• Book Review: American Ambassadors, The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats

    February 28, 2015

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    Posted in: Embassy/State

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    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.

    Resources

    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.

    Reforms?

    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.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...

      1

      According to some sources the Finns love Oreck! Go figure.
      He seems a doofus but he has the standard credible academic achievements. Maybe the entire world wants a cartoon American in their country for diversion.

      03/1/15 12:05 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      2

      Thanks Peter. I’ll put this book on my to read list.

      Meanwhile, it’ YOUR summary that helps me understand a broader scope of Diplomacy and the State Department. Like this…

      quote”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.”unquote

      Damn.

      on that note ..

      bartender.. let’s get down..on me. A round for the house on me..shots of OvertPrizes.

      03/1/15 12:06 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      3

      Ok, nuff foolery.

      Peter..in your capacity of understanding the functions of State and diplomacy, in your opinion, what’s your thoughts on this event …

      http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2015/02/boris_nemtsov_s_murder_the_russian_opposition_leader_was_one_of_vladimir.html

      Seriously.

      ..uh wait..hahaha! I bet you’ve already saved the draft to your hardrive for tomorrow. Dumb me.

      03/1/15 12:14 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      4

      OMG. Watch people update this event on wikipedia in real time..sort of.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Boris_Nemtsov

      03/1/15 12:33 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      5

      Pitch I’m hoping you never move to Bacardi 151 as a way to handle the insanity of everyday America. But if you do plese do not remove the flame arrestor or that bottle can become a lethal Hellfire molotov.

      03/1/15 2:42 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      6

      John said:
      “Pitch I’m hoping you never move to Bacardi 151 as a way to handle the insanity of everyday America.”unquote

      Hardly. Insanity or not. Vodka/light beer is my mainstay, and only occasionally. My bartender metaphor’s are usually for humor only, but a few are expressions of wicked intent, if only in my mind. But your description of Bachardi151 is dead on, no pun intended. Hahahaha! I’m a gonna use it!!! Thanks!

      Speaking of insanity…truth be known, Barcardi151 WAS a mainstay back in my younger musician days. Good god… Bacardi hangovers were the WORST. Not to mention what I did while under the influence…sheeezus..it’s a wonder I’m still alive. True story. After 6 shots while partying with friends one night, while being driven home I got angry for reasons I won’t go into..and jumped out of a truck at 40mph. BIG mistake. Broke my right knee and went through 6 months of living hell from it. Needless to say..never touched Bacardi again. Talk about Great Moments in Stupidity? I’m the posterchild. Which reminds me..

      bartender..give me a double shot of HINDSIGHT 20/20. And a bottle of TwoRollingEyes.

      03/1/15 5:54 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      7

      Pitch- I only knew of 151 and had the sense to stay away when the the top NCO would yell One! Five! One! after the evening’s formation dismissal. He was from Puerto Rico so he probably had relatives send him the juice because according to Wikipedia it was only available after 1981 in the USA) and that was back in 1967. Some of who did our two years still wonder what became of him or what was left of him after 151 was finished with extinguishing most of the synapses that were barely firing in ’67.

      03/1/15 6:05 PM | Comment Link

    • jhoover said...

      8

      Sorry Peter been out of context here but please read this:

      Feb. 7th, 2015 – Mosul under heavy fire

      At 1:00 PM, Feb. 7th, 2015, Mosul witnessed the second wave of the most aggressive airstrikes since the beginning of the coalition operation to liberate Mosul. This day’s airstrike was much larger than the previous strikes on the third of February , and the civilians named it “Moaz Al Kasasbeh Retaliation”.

      I couldn’t resist the idea of being away from the scene, so I visited the place in person. I arrived after dropping the 16th bomb, thinking that the bombardment had stopped already, but as soon as I arrived, I was startled by dropping four more bombs and I saw what I’m about to describe to you:

      Mosul – The Western Bank of the city

      Number of bombs – 20

      https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=679728142148691&id=552514844870022&substory_index=0

      03/1/15 10:04 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      9

      jhoover said..

      “I couldn’t resist the idea of being away from the scene, so I visited the place in person.”

      O.M.G. jhoover. Where are you? Moreover..wtf? c’maan. I mean it. fuck. I dunno bout anyone else..but I’m listening.

      03/1/15 11:05 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      10

      holy mother of.. I read the text at the link. fuck.

      But wait..are you just linking to someone else’s post on some website..or is that reporting from YOU?

      03/1/15 11:13 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      11

      03/2/15 11:48 AM | Comment Link

    • Andrei said...

      12

      Reminds me of how they used to sell officer commissions in the British Empire.

      03/2/15 6:16 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      13

      Rich Bauer said…

      Mosul-tough:

      “We don’t want to do anything until they are ready and can win decisively,” one Pentagon official explained, “they cannot now.” Apparently, Centcom announced the intention to carry out this attack before considering if it was winnable.”

      Classified intelligence sent to CIA HQ prior to Colby’s visit to Vietnam to prepare for CIA’s assassination of Vietnam’s president and an insidious assault on the poor villagers who they murdered with impunity by virtue of the classified Phoenix program.

      Same ole stupitity…different war..

      03/3/15 12:54 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      14

      Andrei said…

      “Reminds me of how they used to sell officer commissions in the British Empire.”

      Used to? Hahahahahaha! spare me. In the US it’s simply offered to those that can pay for their sons and daughters military indoctrination in those institutions known as West Point, etc by virtue of who you know and how deep your pockets are.

      03/3/15 1:04 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      15

      “Many/most of these political ambassadors have done mediocre-to-poor jobs, and no one does much of anything about that, or even seems.”

      What difference does it make? Hillarious:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/us/politics/hillary-clintons-use-of-private-email-at-state-department-raises-flags.html?_r=0

      03/3/15 12:24 PM | Comment Link

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