The sound was so faint that I couldn’t quite pick out the tune the Marine Corps Band was playing in the background of President Obama’s State of the Union address last month when he stressed the importance of statesmanship and declared, “We must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.” But now I’m pretty sure it was “Send in the Clowns.”
I don’t know what other conclusion to draw after watching some of Obama’s ambassadorial nominees perform during their Senate confirmation hearings over the past weeks. Consider some of these honorable Bozos:
• Max Baucus is the longtime congressman and senator from Montana appointed to possibly the most delicate of all American diplomatic postings – ambassador to China, the aggressive new superpower that holds the majority of U.S. government debt.
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During his hearing, he was asked about the Chinese proclamation of an air-defense zone that covers territory also claimed by Japan and South Korea, a belligerent action that has unnerved much of Asia. “I’m no real expert on China,” Baucus cheerfully admitted, then proved it by adding the non sequitur observation that “it’s my strong belief that Chinese people are just as proud as we Americans are proud.”
• Colleen Bell, whose main qualifications to be U.S. ambassador to Hungary are that she wrote the TV soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” and raised more than half a million bucks for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, was asked what the major strategic U.S. interests are in the country where she’ll soon in charge of American diplomacy.
Here’s a clue to the correct answer: In her final months as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton sent Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban a letter accusing him of lacking “a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press and transparency of government” – essentially saying that a fellow member of NATO is backsliding into dictatorship.
Bell’s reply, however, suggested that she’s more interested in paprika imports than democracy. “I think our key priorities are to improve upon, as I mentioned, the security relationship and also the law enforcement and to promote business opportunities, increase trade,” she told the bemused senators.
• Argentina, once among the staunchest U.S. allies in South America, has been steadily drifting away into the leftist orbit of Venezuela. So naturally the guy we’re sending to repair relations is somebody who’s never set foot in the country.
“I haven’t had the opportunity yet to be there,” Noah Bryson Mamet told senators. “I’ve traveled pretty extensively around the world, but I haven’t yet had a chance.” Probably he was too busy raising money for the Democratic Party – literally hundreds of millions of dollars of it. In fact, fundraising for the Democrats is the only job Mamet has held in his adult life.
• Yet Baucus, Bell and Mamet looked magnificently Kissingerian compared with George Tsunis, the New York hotel magnate who will be taking over the U.S. Embassy in Norway. First he started chattering about the Norwegian president, who doesn’t exist – the country is a monarchy.
Then he was asked about Norway’s Progress Party, which has advocated an immigration crackdown. “You get some fringe elements that have a microphone and spew their hatred,” Tsunis said. “And I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them.”
“The government has denounced them?” asked an astonished Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who then pointed out that the Progress Party is part of Norway’s ruling parliamentary coalition. “I stand corrected,” Tsunis replied brightly, as confident about his job security as you might expect from a guy who raised $1.3 million for Democratic Party entities in 2012.
Tsunis’ performance horrified even veteran State Department officials who are long accustomed to the appointment of political hacks to ambassadorial positions, regardless of their stupidity, drunkenness or predilection for hookers. (Think I’m exaggerating? Google Howard Gutman, Obama’s first ambassador to Belgium.)
“You would think the guy would at least go on Wikipedia to read the entry for Norway before his confirmation hearing,” a senior American diplomat told me. “He doesn’t need to regale the senators with anecdotes from ancient Nordic history, but knowing the country is ruled by a king seems like a reasonable minimum for an ambassador to know.”
In fact, the Senate confirmation hearings were a serious warning sign about these nominees. Each of them, prior to the hearing, underwent one of the State Department’s infamous “murder boards,” hardball practice sessions at which they’re mercilessly questioned about the politics and cultures of the countries to which they’re headed. “Some of these people were either too lazy or too dim to pay attention,” said the diplomat.
Obama is by no means the first president to use ambassadorial appointments as a political spoils system; it’s a bipartisan game. But Obama seems to be playing with unseemly enthusiasm these days. During his first term, about two-thirds of the ambassadors were career Foreign Service officers and one-third political appointees, fairly close to the average for previous presidents.
Since his re-election, however, more than half of Obama’s appointees have been political, nearly a third of them major campaign fundraisers. Presidents used to sell nights in the Lincoln bedroom to fund their campaigns. Obama has raised the ante to Argentina and Norway.