During my time in government many of us would refer to the United States as “Uncle Sugar.” We were implying that the sweet government largesse extended far and wide for those who knew how to exploit the system. It was something we saw nearly every day as highly paid government appointees, with no discernible qualifications or aptitude, flooded the corridors of power after each change of party at the presidential level. It was also much in evidence whenever one had to interact with massive government departments like Agriculture or HEW or the Pentagon, where every potential decision was analyzed based on the likely support of key Congressmen who were in turn responding to lobbyists. One dollar spent lobbying produced a thousand-fold return. Uncle Sugar indeed.
The increasing prevalence of political appointees at the Defense Department and even in the intelligence agencies should raise serious questions about the overall integrity of the system even when they are only allowed limited ability to shape policy. And sometimes they have a great deal of influence. One recalls the emergence of the ideologically driven Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon, all political appointees.
And bad decisions in rewarding friends go back much further. When Ronald Reagan was elected president he appointed William Casey as his Director of Central Intelligence and Casey in turn brought in businessman Max Hugel as his Deputy Director for Operations, a line of work for which he was completely unqualified. Fortunately, the actual spies rebelled and were instrumental is exposing Hugel’s somewhat shady business dealings, forcing him to resign after only six months. The Hugel appointment has never been repeated at CIA even though Director John Deutch made a valiant effort to pack the senior ranks with his cronies.
One additional area where one would expect the government to proceed with some deliberation would be the management of foreign diplomacy, where a false step could have unforeseen consequences for American businessmen and travelers. A bad Ambassador not only produces a poor impression of the United States, he can do serious damage to the bilateral relationship even when he is being carefully guided by a professional diplomat on his staff attempting to avoid embarrassment all around.
Unfortunately the record of President Barack Obama on ambassadorial political appointments has been worse than that of any of his predecessors, for the first time ever exceeding 50 percent of all appointments. As of February 6, posts in 39 countries, mostly in Europe, have political ambassadors either in place or pending. The general rule that an ambassador designate should have some plausible connection with the country he or she is being sent to, whether as a visitor or in language or a business relationship, has been ignored by Obama. The situation is so bad that even the Washington Post has taken notice with a front page article “Gaffes prompt diplomatic debate” on February 15.
In a recent hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John McCain could barely conceal his disdain for what he saw in front of him, commenting “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.” Noting that candidates appeared to have no knowledge of or connection with the countries they were nominated for he called the situation “truly alarming.” Recent ambassadorial misfits have included an emissary to Sweden lying drunk in the snow, a current hotel chain owner nominee for Norway who did not know the country was a constitutional monarchy and who incorrectly called a party in the government “fringe,” and a TV soap opera producer pick for Hungary who had no idea what the relevant U.S. interests might be. Ambassadors to Iceland and Argentina had never visited either country and did not speak the local language. One Obama appointee Seattle investor Cynthia Stroum actually was forced to resign after running her embassy in Luxembourg into the ground, verbally abusing her staff and spending embassy funds on personal travel and alcohol. Obama appointees to Malta, Kenya, and the Bahamas have also been forced to step down after State Department inspectors filed scathing reports.
President Theodore Roosevelt called the spoils patronage system “partisan plunder” of public office. Former diplomatic service officer James Bruno observes that “The United States is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics…” He guesstimates that the cost of an ambassadorship has now reached a record $1.7 million. That is the contribution to a political campaign, either directly or through bundling of donations, that has become the norm for someone seeking to be rewarded with his or her very own embassy. Several recent donors have contributed less however, though $1 million currently appears to be the cut-off point for any consideration by the White House. Concurrently, the nouveau riche ambassador corps appears to have abandoned the venerable tradition of appointing a rich man in expectation that he would use his own personal money to embellish the post. This sense of noblesse oblige appears to have largely vanished.
If it manifestly makes no sense to appoint unqualified cronies to senior jobs in the intelligence agencies and within the military itself, why should it be acceptable to do so with overseas embassies? To be sure, some political appointments to embassies have turned out well, but they tend to be otherwise successful individuals who are named for reasons other than their fundraising. In my own experience, the best chief of mission I worked for was a highly empathetic political appointee, while the worst was a hubristic career diplomat. Former Sen. Max Baucus promises to be a good choice for China, where Jon Huntsman also was successful. Whether Caroline Kennedy will be effective in Japan remains to be seen.
And what is being overlooked completely is the cost of a sinecure appointment to Uncle Sugar. Ambassadors do not come cheap, and three years spent in a foreign capital on the American taxpayer’s dime can add up. Ambassadors are paid a base salary of $201,700, which is understandably at the top of the Foreign Service executive scale. There is also Overseas Comparability Pay on top of that, currently 16.52 percent of base salary, and in some posts like Hungary that is increased by an additional 25 percent cost of living allowance. Ambassadors also enjoy relatively free access to post entertainment allowances, government provided cars and drivers, an official residence, educational and medical allowances, and high-end travel allowances. The representational allowances in major posts like London or Berlin can be in the seven figures range. Admittedly a career diplomat would incur similar costs, but in return you get a professional, not an amateur who has to be mentored by another careerist on the staff, who must him or herself be paid.
And then there are the intangibles. Who would turn down being the U.S. Ambassador in Rome or London, with a large staff doing most of the work for you while you attend ego-inflating top level meetings and diplomatic receptions? Particularly when the types of contacts you are making can turn quite profitable down the road. Once upon a time the major embassies were a reward for Foreign Service Officers who had spent their careers learning languages, living in foreign cultures, and practicing diplomacy, but no longer. Both Rome and London currently have political appointee ambassadors.
So being rewarded with an ambassadorship can be pretty much a free ride for a donor who wants to be referred to as “The Honorable” for the rest of his or her life at the expense of the taxpayer. Appointing unqualified people to serve as United States Ambassadors as political rewards for supporters, part of what used to be referred to as the spoils system, might have made sense in 1900 when the ambassador was in a real sense the personal emissary of the president. But today it is an anachronism and just another form of political corruption. President Obama ran on a pledge to minimize the practice, so it is perhaps past time that he begins to deliver on his promise. But as is so often the case, the opportunity to use government resources to reward supporters is just too tempting.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.