WASHINGTON (AP) — A group of professional diplomats wants to make sure that American ambassadors have street cred before they are sent to run U.S. embassies overseas — and not just big money or high status.
On Friday, the American Foreign Service Association said it is pushing new guidelines to ensure that ambassadors meet certain qualifications for top diplomatic posts. The proposal follows a recent spate of embarrassing comments by Obama administration ambassador nominees who have shown — or, in one case, outright confessed to — lacking expertise in the countries where they will live and work.
Several of the nominees were top-dollar campaign fundraisers and donors for President Barack Obama, raising concerns they were rewarded for their lucrative political support. At least three of them — George Tsunis for Norway, Noah Bryson Mamet for Argentina and Robert Barber for Iceland — acknowledged during their confirmation hearings that they had never been to the nations where they would serve.
And despite his decades in Congress, even former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus from Montana said he's "no real expert on China" as he appealed last month to lawmakers to send him to Beijing.
"We didn't start this process because of the latest nominations," association president Robert J. Silverman said Friday. "This is a systemic problem. It's not unique to the Obama administration."
Still, "there have been some recent cases that made it acutely aware to the public — which is helping the buy-in for these guidelines," said Silverman, a career diplomat who has served in Sweden, Turkey and several posts across the Mideast.
Silverman said ambassadors don't necessarily need to be career diplomats to be successful, noting that nominees with skills in business industries, think tanks or other leadership posts could serve just as ably. But, he said, how much money a prospective ambassador has contributed to a political candidate should not be considered when being selected for what essentially is the top representative for the American government in nations around the world.
"I think both parties are not following this law," Silverman said.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday that campaign contributions don't "make you more or less qualified" to be an ambassador, and noted that presidents going back years have been pressed to explain why donors have been plum diplomatic posts.
"We believe all of our nominees are incredibly qualified," Harf said.
A study by the foreign service association, which represents about 16,500 career diplomats, concludes that 37 percent of ambassadors during the Obama administration have been political appointees. That is the highest rate since former President Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s. By contrast, only about 30 percent of former President George W. Bush's ambassadors were political diplomats.
The association's guidelines won't be formally released until later this month. But one of its members said Friday that the proposed qualifications would include leadership, interpersonal and managerial skills, the ability to formulate high-level policy and knowledge of the foreign area or other tradecraft. The association member was not authorized to discuss the guidelines by name until they are formally released late this month. The group that put the guidelines together is composed of both former career and political diplomats.
Separately, the State Department announced Friday it would create a new U.S. ambassadorship for the Arctic region, which is becoming a global economic hot spot as its thawing waterways open to commercial shipping traffic. U.S. officials estimate the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits.
Next year, the U.S. will take over the rotating chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council. In a letter to Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Kerry said tapping an ambassador for the region will make it "a higher U.S. priority."
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