The modern American presidential campaign is a hungry beast. In the 2008 campaign, the three principal candidates raised in excess of $1.1 billion, and spending overall essentially doubled as compared with the 2004 campaign, itself a record-setter. And for generations, one unseemly aspect of fundraising has been the de facto sale of ambassadorships. As the Los Angeles Times noted in a recent editorial, the United States is the only major country that regularly hands out choice ambassadorships as a favor for campaign funding bundlers. The process cheapens our diplomatic relations and sends a bad message to the states to which these ambassadors are sent. And it’s getting cruder and greedier. A cynic studying the latest batch of nominees might conclude that the price of an ambassadorship has soared from roughly $200,000 under the Rovian regime to $500,000 under Rahm Emanuel.
Under Barack Obama, the process of political payoff through ambassadorial appointments has matched and appears poised to exceed the already extremely abusive system that Karl Rove put in place under the Bush Administration. In his first six months, Obama has forwarded 58 ambassadorial nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Retired career diplomat Dennis Jett reports in the Daily Beast that 32 of these nominees—55% of the total—are political appointees.
Political appointees are not per se objectionable. In fact, some of the most distinguished ambassadorial appointees in recent decades have been political appointees—not career diplomats. Think of Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, and Howard Baker, each serving ably in Japan, or Pamela Harriman and Felix Rohatyn, who served in France. Each of these appointees was a prominent figure on the Washington stage whose appointment added luster to Washington’s relationship with the nation to which he or she was sent. But the Obama political appointees are of a different caliber. What distinguishes them is not a career in public service or finance, much less foreign relations or foreign area expertise, but rather something far grubbier: raising substantial sums of money for the Obama campaign.
A prominent example is Louis Susman, named as Obama’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Susman was John Kerry’s campaign fundraising chair in 2004, heading an effort that yielded $247 million for Democratic coffers; he was among the earliest fundraisers for Obama, and his zeal continued after the election, when he pulled together $300,000 for the inaugural festivities. (Susman thus dwarfs the fundraising power of Bush’s ambassador in London, California auto dealer Robert Tuttle, who raised a measly $100,000 for the 2004 campaign and $100,000 for the inauguration.) When queried on Susman’s qualifications for the post, a White House spokesman quipped that “he speaks the local language.”
Another is Phil Murphy, a Goldman Sachs executive who served as the Democratic Party’s national finance chairman, tapped to represent the United States in Berlin. The Murphy appointment so troubled German leaders that they held up agrément–the diplomatic process under which the receiving nation agrees to accept the ambassadorial designee–so that Chancellor Angela Merkel could press the case for a career diplomat or serious political figure. Merkel made her appeal at the G-8 meeting at L’Aquila, but Obama was unswayed. The Germans finally relented and grudgingly accepted the appointment.
Donald Beyer, a car dealer from Northern Virginia, was appointed as Obama’s ambassador to Switzerland. One of Obama’s earliest and most active supporters in Virginia, Beyer is reportedly responsible for raising $500,000 for the Obama campaign. That’s the same sum that Williams & Connolly partner Howard C. Gutman raised for Obama, earning him an ambassadorial posting in Brussels.
The point here is not that any of these picks are unworthy individuals, but rather that the main criterion by which they seem to have been chosen is their fundraising savvy for Democratic causes. That creates the impression around the world that these posts are political trinkets, which seriously degrades the post and stands as a barrier to Obama’s efforts to reassert American leadership.
It’s clear that none of these nominees came out of the State Department. The watchdog of political benefices in Camp Obama has consistently been White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, well known for his streetwise and money-oriented political skills. Emanuel understands that these appointments have real value to a campaign seeking to raise money and that there are expectations to be met. In this view, he is remarkably like his predecessor, Karl Rove.
The political process needs to shine a light on this process in order to rein it in. It would be a good start for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which passes on these nominees, to take its work more seriously. Political nominees need to be grilled about their campaign funding activities and discussions they have had with Obama Administration figures about any expectations relating to their appointment. And nominations that come purely out of the White House, substituting for the professional candidate list from the State Department, should be eyed with particular skepticism. It would be a good thing if a few of these nominees were simply voted down–sending a message that the Senate is serious in demanding that key ambassadorial appointments have the diplomatic skills expected of these positions.
In the area of diplomatic appointments, Obama has not delivered “change we can believe in.” If he’s offered change of any sort, it is still more decay in an area overdue for reform. It’s up to Congress to stop fundraising impulses from taking precedence over the nation’s foreign policy concerns.