Pay to Parlez? Obama Names Donors to Swank Ambassador Posts

Obama appoints ambassadorsAP Photo/Charles Osgood/MCT/Landov/ABC News
File photo showing Louis Susman President Barack Obama nominated the retired Chicago investment banker to be ambassador to Britain. US President Barack Obama walks towards Air Force One for departure from Los Angeles International airport in California on May 28, 2009.

President Obama yesterday continued the time-honored tradition of awarding plum diplomatic posts to major campaign donors and supporters.

Among the first ambassadors named are some of his presidential campaign's most aggressive fundraisers, including Silicon Valley moneyraker John V. Roos, and Obama National Finance Committee member Louis B. Susman. The two men helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama's White House bid, and many thousands more for his inauguration.

Obama yesterday tapped Roos to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan, while Susman will be the U.S. emissary to Great Britain. Roos does not speak Japanese, but Susman is fluent in English, the White House confirmed.

Good government groups and others have long criticized the practice of rewarding supporters with plum diplomatic posts. The American Foreign Service Association, which represents career diplomats, calls it an "unchecked spoils system under which scores of political activists are tapped for critical national security positions for which they are unqualified."

AFSA notes that historically, about 30 percent of ambassadorships go to political picks over career State Department personnel. The group endorses capping such political, "non-career" ambassadorships at 10 percent.

"Since President Obama's campaign was inspired by a commitment to change instead of business as usual, now is the time to end the spoils system that receives criticism both at home and abroad," the group said in a recent statement. AFSA notes that the United States is virtually alone among democratic nations in sending such men and women abroad to represent it.

Obama said in January he would place career diplomats in ambassadorships "wherever possible," but noted "there probably will be some" political appointees picked also. "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."

Of the dozen ambassadorships the Obama White House announced Wednesday – among the first of his term -- six went to Obama campaign fundraisers, advisers or volunteers.

Top Embassy Posts Go to Campaign Supporters

Of the non-career picks, one perhaps deserves a footnote: Miguel Diaz, a Catholic theologian who advised the Obama campaign on religious issues, was named to be ambassador to the Vatican. Diaz appears more substantively qualified than his predecessors to the Holy See post, such as former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, picked by President George W. Bush in 2001, or former Boston mayor Raymond Flynn, picked by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Ambassadorships come with an official residence, domestic staff, car and driver, an entertainment budget, paid tuition for children's private schooling and more. And the residences for such assignments are quite comfortable.

If confirmed, Susman will serve the United States from the government-owned Winfield House, a gated estate with oak paneling, marble bathrooms and more. Vilma Martinez, a lawyer who advises Wal-Mart on employment practices and who loaned her name to the Obama campaign as a "national woman leader supporting Obama," will enjoy a brand-new 43,000-square-foot manse in Buenos Aires, if she's confirmed as U.S. ambassador for Argentina. The ambassador's residence in Rome is reputed to have the largest private garden in the city, sprawling over 25 acres.

Obama's political picks are not entirely without ties to the diplomatic world. Charles H. Rivkin, Obama's California Finance Committee Co-Chair and Obama's pick for U.S. ambassador to France, is the son of the late Ambassador William R. Rivkin, who served in Luxembourg, Senegal and Gambia. Charles helps the group AFSA choose the annual recipient of the "Rivkin Award," an honor to a mid-career foreign service officer who has "demonstrated the courage to challenge the system from within, no matter the issue or the consequences of their actions."

According to the White House, Rivkin speaks French.