Reyes: Checkbooks over facts for ambassador nominees
George James Tsunis got tangled up on government. Noah Bryson Mamet muffed on travel. And Colleen Bradley Bell, well, she bungled on diplomacy.
The three ambassadorial nominees have something else in common: Each blunderer bundled hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for the Democrats and President Barack Obama's re-election bid. And by faltering badly during their recent nomination hearings before a Senate committee -- Tsunis to Norway, Mamet to Argentina and Bell to Hungary -- they have joined a string of embarrassments in a profession heavy on punctilious protocol.
In an exchange with Sen. John McCain, Tsunis, a Long Island businessman, designated Norway's Progress Party as a "fringe" group that Norwegians have been "quick to denounce." Except, the party is part of the country's ruling coalition. Tsunis compounded his mistake when he referred to the country's "president." The kingdom of Norway is a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister.
See video of Tsunis and Bell testifying before the senate committee below
Mamet, who heads a consulting group in Los Angeles, didn't fare much better. When asked by Sen. Marco Rubio whether he had visited Argentina, all Mamet could muster was: "Senator, I haven't had the opportunity yet to be there" while asserting that he's a world traveler.
Bell, a TV soap opera producer who lives in Los Angeles, became so incoherent when asked about the U.S. strategic interests in Hungary that McCain interrupted her to try again. It didn't matter. Her response was so inscrutable, she might as well have been speaking Klingon.
These fumbles underscore the malignant stupidity of checkbook diplomacy, but these nominees are by no means alone. Presidential supporters have always been part of the foreign-service mix.
As of Friday, the Senate committee had approved the nominations of Bell and Tsunis, but had not acted on Mamet. The full Senate would have to approve each nomination.
On Wednesday, the American Foreign Service Association, a professional group that represents members of the U.S. foreign service, proposed nonbinding guidelines that suggest minimum qualifications for ambassadors -- including the ability to lead, an understanding of the host country and being able to articulate American interests. Simple, but needed.
There is no official code of guidelines, and the Foreign Service Act of 1980 only recommends that ambassadorial posts should go to qualified foreign service careerists, and that political contributions should not be a factor when designing a chief of mission.
Fair enough. But the designation of political appointees as ambassadors has only increased in recent years. Twenty-eight percent of Bill Clinton's nominations to serve as ambassadors were political appointments; that inched up to 30 percent under George W. Bush and then to 37 percent under Obama.
A group of experienced diplomats from the American Foreign Service Association began working on its recommendations last year, and it believes that if used they would help in the selection and confirmation of nominees.
In other words, better not wait until a Senate hearing to determine qualifications and skills. When McCain's allotted time ran out during Tsunis' and Bell's hearings, he said: "I have no more questions for this incredibly, highly qualified group of nominees."
A new ambassador of back talk?
Eli Reyes is deputy editorial page editor for amNew York.