Defending Indefensible Political Ambassadors
America and the world were once again treated this week to the tawdry spectacle of wholly unqualified people being anointed by politicians to “serve” the country abroad, spending taxpayers’ money to plump their self-importance, and denigrating American power in the eyes of the countries to which they are assigned. Some of the Obama administration’s appointees have proved staggeringly ignorant in their Senate confirmation hearings, and this president has appointed more political cronies than previous administrations. The esteemed Henri Barkey rightly called out the administration for its hypocrisy that it treasures diplomacy while it appoints manifestly unqualified people to senior diplomatic posts. And I agree with him that doing so engenders anti-American sentiment.
But many critics of the practice of “selling ambassadorships” are perpetrating a fiction that our diplomats are otherwise skilled practitioners and experts. In truth, many political appointees prove better diplomats than our diplomats. The real problem is not that political leaders get to appoint a proportion of ambassadors — it is that the State Department has no way of determining what makes an ambassador successful. There is no professionalization to the profession of being an American diplomat, and that is a far graver problem for U.S. foreign policy than the scattered cases of spectacularly ill-qualified political appointees.
Especially since the foreign service does so little to educate and train its professionals (the Stimson Center and the American Academy of Diplomacy have done superb studies of the deficiencies). What is needed to improve the appointments system is a construct for determining what makes an ambassador successful, metrics for grading performance, training in those areas for political and career ambassadors, collection of data, a transparent assessment processes, performance reviews for individuals and units (embassies, directorates within the State Department), and consequences — both positive and negative — that incentivize improvement. It will be difficult to develop criteria to judge performance, and there are many factors that go into a complex mix. But that is no less true for judging the performance of combat commanders and business leaders and even politicians. As no less an authority than Bismarck said, “Politics is not a science … but an art.”
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