The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2017
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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

the Embassy

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.

Wrong. No

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.

Wrong. The

COM is equivalent to a field commander.