Embassy Envy

Obama continues the grand tradition of handing out cushy ambassadorships.

San Sebastian, Spain

The worst political appointment of all time may have been that of James Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan. After purchasing commissions as a lieutenant, captain, major, and lieutenant colonel—in the 19th century, you could buy your way up through the British army—Cardigan finally landed a gig as head of the famous Light Cavalry Brigade during the Crimean War in 1854. It cost him 40,000 pounds. It cost Britain the battle, its integrity, and the lives of more than 100 soldiers. After the war, Britain abolished the practice of selling commissions.

But in the United States, the practice is going strong. Not in the military, of course—in the diplomatic world. About two-thirds of ambassadorships currently go to career diplomats. The rest go to the president’s friends, colleagues, and political donors.

President Obama continued this proud tradition Wednesday by appointing three top donors to ambassadorships. Louis Susman, a retired vice chairman of Citigroup Corporate and Investment Banking, was nominated ambassador to Britain. (Fundraising for Obama: more than $500,000.) Former financial analyst Charles Rivkin ($100,000 to $200,000) will be America’s man in Paris. And biotech lawyer John Roos (more than $500,000) will relocate to Tokyo. (In addition, theology professor Miguel Díaz and former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer will head to the Vatican and New Delhi, respectively.)

Career diplomats have long pushed for better treatment. In 2000, candidate Al Gore pledged to reduce the number of noncareer officers in ambassadorships to 10 percent. During his campaign, Obama suggested he would not be doling out posts to the highest bidders. But more recently, he acknowledged that some of his ambassadors would be donors. “It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants, but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service,” he said in January.

No doubt the new political appointees can handle the job. Roos, as CEO of a global, technology-focused law firm, understands trade issues likely to arise in Japan. Rivkin has international experience as a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. And Obama’s appointee to Great Britain, Louis Susman, speaks fluent English.

To be fair, there’s a long history of far less qualified people landing far cushier ambassadorships. In 2006, President Bush appointed his friend and fraternity brother Michael Wood to the post in Sweden. Ann Louise Wagner, former chair of the Missouri Republican Party, landed the Luxembourg spot in 2005. And President Reagan once appointed an ambassador to Australia whose chief qualification was selling used cars.

The swankiest gigs, according to former ambassadors, are the Scandinavian countries—Norway, Sweden, Finland—as well as Luxembourg and the Caribbean islands. But for the most part, any Western European country will do. Ronald Spiers, former ambassador to Turkey and Pakistan, remembers a conversation with a Navy admiral, who told him that after retiring he’d like to serve as ambassador to Spain. To which Spiers, a lifelong diplomat, responded that upon retiring he would like to command the Sixth Fleet. “He didn’t think it was funny,” Spiers says. The admiral did, in fact, become ambassador to Spain. Spiers did not become an admiral.

Ambassadors in paradise still have to manage their embassy staffs—or tell their deputies to do so. They also meet with leaders to discuss the ins and outs of, say, trade policy and report back to the State Department about what’s going on. But they don’t handle sensitive negotiations, like their counterparts in China and Afghanistan. One former nominee to the Bahamas, asked in his confirmation hearing what qualified him for the job, bragged about his golf game.

When in Rome, ambassadors also take lots of vacation. A sampling of embassy records found that in 2006, U.S. ambassadors averaged just more than eight weeks off. Topping the list was the ambassador to Portugal, who took 58 days. But even when they’re “working,” they don’t necessarily have to stay put: Bush’s envoy to the Netherlands, Roland Arnall, was out of the country 37 percent of the time. (The fact that his mortgage company was investigated by 30 state regulators may have played a role.)

Political appointments can end badly. Reagan’s appointee to Norway, Mark Austad, was known for getting drunk and chasing women around. “We had to get rid of him,” says Spiers, who handled State Department personnel at the time. Another ambassador, this one to Denmark years ago, was asked to resign after it became known that he kept two prostitutes in his residence. But deep embarrassment is rare. “You usually develop a protection around them, to kind of isolate them from damage,” says Spiers.

But the argument against political appointees isn’t that they’re incompetent. John F. Kennedy made many keen political appointments, like sending Harvard professor Edwin O. Reischauer to Japan and John Kenneth Galbraith to India. Walter Mondale was well-liked in Japan. In France, Benjamin Franklin wasn’t so bad, either.

No, the argument is that plum jobs should go to diplomats who dedicate their careers to the foreign service. A young person isn’t likely to sign up with the State Department if the most he can hope for is to someday be deputy assistant ambassador to Botswana. Plus, the cushier embassies make good training grounds. “You want to test your people before you plunk them into a war zone,” says Thomas Pickering, vice chairman of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former ambassador to Jordan, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Russia, among other locales. Finally, there’s always a chance that today’s sleepy hamlet is tomorrow’s disaster area. For example, Barbados was a relaxed gig until the bloody coup in neighboring Grenada in 1983. Indonesia in 2004 wasn’t too shabby. Then a tsunami hit.

Some say that a friend of the president can be more effective than a professional diplomat. After all, he can speak for the president and has the president’s ear. Pickering rejects that claim. The ambassador is supposed to go through the secretary of state—not contact the president directly. “That’s a very disorderly way to make foreign policy,” he says.

Obama may appoint more career diplomats in the future. When a new administration takes over, the political appointees are usually the first to go, and therefore the first to need replacing. But this first round isn’t likely to please the diplomatic corps. If Obama’s not careful, they might write a resolution denouncing him.