THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
seas. The COM needs to be able to inject
a critical level of control and coordina-
tion into the implementation stage of for-
eign policy on the ground. This requires a
firm grounding in the byzantine work-
ings of the domestic interagency arena.
Applying the level of control expected
by Congress and the president also
demands knowledge of agency mandates
and what they are actually doing.
Expecting a novice ambassador to
perform these tasks effectively ignores
the universal requirement of experience
for the senior position in any operational
entity engaged not in establishing strategic
objectives but in producing the desired
results. Our embassies are the diplomatic
equivalent of “boots on the ground,”
endeavoring to implement Washington’s
decisions. There is no time for on-the-
job-training program for the boss of such
missions, who must thoroughly know the
business in order to direct it.
The Job Outside
Section 304 (a) (2) of the Foreign
Service Act specifies that “positions
as chief of mission should normally
be accorded to career members of the
[Foreign] Service, though circumstances
will warrant appointments
from time to
of qualified individuals who are not
career members of the Service” (empha-
sis added). Further, nominees “should
possess clearly demonstrated compe-
tence to perform the duties of a chief of
mission, including … useful knowledge
of the language … and understanding of
the history, the culture, the economic
and political institutions, and the inter-
ests of that country.” The law also states:
“… contributions to political campaigns
should not be a factor.”
COMs have two basic external
functions. First, they must keep host
governments informed about Ameri-
can opinions, interests and objectives.
Second—equally important, but some-
times more difficult—they are to report
local reactions to U.S. initiatives back to
Washington and analyze them.
The recipients of such reporting at
the White House/National Security
Council, the State Department and other
agencies should be able to rely on the
COM’s previous diplomatic experience
and knowledge, as stipulated in the law,
and thus his or her ability to present a
complete and rational picture. In that
regard, it is useful to bear in mind that
career diplomats work seamlessly for
administrations of either political party,
while political appointees are closely tied
to the party in power, a bond that can
influence their reporting.
Why “Pay to Play”
Does Not Hold Up
Despite the irrefutable logic concern-
ing the advantages of relying on experi-
enced professionals for top jobs in every
line of endeavor, advocates of political
appointees for top diplomatic positions
put forward the following arguments in
support of novice U.S. ambassadors.
Presidents can choose anyone they
Wrong. They can nominate whom-
ever they want, but the Senate has a con-
stitutional “advise and consent” role. The
only criterion for confirmation should be
the expectation of high-level performance.
Yet with rare exceptions even the egre-
giously unqualified are confirmed, since
both parties relish their turn to reward
bagmen or bagwomen (aka “bundlers”).
(It is worth noting that political nominees
seldom purchase an embassy with only
their own money. Much of what they
donate is collected from others.)
Other nations welcome political
. Nope. Celebrities may thrill
part of the population, but host govern-
ments do not want to discuss compli-
cated, important issues with a neophyte,
especially one representing a super-
power. Consider: Anyone with a health
issue would prefer to consult a medical
school graduate who earned an M.D.,
rather than someone handed the degree
in return for a large donation.
It is true that few governments
publicly complain about such appoin-
tees, but editorials in local media make
their true feelings about unqualified
U.S. ambassadors quite clear. To put
it bluntly, sending a beginner with no
connection to the host country instead
of a trained diplomatic professional is
correctly seen as demeaning.
Businesses do the same.
company puts a manufacturing facil-
ity—the operational equivalent of an
embassy—under a neophyte. Embas-
sies are engaged in the hands-on tactics
of implementation, not headquarters’
formulation of strategy.
The political appointee can raise
issues directly with the president.
Conceivable, but highly doubtful. Even
if a chief of mission is a friend of the
president they might not get through
the White House switchboard, let alone
broach an arcane subject. And even if
they did, an end-run around established
communication channels would be more
likely to backfire than succeed.
Political appointees can bring fresh
Inexperience is not a
qualification. Dealing with the interests
of other nations, often involving conten-
tious, convoluted, long-standing issues,
can make new approaches irrelevant or
worse. Fresh ideas, if needed, can come
The same approach is employed in
the Defense Department.
COM is equivalent to a field commander.