If all politics is local, one should never pass up a chance to send one’s opponents to Asia.
That appears to be what President Obama has done by deciding to name Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as his new ambassador to China. Huntsman, a rising star in the Republican Party, has been floated as a potential dark-horse candidate for 2012. He’s young, good-looking, and has been willing to subvert the orthodoxies of his state. (He recently loosened Utah’s draconian liquor laws.) While his policies have gotten him in trouble with the Utah GOP, he’s just the sort of moderate—pro-civil union, environmentally conscious—who could compete with Obama in a general election. Bon voyage!
No doubt Huntsman is extraordinarily qualified. He has lived and worked in Taiwan, speaks fluent Mandarin, and served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush. But he is also the latest in a long line of appointees whose selection, while deserved, has political advantages for the person doing the appointing.
The most famous example is the most similar. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy picked Henry Cabot Lodge to be his ambassador to South Vietnam. That would be like Barack Obama picking Sarah Palin as his Afghanistan liaison. Lodge had been Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960 and was known to harbor presidential ambitions for 1964. Like Huntsman, Lodge was qualified for the job: In addition to nearly three terms in the Senate, he had fought in World War II, served as ambassador to the United Nations, and escorted Nikita Kruschev on his U.S. tour in 1959. But by dispatching him for South Vietnam, JFK kept Lodge at a safe distance. (After Kennedy’s assassination, Lodge came back and launched an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination.)
Picking Lodge had another benefit: It helped Kennedy depoliticize the Vietnam War, which at that moment risked getting pegged as a Democratic effort. By co-opting one of the most prominent Republicans of his time, Kennedy turned the war into a bipartisan endeavor. (Nixon completed the process by doubling down.) Huntsman’s appointment may have a similar effect. While U.S.-China relations are not particularly politicized right now, it will be helpful to Obama to have a well-known Republican associated with—and pushing for—his policies there.
But the master of keeping friends close and enemies overseas was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1938, he appointed one of his strongest Democratic rivals and critics, Joseph P. Kennedy, to be ambassador to England. While sabotage may not have been the intent, it was certainly the result: It was in that role that Kennedy in 1940 uttered his politically destructive observation: “Democracy is finished in England. It may be here.”
A year later, Roosevelt gave the same job to John Gilbert Winant, a former state senator and governor from New Hampshire who was being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. He remained in England from 1941-46.
Roosevelt’s shrewdest move, though, was organizing the great global circumnavigation of Wendell Willkie. Willkie wasn’t just a Republican opponent—he was the Republican opponent. He had won the party’s nomination in 1940, only to lose to FDR. But he was still seen as a potential front-runner for 1944.
Which, of course, made him an excellent candidate to roam the globe as FDR’s personal envoy. Starting in 1942, Willkie visited England, the Soviet Union, and, yes, China, spreading the gospel of FDR’s internationalism. He returned in 1943 to write a best-selling travelogue, One World. In the end, Roosevelt’s generosity did not quash Willkie’s presidential ambitions—they died with Willkie in October 1944.
In none of these cases, of course, was political maneuvering the sole motivation or even the primary one. Presidents reach across the aisle for all sorts of reasons, from soliciting diverse perspectives to personal friendship. Nor did the appointees go grudgingly. Kennedy’s outreach to Lodge was considered extremely generous; Willkie signed on gladly as Roosevelt’s representative.
But to say there was no political consideration in Huntsman’s appointment and those of his predecessors would be naive. And, hey, at least U.S. presidents are subtle: Some scholars believe Fidel Castro sent Che Guevara to his death in Bolivia, and there’s little question why Stalin exiled Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929. Unlike those two, John Huntsman can always come back. Just not until 2016.