Thursday, December 04, 2008

Politically Appointed Vs Career Foreign Service Officers

Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post reported this item yesterday and I have noticed quite a few mentions of it in other blogs:

Obama Gives Political Ambassadors Their Pink Slips
By Glenn Kessler
The incoming Obama administration has notified all politically-appointed ambassadors that they must vacate their posts as of Jan. 20, the day President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office, a State Department official said.

The clean slate will open up prime opportunities for the president-elect to reward political supporters with posts in London, Paris, Tokyo and the like. The notice to diplomatic posts was issued this week.

Political ambassadors sometimes are permitted to stay on briefly during a new administration, but the sweeping nature of the directive suggests that Obama has little interest in retaining any of Bush's ambassadorial appointees.

Most ambassadors, of course, are foreign service officers, but often the posts involving the most important bilateral relations (such as with Great Britain, Japan and India) or desirable locales (such as the Bahamas) are given to close friends and well-heeled contributors of the president.

UN Dispatch was one of the blogs commenting on the development (which, just to be clear is not a HUGE development...all ambassadors, even career Foreign Service Officers, offer their resignation at the end of an administration. It is true that some are allowed to stay, at least for a little while. This is just more overt than usual).

Politically Appointed Vs Career Foreign Service Officers?

Matthew Yglesias links to this item explaining that President-elect Barack Obama has ordered all politically appointed ambassadors to vacate their posts by January 20th. Matt says:

"I had always just thought of this is a kind of casual, widely accepted corruption. But recently I did learn the official story as to why this is good practice, namely that an important political supporter or a friend of the president is likely to have a much easier time of getting access to the Oval Office than any mere foreign service officer would. Thus, it's arguably better for the host country to have a political appointee than a career FSO. Therefore, this practice helps build good-will and so forth."

This may be true, but it should be pointed out that many ambassadors to posts that require actual trouble-shooting are often career foreign service officers. The United States ambassador to Chad Louis J. Nigro, for example, joined the foreign service in 1980. Is it really more desirable that the Ambassador to say, Holland, have easier access to the Oval Office than say, Mr. Nigiro? I'm doubtful.

I admit I am a fan of reducing (I don't expect the practice to stop) the number of political appointee Ambassadors, for a number of reasons. First, you don't see political appointee Generals or Admirals. Why? Because we expect the leaders of our soldiers to be professional soldiers themselves, with the years of training and experience they have built up coming through the ranks serving them as they make life and death decisions. Can you imagine a "Brownie" leading our troops the way Mike Brown led FEMA? Of course not. It is the same with the Foreign Service. We are the "soft power" to the military's "hard power." We are professional diplomats with the training and experience to effectively serve our country's foreign policy objectives. Just knowing the President doesn't give you those qualifications. I will admit there are political appointees who are very very good and who bring useful skill sets to the job. But there are also political appointees who bring nothing more than a receipt for their contribution. Do they have better access to the White House? Maybe. But I would hope my President would be wise enough to listen to his Ambassadors from all countries, because crisis can strike anywhere and small countries can have big global impacts.

And second, political appointees hurt morale. Most of us serve knowing that no matter how good we are, we can't expect to attain the highest positions in the Department unless we win the lottery. Only one Secretary of State has been a career Foreign Service Officer (points if you know who), and many of the Under Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries, and the Ambassadors at the nicest posts are political appointees. Which sends a strong message that the rank and file don't measure up.

And the truth is we do measure up. We serve, year after year, advancing the President's foreign policy to the best of our abilities agenda regardless of who occupies the White House. Because we are professionals. And just like professional soldiers, we should be able to expect that the majority of our leaders have gotten where they are by succeeding on the same path we are walking, not by the size of their checkbook or the happenstance of their birth.

1 comment:

Boondoggle said...

Great post -- thanks for the link and the clarification. I've posted some of your comments on Dispatch (