Buy Your Ambassadorship Right Here!

Ready for a Friday flash quiz? Name the U.S. ambassador to:

a) Israel.
b) Afghanistan.
c) Iran. (Answers below.)

Can’t do it? Don’t worry, you are not alone. These hard-working diplomats are seldom in the news and hardly known outside State Department circles. In recent years around 70 percent of U.S. ambassadors have risen through the ranks of the State Department, many having begun their careers in the Peace Corps or issuing visas at U.S. Consulates abroad.

There is, however, another group in the pack, namely the “political” appointments. These are high-profile business people or celebrities who come by their posts through their skill in raising support for the party or president during campaigns, or as a reward for some outstanding contribution they’ve made to somebody’s pocket. Think Joe Kennedy, the Father of Jack, Teddy and Bobby.

So how much does it cost in these troubled economic times to get an appointment as a U.S. ambassador abroad? According to a report in today’s Boston Globe, about $500,000. Despite President Obama’s pre-election pledge to reduce the number of political appointments and rely instead on the State Department’s corps of career diplomats, it seems that the urge to reward big contributors is just too compelling. And even if you don’t raise that kind of money you can still get an appointment, as evidenced by Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney’s selection as the ambassador to Ireland.

Now granted, Ireland does not represent a terribly difficult diplomatic challenge, and Rooney obviously has some affinity for the country, given his last name. But does this qualify him to be an ambassador? If being a career diplomat is not a requirement for being an ambassador, than what’s the point of career paths in the State Department? Why not just find suitably high-profile people somewhere else and keep the career bureaucrats in the back room, stamping passports?

And how does everyone working in the shadows feel when, after 20 years of diligent service, they look up to find some interloper in a money-suit comes parachuting in to grab the top spot and all the invitations to the best parties? Not so good, according to the American Foreign Service Association, which succinctly labels these types “unqualified.”

There seems to be something a bit unprofessional, even immature, in continuing the practice of these appointments. It harkens back to the days when diplomacy was a gentlemen’s club and foreign policy was made on the back nine. In the current climate, Americans should demand the best foreign service in the world, and the only way to get that is by being able to reward top-performers with the top post.

It’s bad enough that we rarely get a career diplomat as head of State. But ambassador to France? Quand même! Somewhere out there is a visa stamper ready to set the diplomatic world on fire for the chance to dine with Carla Bruni. The least we can do is to make sure that chance remains available.

Quiz Answers: a) James B. Cunningham; b) Karl W. Eikenberry; and c) Trick question: We don’t have one!