National Voices

Saturday, Feb 15 2014 11:05 PM

OTHER VIEWS: President Obama and his political plums

Noah Bryson Mamet is a political consultant who raised at least $500,000 for President Obama and the Democratic Party in the 2012 election cycle. As of last week, he had never visited Argentina -- which helps explain the ambassador-designate's spotty performance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing. Mr. Mamet repeatedly described Argentina as a U.S. ally, said it was "a mature democracy" and praised its record on human rights.

That provoked a bipartisan tongue-lashing from Sens. Robert Mendendez, D-N.J., the committee chairman, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who pointed out that the Argentine government under Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has compromised freedom of the press and the judiciary, refused to pay debts to the U.S. government and American bondholders, seized equipment from a U.S. military training mission, undermined an investigation of an Iranian-sponsored terrorist bombing and aligned itself with the rabidly anti-American governments of Cuba and Venezuela. "This is the most unique ally I think we have in the world," Mr. Rubio dryly noted.

Mr. Mamet probably was only retailing, clumsily, talking points given to him by the State Department, which has a policy of avoiding criticism of Latin America's populist authoritarians. But his glaring lack of familiarity with the nation where he will soon be the top U.S. official was another illustration of the cavalier nature of President Obama's recent ambassadorial appointments.

All presidents appoint some ambassadors who are not professional diplomats. Most have been harmless; a few have been stellar. Mr. Obama, however, has considerably stretched the boundaries of previous presidential records, both in quantity and in apparent disregard for quality. The president promised in 2009 to increase professional appointments, and the State Department said last Friday that it aims for a 70-30 split between career and political ambassadors. Yet, so far in his second term, 53 percent of Mr. Obama's appointments have been political, according to the American Foreign Service Association. A third have been fundraisers for his campaigns.

The bundlers are going not just to London, Brussels and Vienna, where their roles may be largely decorative, but also to countries where relations with the United States are troubled. In addition to Mr. Mamet, Mr. Obama is dispatching fundraiser and soap-opera producer Colleen Bradley Bell to Hungary, a NATO country whose government has a disturbing record of undermining democratic institutions. At her confirmation hearing, Ms. Bell was unable to spell out U.S. interests in Budapest other than "to promote business opportunities, increase trade."

Mr. Obama's new ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, raised $1.3 million for the Democratic Party in 2012 but didn't know at the time of his hearing last month that Norway has a king but not a president.

Ambassadorial appointments for small allies such as Norway or tough partners including Hungary and Argentina matter because their governments rarely receive the attention of high-level officials in Washington and yet require skilled diplomacy. It's no wonder that Argentina, the third-largest economy in Latin America but a perennial trouble spot, was tended by career diplomats under the four presidents who preceded Mr. Obama. His use of the Buenos Aires embassy and so many others as political plums signals a disregard for U.S. foreign interests.

-- The Washington Post

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