Politics & Policy

White House Air-Miles Program

In the Obama administration, diplomacy loses out to political patronage.

Most air-miles schemes will give you an upgrade or a complimentary flight. But not the president’s. Bundle enough money for him, and you can become America’s chief representative to a foreign nation.

Education? Relevant managerial experience? A history of traveling? Basic understanding of a foreign state?

Preferred but not required. Just show us the cash.

Imagine that the same process applied for senior appointments to the U.S. military. Imagine if, for example, the actor Will Smith was able to buy a military commission.

Of course, we’d never accept it. The very thought of comparing Will Smith to Stan McChrystal is laughable. Yet somehow, when it comes to diplomacy, we’re willing to accept a corollary lunacy. By Obama’s standards, Smith’s celebrity bundling and Independence Day heroics would be more than enough to justify his being awarded an ambassador’s residence.

Sure, some claim that military service and diplomatic service are inherently different. And while it’s true that their nature and risks diverge, diplomacy, too, is far from simple. Indeed, American diplomacy is deadly serious — both for our diplomats and for us, the citizens they represent. Were it not for America’s first ambassadors to France and Holland — great statesmen with diplomatic pedigree — America’s earliest years might also have been our final years.

That fine tradition lives on.

Today, all across the world, skilled American diplomats are persuading foreign governments to welcome our commerce and support our foreign policy. In doing so, they’re helping to improve lives, create new jobs, establish new investment, and make us safer. In the age of unrestrained globalization, their work is invaluable and extraordinarily serious.

But when the president’s nominee to become our next ambassador to Norway doesn’t know which parties serve in Norway’s government, or when the president’s nominees to Argentina and Iceland haven’t visited those nations and offer pathetic excuses in explanation, it implies (to put it mildly) a lack of seriousness. It suggests that the president doesn’t care about the ultimate purpose of diplomacy: the good service of American interests.

The Argentina nomination raises a special point. Here, the White House has now managed to insult both Argentina and our closest ally, the U.K. The flowing narrative is undeniable: Diplomacy is all about domestic political patronage, and all other concerns come in a distant second. Correspondingly, this arrogance feeds the worst form of anti-Americanism, fostering the notion that we don’t have any interest in our partners, that we take international relations for granted.

But what’s most surprising about these latest appointments is the audacity of their timing. You’d think that with America’s diplomatic credibility struggling, the president would nominate top candidates to lead our embassies. Instead, just as he once insulted a distinguished general, the president now nominates inadvertent comedians with terrible repertoires.

To be fair, Obama is far from alone in his questionable appointments. Take President George W. Bush’s first ambassador to London. By all accounts a thoroughly decent man, Ambassador William Stamps Farish III nonetheless failed to speak for America. Or what about President Clinton’s final ambassador to London? As a teenager, I remember watching (then recently retired) Philip Lader struggle his way through a post-9/11 appearance on the U.K.’s premier political talk show (tellingly, Farish was absent). Lader wasn’t up to the task. We needed expertise in that chair. Instead, America was left voiceless in the face of challenge.

In the end, we have only ourselves to blame. We’re doing to our diplomacy what Britain stopped doing to its army nearly 150 years ago.

A senior British diplomat once told me that American Foreign Service officers are talented and determined, the envy of the world. Anyone who has met even a few American diplomats knows this to be true.

Yet this understanding always seems to end at the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Take Jay Carney. By his own admission, he didn’t see the Norway nominee’s meltdown during his congressional testimony. Regardless, the press secretary proudly asserted that the White House retained “confidence” in the candidate.

The rewards-card administration: where money talks and merit walks. What a sorry state of affairs for the world’s indispensable nation.

Still, there’s hope.

This is a rare issue on which many liberals and conservatives agree. Beyond the festering political-patronage networks, there’s a growing consensus that American diplomacy should be served by those who have the experience, training, and temperament fit for such a great task. After all, while other nations send their best and brightest to Washington, we all too often reciprocate with clowns. Political donors should not have the right to buy the title hard earned by public servants like Ryan Crocker, Nancy Powell, and Chris Stevens.

We must decide whether to celebrate patronage or celebrate patriotism. The two cannot coexist.

Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to the Guardian.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com


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