lives and can shape world events.
Ambassadors are increasingly becoming curios left over from a distant past, before instant worldwide telephone and internet communications, before senior White House officials could jet around the world, a past when ambassadors actually had to make big decisions in far-off places. Nowadays most ambassadors don’t change their socks without “conferring with Washington.” Their own jobs matter less and less, as does the State Department they work with.
So never mind ambassador slots, which often stay empty for months as donors wrangle for the prime positions. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that more than one fourth of all U.S. State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008.
In government, what matters most gets funded most. There are more military band members than State Department foreign service officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. The State Department is now a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has 22,000. The Department of Defense has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the U.S.
In an age of military ascendancy, when State and diplomacy are seen as tools to buy time for later military action instead of as potential solutions themselves, it just might not matter who is ambassador anymore. Of course the man or woman in the chair might best avoid sexual solicitation of minors and inane, embarrassing acts, but really, that’s just a nice thing, not a requirement.
Old-school political patronage was about giveaways, handing over some largely ceremonial job to a hack. The medieval kings had it down, appointing dukes and grand viziers and equipping them with plumed hats and lots of gold braid while ensuring they stayed out of the way.
Political appointee or career foreign service officer as ambassador? Why does it matter?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has about 22,000. The Department of Defense (DOD) has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the US.
At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. The most recent round of bloodletting saw State lose some $8 billion while DOD gained another $5 billion. The found fiver at DOD will hardly be noticed in their overall budget of $671 billion. The $8 billion loss from State’s total of $47 billion will further cripple the organization. The pattern is familiar and has dogged State-DOD throughout the war of terror years. No more taxi vouchers and office supplies for you!
What you do get for your money is the militarization of foreign policy. During my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Leader I watched with some sadness as the majority of our engagement with Iraqis in the field was conducted by young Army captains. I was the lone Foreign Service Officer assigned to a brigade of some 3000 soldiers and while I stayed busy and traveled out of the Forward Operating Base almost daily, there was only so much of me, even overweight and often incompetent as I am. I covered a rural area that sprawled like spilled paint, some one million Iraqis.
The bottom line was that for most Iraqis not living and working in the Green Zone, the only Americans they saw wore green and carried weapons.
The militarization issue was always visible at the smallest units of diplomacy in Iraq, the PRTs. The Department of State struggled to field adequate numbers of qualified employees from among its own ranks, forcing the creation of an army of contractors, called 3161s after the name of the legislation in 5 USC 3161 that created their hiring program. The need for 3161s to live on a military base skewed hiring toward self-selecting former military, nearly self-defeating the idea of providing a civilian side to reconstruction.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction in its review of the PRTs’ first year of operation found an Army veterinarian developing agriculture programs, an Air Force aviation maintenance manager as a PRT co-leader, and advisers to Iraqi provincial governors who included a former Navy submariner, a Marine ultrasound technician, and an Army drill sergeant. My own PRT staff fit a similar profile, with the exception of my agricultural advisor, a pig farmer from Missouri. He always felt a bit out of place in Iraq when no one wanted to discuss hogs with him.
To be fair, out in the field many of those young Army captains did a pretty good job of engaging Iraqis. Many officers were smart, well-educated and generally enthusiastic about their missions of handing out supplies, reconstructing schools and government buildings and generally promoting the idea that America wanted to be besty friends with Iraq over three cups of tea. The problem, however, went something like this:
Captain: Here’s money for a new village well. We’re friends now, brother.
Iraqi: You invaded our country, occupy it still and accidentally, you say, killed my son in an air raid.
Captain: That wasn’t me dude. I was in college when that happened.
Iraqi: They looked like you. You invaded my country, occupy it still and accidentally, you say, killed my son.
Captain: Um, how about some more money to buy sheep? Some medical supplies?
Iraqi: Can you guys please finish your tea and just leave Iraq?
Unfortunately, that was the good news. There were also some young officers uncomfortable with the hearts and minds mission, unable to switch back and forth from their game face to their happy face seventy two times a day. I can’t blame them; diplomacy is not what they were trained to do. Folks don’t seem to understand that if you want a young kid to put down his rifle, you have to give him some other kind to tools to get what he needs. Patton had a clear mission that could be communicated down to the lowest levels: kill Germans until we reach Berlin, then stop. Unless/until we can attain the same clarity in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, we do a disservice to our soldiers as they risk their lives trying to implement our ambiguity.
You see, there is something to be said for having America’s engagements overseas done by civilians. That system—we call it diplomacy—has worked pretty well for what it is for most of the last couple of thousand years. The military does some stuff well, and diplomats do some stuff well. Remember your Clausewitz: war is what happens only after diplomacy fails.
Despite the idea of foreign policy being conducted by diplomats, not soldiers, dating back to the ancients, America increasingly seems to be asking its soldiers to take over the job. Have a look at Afghanistan, where beginning last summer DOD personnel (albeit current civilians) began replacing previously untrained US military personnel and contractors as advisers to top levels of the Afghan defense and interior ministries. The credit goes to a relatively new Pentagon program called the Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA).
Within two months after the first deployment of 17 advisers in Kabul, General Petraeus demanded 100 more before the end of this year. Another such program is the Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI), which aims at the defense ministries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It identifies gaps and then supplies teams of subject matter experts to work with a partner nation.
(BTW, if you’re looking for this kind of work, there are plenty of positions.)
In scenic southwest Asia, recent budget maneuvers have sent the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF) back to the Pentagon for the rest of the year at least. The Pentagon was the original owner of that fund. Transferring the money as well as the program’s management to State was a key part of Secretary Clinton’s plan to assert more State Department control of foreign assistance programs.
State tried to take over the PCCF in early 2010; some top senators wanted to give State control over the fund but couldn’t do so last year because State wasn’t prepared to take on the mission.
As you read this, Congress considers how much of the mission in Iraq (and the money that goes with it) will be passed to State when the military effects some form of a pullout from that country later this year. No one is sure what will happen; Senator Lindsey Graham is doubtful State can do it without the military around.
The really hah hah not really funny part of this is that DOD does not want all this money and all these missions. In a reversal of bureaucratic infighting that could yet unset the time-space continuum, the loudest voice on the Hill asking for more money for State is SecDef Gates. “The State Department has an unusually strong advocate in Secretary Gates in that regard,” Senator Carl Levin noted. In fact, as Foreign Policy explained, Gates floated a memo proposing that State and DOD share about $2 billion worth of foreign assistance money and administer the accounts jointly. But Hill staffers, who would be the ones appropriating the money, said there was no follow-through.
“I think there is a self-limiting quality to how Embassy Baghdad is functioning,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, the recently returned commander of all multinational forces in Iraq’s northern region.
“They are not actually doing the research to say this is what we need and if you don’t give me this, this is what we are going to have to take away and here is the effect it will have on the effort. Rather they are going through things and saying this is what we think the piece of the pie is we’re are going to get and here is some stuff we could do for that money. That’s all fine and good, but if you don’t actually accomplish the mission in the end, then you actually fail. What good is that?”
For example, Caslen said the PRTs role in actually helping Iraqis in rural areas with reconstruction is vital and abandoning it in any way would be a mistake. “The task that the Iraqis value more than anything is reconstruction and that clearly is a PRT task,” Caslen said. Regarding plans to alter the PRTs away from the reconstruction mission, he said, “That course of action puts our future relationship at risk. We definitely need the PRTs.”
The State Department started shutting down PRTs as early as 2009, typically due to lack of competent staffing. Most of the larger PRTs faded away or were combined in September 2010, and the whole PRT structure will disappear completely in Iraq by spring of this year.
While the military’s can-do responses to Congress keep paying off, State tends to run the bath water lukewarm when handed a task on the scale of PRT work.
Former PRT staffer Blake Stone offered this assessment:
This lack of specific planning guidance stemmed from the inherent inability of the State Department to engage in this sort of work—executing what essentially amounted to the last two phases of a military operation. State Department Foreign Service Officer skill sets are much too passive—the collecting and reporting of information, for example, were the professional stock-in-trade of both of our political cone FSO team leaders.
The primary interests of both our team leaders were good reporting and submitting weekly reports to Washington. The absence of the ability to plan, execute, and lead stability and reconstruction operations was painfully apparent—it just was not a required skill set or core competency within State. For those of us who came to the State Department directly from the military, this nearly universal truism was a constant source of frustration and disappointment. Our State Department leadership failed either to plan effectively or to lead the civilian reconstruction effort.
A military colleague working with another ePRT summed it all up, saying:
State is less concerned about what actually gets done. They don’t establish metrics for themselves, or measure accomplishments. More interested in process, policy, effective communication and establishing connections that allow them to generate good reports. The State Department is very happy just to be. And whether or not anything actually gets done is not important to them.
I wish the sad tales were confined to Iraq and State. Instead, here is an example of how badly broken the system really is: in FY2009 USAID was authorized $35 million to build cyclone shelters in Bangladesh. It was two-year money which will expire at the end of FY11. USAID was unable to execute the program and late last year proposed to spend the money developing home businesses instead for some reason. The US Ambassador to Bangladesh, recognizing that the Bangladeshis needed and had been offered cyclone shelters, requested that Special Operations Civil Affairs personnel instead execute the original program. USAID just finished transferring the money to PACOM and Special Operations troops and seeing to the construction of the shelters.
Bottom Line: As long as the civilian development agencies are unable to execute needed programs, and convinced that partner nations will be happy with any well-intentioned program whether or not it meets their expressed needs, the military will be the tool of choice.
Our execution of outreach programs reminds of a line from a Steppenwolf song–“He only had a dollar to live on ’til next Monday, but he spent it all on comfort for his mind.” If we are to get and effectively use a greater share of the budget, we need to spend the money on some goal beyond making us feel good about ourselves.
State continues to focus on nonsense while at the same time complaining that the military is usurping the State role.
The slow pace of rebalancing national security spending and the lack of a comprehensive strategy for guiding that process is the subject of a book by former OMB national security funding chief Gordon Adams, Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home.
“The tool kit is out of whack,” Adams told The Cable. “There’s been a major move over the last 10 years to expand the Defense Department’s agenda, which has been creeping into the foreign-policy agenda in new and expensive ways.”
What win can State point to to claw back Congressional confidence? What accomplishments, for example, will be cited as the Department works (read: fails) to convince Congress to pour more money into the Iraq mission and thus demilitarize that hunk o’ foreign policy love? The $58 billion it helped spend on “reconstruction” and democracy building in Iraq? The world’s largest Embassy, in Baghdad, that cost $1 billion and includes a driving range, a bar and outdoor water misters? Good spelling and grammar on Wikileaks? State needs to rack up some wins.
There is not a lot to work with at present, even for the most dedicated PR people and Congressional liaisons. The results described above are almost inevitable.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
No confirmation hearing required apparently, but not such a good guest for weddings.
Watch a Predator kill people (video) in Iraq. PS: the video seems dumbed down; it is much clearer in real life.
In Pakistan, a US drone attack killed 23 people this morning.
US to begin drone strikes in Libya.
CIA drone kills US Citizen in Yemen missile strike.
Drones are playing a growing role in Afghanistan.
(Ed. – Leave space here for additional countries)