Caroline Kennedy as US ambassador to Britain? Fashion icon Anna Wintour for Paris? President Barack Obama stands for change, but one White House practice endures: appointing non-career diplomats to plum postings abroad.
The US embassy in Paris is one of the most sought-after posts
Within his first two days in office, President Barack Obama named Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell as special envoys to the world's hot spots and the Senate unanimously confirmed Susan Rice as US ambassador to the United Nations.
Now Obama will need to fill the top diplomatic posts in prestigious world capitals such as London, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo as well as the sunny Caribbean.
Although all US ambassadors officially resigned by January 20 when Obama took the oath of office, the career diplomats serving in so-called “hardship posts” in the malaria belt, are likely keep their jobs.
Plum postings for big donors
The plum assignments that cover most of Europe however, routinely go to presidential appointees as a reward for their donations to campaign coffers, says Edward Peck, a former chief of mission to Iraq under the Carter administration.
“A president can pick whoever he wants,” said Peck of the political patronage that results in one-third of all ambassadorships going to non-career diplomats, making the United States an anomaly among industrial nations.
Pamela Harriman was ambassador to France
Although presidential nominees are subject to Senate approval, all but the most outrageously incompetent are routinely confirmed. Political appointments run the gamut from elder statesmen and academics with long Washington experience to generous business donors or show biz icons, such as Shirley Temple.
Peck added that there have been some “extraordinarily gifted, popular and charming” political ambassadors, but they never understood the operational side of the business. He named John Kenneth Galbraith, an intellectual heavyweight and star economist of the Kennedy administration who nevertheless understood next to nothing about running an embassy.
While Galbraith was highly respected in India even though "he didn't know the work of an ambassador", another political appointee Helene von Damm, was embarrassing for the Americans. This thrice-married personal secretary to Ronald Reagan was posted to Vienna and became a darling of the tabloids when she had a very public love affair with a dashing younger man. When she left her American husband for an Austrian national, some in Washington saw a conflict and forced her resignation.
No change under Obama
But the White House practice of awarding the most coveted posts to non-diplomats is not about to change under Obama, according to Michael Cotter, who ended his career as ambassador to Turkmenistan in the late 1990s.
Although Obama told the State Department earlier this month that his "general inclination" was to fill posts with professional diplomats from the US Foreign Service "wherever possible," he made clear he would not abandon the presidential practice of making some political appointments.
Holbrooke is now Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan
“Obama also has political debts to pay off, so he's going to put those big donors who are less qualified in the not-too-important posts like the Bahamas and Fiji,” said Cotter.
“The better qualified will go to Europe,” he added.
The routine practice of giving the most coveted posts in Europe to political appointees is demoralizing for career officers, a damper for attracting top talent to the Foreign Service, in the view of Dominique Moisi, a founder of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) in Paris.
“The highest office you can reach is a small embassy in some distant land,” said Moisi. “This is bad for the morale of the US diplomatic corps.”
US ambassador to Sweden: the best ever
For Europeans on the other hand, whether the US president's personal emissary abroad comes from the White House or Foggy Bottom hardly matters. What counts is whether their country's top American diplomat is effective or not.
A scandalous love affair forced von Damm's resignation
"Just because someone doesn't hail from the foreign service doesn't make him a bad ambassador," said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a senior policy director for the German Marshall Fund, a group that promotes trans-Atlantic relations.
"Someone from the business world can be superb for the job," he added, pointing out that the Swedes regard Michael Wood, a media executive and friend of former President George W. Bush, as the best American ambassador they've ever had for his work in promoting Swedish-US cooperation in alternative energy technology. A tribute in Newsweek magazine had hailed Wood, who just left, as “one point of light in Bush's environmental legacy.”
On the other hand, Bush appointments to the most prestigious ambassadorship of all, at the Court of St. James in London, have disappointed the British public.
UK appointees: horse breeder and auto dealer
William S. Farish III, a Texas multi-millionaire horse breeder who is best known for giving the Bushes the White House dog named Millie, “operated below the radar,” said Michael Cox, a transatlantic expert at the London think tank Chatham House.
“He appeared to be very inactive during the time of the Iraq war, a time when the Bush administration needed someone to articulate US policy in public. And language isn't a problem here,” said Cox.
Galbraith was a hugely popular ambassador
Farish's successor Robert H. Tuttle, a partner in a Beverly Hills automobile dealership, became best known for exercising his diplomatic immunity in refusing to pay the London congestion charge.
Tuttle, who also worked for six years under former US President Ronald Regan, said the charge amounted to a tax on diplomatic missions, which is prohibited by international diplomatic convention. Several other embassies in London have also refused to pay the charge.
The mayor of London at the time, Ken Livingston claimed that other embassies paid up and called Tuttle the “venal little crook” for not coughing up the 1.5 million pounds (US$2.1 million, 1.7 million euros) he owed the city.
It didn't used to be like this. The Court of St. James had been previously occupied by five ambassadors who went on to become US President and distinguished public servants who held cabinet posts such as Averill Harriman, David Bruce and Elliot Richardson. Prominent business moguls such as Walter Annenberg even earned an honorary knighthood from the Queen for his support of royal causes.
And now that Caroline Kennedy, an early Obama supporter, has withdrawn from the New York senate race, the British national newspapers are even speculating that JFK's daughter could follow the steps of her grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy as US ambassador in London.
Holbrooke served in newly reunified Germany
Kennedy's grandfather was US ambassador to Britain
Germany too has had its share of distinguished US ambassadors, who have been heavy hitters in foreign policy arena: Walter Stoessel had been US ambassador to the Soviet Union and interim Secretary of State in 1982; Vernon Walters, a former UN ambassador and deputy CIA chief, was renowned for his linguistic prowess; John Kornblum, a career diplomat, had played a key role in the East-West détente that led to the end of the Cold War, and Richard Holbrooke is now Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Such an illustrious precedent has made the last two Bush appointees—Dan Coats, an Indiana senator and William Timken, an Ohio industrialist, both who speak no German, look somewhat pale in comparison.
Joerg Duppler, Berlin director of the Atlantic Treaty Association, who knows Timken, feels that US-German ties are so close that who the American ambassador is has little impact on bilateral relations anyway.
“Timken did his job well. He represented his president. His job wasn't to be popular with Germans,” said Duppler.
The Devil Who Wears Prada
Wintour was the inspiration behind "Devil Wears Prada"
One of Europe's most coveted posts is Paris, where two recent American ambassadors were hugely popular with the French elite.
In a country where Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson once served, British-born Pamela Churchill Harriman was long on pedigree, but short on experience. Linked by marriage to some of the most powerful men of the 20th century, Harriman, a big fundraiser for the Democratic Party, had served during former president Bill Clinton's first term. Her successor was Felix Rohatyn, the Lazard Freres investment banker, who had rescued New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s.
“They couldn't have been more different, but were each very effective in their own way. She was the socialite star; he was the business intellectual star. Then there was Arthur Hartman, that rare career diplomat, who was a true professional. The rest you don't remember," said IFRI's Moisi.
Rumor has it that another American with a British accent could become Obama's ambassador to France. Fashion icon Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue magazine, hosted fundraisers for Obama and got some big names behind his campaign.
Moisi was amused by the thought that Wintour, who reportedly inspired the chick lit novel "The Devil Wears Prada" could be up for Paris.
"Why not? That would be fun. Aren't we the capital of fashion?"