President-elect Barack Obama today acknowledged that some of the ambassadorships he assigns will go to big-money Democratic donors, and not to experts in the diplomatic corps. However, the president-elect said he’d try to keep those "political" appointments to a minimum.
Mr. Obama was asked today if he’d be appointing financial donors to serve as ambassadors, as has often happened in the past, or if he’d pick ambassadors from the ranks of the diplomatic corps.
The Democrat admitted that there would inevitably be some donors who end up being assigned ambassador posts.
"There probably will be some," he said. "It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service."
But the president-elect said that his general inclination is to have civil service "wherever possible" serve in these posts.
"We have outstanding public servants, and I’ve spoken with secretary of state designee, Hillary Clinton, about the importance of rejuvenating the State Department. I want to recruit young people into the State Department to feel that this is a career track that they can be on for the long term. And so, you know, my expectation is that high quality civil servants are going to be rewarded."
Within his first year in office, former President Clinton appointed five $100,000-plus fundraisers to ambassadorships.
More than two dozen of President Bush’s $100,000-plus fund-raisers were appointed to ambassadorships.
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, for instance, had raised more than $200,000 for Mr. Bush, though he’d only been to Canada once before becoming ambassador — about 30 years before his 2005 appointment.
In 2005, correspondence was opened to the public showing how Nebraska trucking magnate Duane Acklie claimed he’d be delivered a sweet ambassador gig for raising cash for then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000.
Acklie had written to Gov. Mike Johanns to protest after the ambassadorship wasn’t delivered. When Johanns left the statehouse to become Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Acklie’s correspondence to him was reported by the Associated Press under the state’s open records laws.
Acklie wrote that Bush fundraising chair "Jack Oliver told me several weeks ago that he was informed that I would not receive one of the eight major ambassadorships but would be receiving an ambassadorship… Most of the appointments have been made. That is perfectly OK, and if others have done more work for the party, are better qualified or have helped the Bush team more, I certainly understand… I don’t understand why I haven’t heard a single thing after Jack Oliver’s comment to me."
Mr. Acklie never became an ambassador.
Writing in the publication American Diplomacy, retired Foreign Service officer Alan Berlind wrote of the need to repair "the enormous damage done" to international relationships, and that the task of "restoring our reputation, credit, and influence in the world will fall in large part to America’s diplomats, most particularly, American ambassadors, i.e., the senior representatives of the American government and people abroad. … How often has it been asked, rhetorically but reasonably, whether it would make any more sense to assign businessmen, campaign contributors or professors to senior military or naval command positions ordinarily manned by generals or admirals? Any more sense than it does to place them at the helm of American embassies?"
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller