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  • Embassies for sale

    May 14, 2007 -- Beginning in the 15th century, as the great historian Garrett Mattingly told us in his book "Renaissance Diplomacy," it became the habit of governments to send a permanent mission an ambassador to countries with which they had peaceful relations. In turn, those countries would send their own permanent mission to the Court of St. James in London, or to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, or wherever. Thus was born the modern system of international diplomacy.

    Ambassadors provide the oil that greases the often cranky relationships between proud nation states. Their task is to explain their own country's position to the other government, and in turn to explain the latter's position to their masters at home. This is never an easy task, and many an ambassador has been accused by jingoists at home of selling his country short and of failing to use sufficiently strong language.

    On the whole, though, ambassadors fulfill their functions well. There are certain countries - France, Britain, Russia and China among the large powers, Singapore, New Zealand and Austria among the smaller states - that have produced a whole cohort of ultra-competent foreign representatives.

    At a lunch in Buenos Aires recently, I was totally impressed by a conversation with a dozen or more senior officials, almost all former Argentine ambassadors or ambassadors-to-be, all extremely gifted.

    A good ambassador is a national asset. Searching for an example of what I mean, I came upon the name of Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Here is someone who served in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Paris and Washington, then as the Britain's permanent representative to the United Nations and then - after 35 years in the diplomatic service as the British government's top official attached to the Iraq authority.

    The fact that Greenstock has since written a withering account of what has been going on in Iraq (of which Her Majesty's Government forbids publication) is beside the point of this article. The main thing is that most states send experienced and well-trained professionals to foreign countries to undertake what are, after all, professional tasks.

    And what of the United States, the nation with which all governments, whether they like it or not, must deal? The United States Foreign Service has a long and noble tradition, and thus its own substantial cohort of experienced diplomats who are well versed in foreign cultures and languages.

    But it also is affected by another tradition, flowing from the very large powers given to every president: The White House appoints all ambassadors and is not bound to promote career diplomats alone. (Another peculiarity is that, upon a president's resignation, all ambassadors resign their office also, which is a remarkably disruptive practice. Suppose all generals and admirals also had to resign?)

    Now there is a lot to be said for the U.S. president having the right to nominate an occasional non-diplomatic person to an embassy, if the appointment would be a boost to bilateral relations.

    President Jimmy Carter's action in sending Mike Mansfield, who had been a senator for over a decade, to Tokyo at a time of strained relationships between the United States and Japan was a smart move. President Bill Clinton's decisions to send the acutely political Pamela Harriman (widow of the great American statesman W. Averall Harriman) and then the accomplished New York banker Felix Rohatyn to Paris to smooth ruffled Gallic feathers were also smart, especially since both spoke French. And an ambassador who is a friend of the president will find it easier to call the White House directly and say, "George, we have a problem."

    Such appointments suggested that American relations with Japan and France were special ones, which is surely true.

    But what happens when this practice is no longer occasional, but gets to be habitual?

    What happens if there are dozens of such political appointments, selected not because of their special skills but because they had made large contributions to the president's electoral campaigns? What happens if they have little knowledge at all of the country to which they are being sent?

    Finally, what happens if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is normally supposed to confirm all ambassadorial appointments, is bypassed by a device known as a "recess appointment," which allows the White House to give out a position while the Congress is not in session?

    I raise this question now because of a quarrel between the White House and certain key Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about President George W. Bush's appointment of Sam Fox, a prominent businessman and Republican fund-raiser from Missouri, to be U.S. ambassador to Belgium.

    The Fox case actually raises two separate questions about the practice of making political appointments to United States embassies abroad.

    The first is the danger that domestic partisan quarrels may block, or at least damage, the process. Fox's nomination had been opposed by certain Democratic senators on grounds that he had contributed to the anti-John Kerry campaign Swift Vets and POWs For Truth. At first, the White House pulled back, but then decided to exercise its ancient privilege of making a recess appointment.

    According to The Kansas City Star, the new ambassador is now awaiting his instructions to cross the Atlantic. It goes without saying that recess appointments such as these annoy senators of both parties, who feel that their constitutional purview of American foreign affairs is being sidestepped by a dubious executive maneuver.

    The best-known recent example of such an appointment was that of John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That was not a happy move, and the Senate soon took its revenge.

    Secondly, and as The Kansas City Star also reports, there is the awkward fact that Fox has become at least the 43rd(!) of our present crop of American non-career ambassadors to be rewarded for contributions to Republican Party funds. In fact, the Star lovingly details the amounts donated to the party by our present ambassadors to Italy, Germany, the European Union, Brazil and other non-insignificant states.

    No doubt some are doing a good job. But 43?

    And all party contributors, and many without prior diplomatic experience?

    Little wonder that the American Foreign Service Association (the career diplomats' organization) bemoans this latest example. And it is easy to imagine how such appointments are received in the countries affected: Most foreign governments send extremely experienced diplomats to Washington, but may well get in return well-heeled industrialists, investors and real-estate moguls.

    At the end of the day, then, the issue is not about particular personalities. The question, rather, is whether the U.S. government Republican or Democratic - is strengthening or weakening its capacity to persuade other nations to see international problems through America's eyes by appearing to give out ambassadorships as a reward for party contributions. The diplomatic service is, like the military or foreign aid, one of the key instruments in a nation's toolkit, which is why professional ambassadors were created to begin with.

    This is a clumsy practice that seems to me, well, not very diplomatic. Surely America could do better?

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