No Comment — July 29, 2009, 9:50 am

Ambassadorships for Sale

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2019

Going to Extremes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Tell Me How This Ends”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Without a Trace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What China Threat?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What China Threat?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Article
Without a Trace·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Article
Going to Extremes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
Article
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chance on any given day that the only “vegetables” served in a U.S. public school are potatoes:

1 in 2

Horticultural scientists reported progress in testing strawberries to be grown in spaceships. “The idea is to supplement the human diet with something people can look forward to,” said one of the scientists. “Fresh berries can certainly do that.”

In Wichita Falls, Texas, a woman was banned from Walmart after drinking wine from a Pringles can while riding an electric shopping cart; she had been riding the cart for two and a half hours.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today