Thursday, December 5, 2013

The American Diplomatic Spoils System, Part IV: The Ambassadorial Marketplace

My friend and fearless, Indiana Jones-style news reporter, Nate Thayer, has written a very interesting piece which sheds further light on the American Diplomatic Spoils System. Learn more about our country's disgraceful cash-for-ambassadorships marketplace. It puts Tamany Hall to shame.

Boss Tweed

Corruption: American Style. U.S. foreign policy leadership for sale to those who give the most cash ~ by Nate Thayer

Over the last 30 years, 85 percent of ambassadorial appointments to major European countries and Japan, and 60 percent of appointments to global powers such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China, have been bald exchanges for raising cold cash for elected politicians.

Obama has only ratcheted up the trend of appointing wholly unqualified hacks to head U.S. interests abroad.

When he appointed Louis Susman, a retired Chicago investment banker and lawyer who raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign as ambassador to London, the White House press secretary defended his qualifications saying “he speaks the local language.”

The U.S. Office of the Inspector General reported U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg Cynthia Stroum, a socialite who got her wealthy friends to donate $500,000 to President Obama’s 2008 campaign, was “aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating,” and said numerous professional diplomats volunteered to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan to stop working for her. The report said she made “several” employees spend “several days” searching for a patio umbrella.

Another OIG report said Obama campaign finance chair Nicole Avant, made Ambassador to the Bahamas, led “an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy.” Avant, former head of Interior Music Publishing, was absent from the embassy 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, according to the report.

Obama has given his top fundraisers numerous ambassadorships, similar to his predecessors. The average amount raised is now $1.8m, according to the London Guardian.

Obama’s campaign finance chairman, Mathew Barzun was made ambassador to London after he raised $2.3m for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. He was ambassador to Sweden after giving large amounts of money to Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Since last year, Rome has gone to John Phillips, a Washington lawyer who raised $500,000. John Emerson was made ambassador to Germany after he raised $1.5m. The ambassador in Paris, Charles Rivkin, raised $800,000. The ambassador in Lisbon, Allan Katz, raised $500,000.

Of 12 choice ambassadorships in Europe and the Caribbean, the average amount raised by each is $1.79m.

The appointees to the same embassies raised $5m in 2013, compared to $3.3m in 2009, $1.3m under George W. Bush in 2005, and at $800,000 for Bush in 2001, according to the New York Times.

Studies show that the price tag for political contributions includes Luxembourg at $3.1 million, while Portugal costs $602,686. London is an estimated $1.1 million in personal donations. Bundlers — who raise money on behalf of a candidate–get a discount to $686,583. France and Monaco cost personal contributions of $6.2 million, and bundled contributions of about $4.4 million, a report found. Norway is cheapest at $119,900 for personal, and $85,756 for bundled contributors.

In the last 60 years, 72 percent of U.S. ambassadors in Western Europe and the Caribbean have been political appointees while 86 percent of ambassadors in Africa and the Middle East have been career diplomats, according to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). No political appointee has ever been sent to Central Asia as an ambassador. The failed states, dangerous assignments, serious work, and the mandatory mundane routine actual important work of fostering mutual understanding through words rather than conflict through bullets, are left to the career officers.

The industrialized democracies of Europe and Asia and the island nations of the Caribbean are the destinations of the political appointees.

The exchange of allowing incompetence to lead on the ground U.S. foreign interests for cash money in the metaphorical under the table slipped envelope, is wholly bipartisan. Both Obama and George W. Bush had a 70 percent career/30 percent political appointment ratio. Gerald Ford was 62 percent career professional ambassadorial appointments record and Jimmy Carter was 73 percent,

George W. Bush gave nearly 50 top donors, designated “Rangers” or “Pioneers” ambassadorial posts. “Pioneers” raised more than $100,000 and “Rangers” forked over at least $200,000 for the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaign.

No other properly organized nation sells its ambassadorships to the guy who gives the political leader the most cash money. Most European countries have all career ambassadors with a smattering of political appointees who have significant real connections to the halls of power.

Sexual, ethical and incompetence scandals are routine with politically appointed ambassadors.

Records show Richard Nixon routinely sold ambassadorships for hard cash to unqualified rich people. In a tape recording of then president Nixon about an ambassador to Belgium, he said: “Anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000. I’m not going to do it for political friends and all that crap.”

A 2008 report by the Center for Public Integrity’s “Checkbook Diplomacy,” said Vincent de Roulet, a rich guy made ambassador to Jamaica, publicly called Jamaicans “idiots” and “children” and promised to support one candidate if he did not nationalize Jamaica’s bauxite industry. He was expelled by Jamaica, which then tripled taxes and royalties on bauxite purchases by U.S. companies.

See also:

The American Diplomatic Spoils System, Part III: My Job Application to the World's Most Popular Soap Opera

-- and previous


  1. Word on the street is that your nephew Brady is an up and coming star in the world of risk finance.

  2. The Chief of Mission post is too important to be awarded as a 'thank you' for political favors, even small island states of little strategic significance. In the cases of ambassadorships to European allies being used in such a way, the thought process probably followed the logic that relations with London, Paris and Berlin are strong enough to handle the mistakes of a novice diplomat... Except when there is strong evidence that the NSA is tapping the phones of those heads of state. A career diplomat's management of damage control would have come handy then.

  3. Eric: excellent points. I make the point that military flag officer jobs were also part of the spoils system up until the end of the Civil War when the full bloody cost of having dilettantes with no military training being made generals and put in charge of real units showed itself. Dan Sickles is a case in point. A political appointee, this "general" cost the Union 4,000 casualties at Gettysburg due to his insubordination and incompetence. Congress passed a law banning such appointments after that.

  4. I am okay with this practice as long as the political appointees are reasonably qualified, supported by career FSOs, and some degree of transparency/disclosure exists (i.e., in addition to vetting their credentials, Congress also notesthat the appointee earlier gave or raised money but that the ambassadorship was being awarded based on appointee's abilities). Opening ambassadorships to people in the private sector can help bring in ultra talented, driven people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to serve their country. It would also help diversify our civil service system which is heavily skewed to graduates of about a dozen schools though ultimately they all seem to come from the same socio-economic background: upper and upper-middle class Americans usually from established patrician families. Maintaining the status quo is fine, but this should be done with caution as it also has the potential of reinforcing perceptions of cronyism and nepotism. It's a fine line and as long as everyone stays on the line, I'm okay with it. The challenge is that we as US citizens need to be ever vigilant otherwise America risks creating its own nobility class in contravention to the US Constitution.

  5. This is exactly the sort of crap that the ruling elites of Washington have long done and what we expected Obama's "Change" slogan to fix! What a shame Obama has walked the same line as his predecessors.

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