Matt Kenyon illustration: What Obama can learn from Bush
© Matt Kenyon

Since the days of Andrew Jackson, US presidents have merrily auctioned diplomatic postings to rich friends. Barack Obama is no exception. As the man in Casablanca said, people are “shocked, shocked” by Mr Obama’s ambassadorial selections. Yet there is an element to the recent outrage that goes beyond the usual hypocrisy. If one thing captured money’s growing hold over US public life — and the White House’s apparent carelessness with America’s reputation — this would be it.

At a time when Vladimir Putin’s autocratic style is winning admirers in parts of central Europe, Mr Obama nominated Colleen Bell, the producer of The Bold and the Beautiful, as his next ambassador to Hungary. Ms Bell made it clear in her Senate hearing that she knew next to nothing about Hungary — a country run by Viktor Orban, a strongman with Putinesque tendencies. Ms Bell is no authority on the tenuousness of democracy in parts of the former Soviet world. Nor, presumably, is she steeped in Washington’s interest in shoring it up. But she knows a thing or two about fundraising, having netted $2.1m for Mr Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Then there is Noah Mamet, a public relations consultant, who raised $1.4m for Mr Obama. Mr Mamet is the next US ambassador to Argentina, a country he admitted he had never visited. As the second-largest economy in South America, and a place flirting with overt anti-Americanism, Argentina is hardly the Solomon Islands. Its stance matters.

So too does that of Norway, a US ally in Russia’s neighbourhood that is feeling insecure about its future. Mr Obama nominated George Tsunis, a wealthy hotelier, and a big election donor. His confirmation was held up after he too disclosed he had never visited Norway, and believed its system was presidential (it is a kingdom). Mr Tsunis also described one of Norway’s coalition parties as a “fringe element” that “spewed hatred”. He had mistaken it for one that is not in government. And so on.

Big deal, say Mr Obama’s defenders. It has always been this way. They have a point. Think about George W Bush’s envoys to London. First he sent a horse breeder pal who made his wealth at the Kentucky Derby. Then he sent a car dealer. Both were election donors. US-UK relations survived. Moreover, Lou Susman, Mr Obama’s first ambassador to London, was a success, in spite of having also been an election donor with no government experience. Not all political appointees are greeted as an insult by their host country. When they have a close relationship with the president — as was true for Mr Susman — they can sometimes be more effective than the professionals. In others, such as Caroline Kennedy’s Tokyo appointment, their celebrity can prove helpful. Ms Kennedy was rewarded for having given Mr Obama’s campaign the magical family endorsement.

Yet Mr Obama’s apologists protest too much. Until recently, ambassadorial postings split roughly seven to 10 in favour of career diplomats — with presidential donors taking about 30 per cent. In Mr Obama’s second term, the share of political names has risen to 41 per cent, according to the Foreign Service Association, which represents America’s increasingly alienated career diplomats. In other words, things have deteriorated since 2008. This chiefly reflects the galloping costs of US elections, rather than any moral failing on Mr Obama’s part. But some of the damage is self-inflicted. When Mr Obama campaigned for office, he vowed to “change the way Washington does business”. Arguably he has kept that promise, but not in the way voters interpreted it.

The trend also undercuts another of Mr Obama’s pledges: to take diplomacy much more seriously than Mr Bush, whom he rightly criticised for relying too heavily on military means of engaging the world. Choosing people such as Ms Bell, who is doubtless impressive in her field, negates that pledge on two counts. First, it further demoralises the US diplomatic corps. The state department finds it increasingly difficult to attract high-flying graduates, since they know there will be a glass ceiling blocking their career paths. Imagine how harder it would be for West Point to recruit talented military officers if plum generalships were handed out to amateurs who had never worn a uniform.

Second, picking unqualified nominees sends a demeaning message to the recipient country. Like Ms Bell, I have never visited Hungary. But I gather its public mood is increasingly anti-American. Stereotypes abound of a superpower that is ignorant about the world beyond its shores and that thinks the past is past. Having lived in Washington for some time, I know the reality is far different. America’s capital is teeming with more experts on more parts of the world than any other city on the planet. Many of them serve out mid-level sinecures in the state department or in think tanks. It would be nice were more to be posted to the front lines. Some of them even speak the local language.

Ultimately, economic strength determines a nation’s power. But at a time when US hegemony is under challenge, Washington should keep its friendships in good repair. On that count, Mr Obama’s record leaves a lot to be desired. To the victor go the spoils, they say — even in the world’s oldest democracy. But not to this degree, surely?

edward.luce@ft.com

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