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September 5, 2001
Tapping donors for diplomatic posts carries risks
By James Kitfield, National Journal
George W. Bush's signature cowboy boots were nowhere to be seen when the President and the first lady lunched on salmon terrine and roasted lamb with the British royal family on July 19. But amid the ornate grandeur of Buckingham Palace and the assembled royal entourage of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, there was a face as familiar to Bush as a well-worn pair of Texas boots--that of William Farish, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Britain.
Farish's friendship with the Bush family goes back half a century. A millionaire horse breeder and the chairman of Churchill Downs Inc., Farish was tapped 20 years ago to manage the blind trust of Bush's father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, with whom Farish plays tennis. Farish and his wife, Sarah, even gave the elder Bush and his wife, Barbara, the dog Millie, who became a literary sensation. Millie is the mother of George W. Bush's dog Spot.
During the last election cycle, the Farishes contributed $2,000 to George W.'s presidential campaign, $5,000 to the Bush-Cheney recount fund, $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney inaugural fund, and more than $35,000 to other Republican committees and candidates.
As the American ambassador to the Court of Saint James's, Farish resides in Winfield House, the "Jewel of Regent's Park," resting on sprawling land where King Henry VIII hunted. The gated estate boasts 18th-century oak paneling, marble bathrooms, sparkling chandeliers, 200-year-old Chinese wallpaper, and numerous objets d'art. A striking bronze sculpture, "Creation of Adam," stands in the garden to the right of a terrace leading off a reception hall that runs nearly the entire length of the mansion. The estate also boasts a private tennis court, a greenhouse, and an indoor swimming pool. As lord of Winfield House, Farish enjoys the support of a full staff, a personal chef, a private limousine and driver, a sizable entertainment budget, the use of U.S. Air Force aircraft for official travel, and an annual stipend of $133,700. If he had school-age children, he would also get tuition paid at the private schools of his choice.
Farish is only one of more than two dozen people now on track to lead the good life as U.S. ambassador to some desirable place because they bet big bucks on the Election 2000 winner. And by rewarding dozens of generous campaign contributors, fundraisers and family friends with ambassadorships, Bush, some would say, is just continuing a centuries-old tradition of political patronage in which plum positions have been doled out with equal zeal by both major political parties.
"I think there are real advantages to having political ambassadorships at some posts, because sometimes they have the standing, connections, and personal relationships with the White House that allow them to take a more [assertive] leadership role and to be more outspoken than the traditional Foreign Service officer," said Richard Burt, who served in the Reagan administration as an ambassador to Germany and as an assistant secretary of State for Europe and Canadian affairs. "We've had some political appointees who made great ambassadors, and we've had some real duds. It's a mixed bag. In the end, however, I don't think we should be particularly proud of this tradition of rewarding campaign contributors, fundraisers, and political supporters with ambassadorships. It's clearly one of the last, pure vestiges of the 19th-century spoils system."
Bush's first 35 political appointees to the diplomatic corps gave an average of $141,110 to him and other Republican campaigns and committees during 1999-2000. And the top seven donors in that group--nominated to serve as ambassadors to Belgium, France, Ireland, the tropical island of Mauritius, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland--contributed a whopping $299,700 to $585,181.
A growing number of foreign-policy experts and good-government advocates question whether that spoils systems--and the secretive, backroom process of choosing ambassadors that accompanies it--befits the United States at the cusp of the 21st century. In fact, close inspection of recent Presidents' ambassadorial nominations, which often become the target of partisan vendettas during the Senate confirmation process, strongly suggests that the entire process of appointing and confirming America's top tier of diplomats is being fundamentally altered for the worse by the tightening grip that money and partisanship have on Washington politics.
However, there is nothing to suggest that Ambassador Farish lacks competence or qualifications. As a longtime friend of both the Bushes and the British royal family, Farish, who has hosted the queen at his Lane's End Farm near Lexington, Ky., is in some ways ideally suited to serve as a personal emissary between the United States and its closest ally. His new responsibilities include ensuring that Britain continues to play its traditional role as a dependable bridge between America and its most important allies on the European continent.
"Every Foreign Service officer will tell you that the United States needs some political appointees as ambassadors who have major clout and can command the ear of the President, as long as they are people of unassailable competence and integrity," said Winston Lord, a former ambassador to China and past president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. "And while no one should be excluded from an ambassadorship just because they gave money, a President should never, ever award an ambassadorship primarily because someone was a good fundraiser or campaign contributor. You shouldn't be able to buy a U.S. ambassadorship."
There are fewer and fewer posts abroad where the United States, the only superpower in an increasingly interconnected world, does not have significant economic, national security or political interests. As the past decade showed, largely ceremonial postings in seemingly sleepy backwaters can suddenly become the epicenter of an international crisis: a threatened economic collapse in Latin America or Asia, genocidal war or a viral pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, drug trafficking in the Caribbean, or a potential trade war in Europe. The U.S. diplomatic corps serves as early-warning sentries and a first line of defense in responding to such crises.
"In a globalized world, diplomacy is becoming more important," said John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association. "We've seen in places like Argentina and Turkey that a potential economic meltdown can suddenly threaten the world economy," Naland added. "Diseases can hop on an airplane anywhere in the world and arrive in the United States in a matter of hours. We've also seen a corresponding proliferation of federal agencies operating under one embassy roof to cope with this more complex world, with the ambassador responsible for coordinating the efforts of as many as 40 separate entities so that they are working toward a common goal."
Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a self-styled watchdog group that tracks the campaign contributions of ambassadorial nominees, contends that entrusting foreign policy neophytes with ambassadorships is too risky.
"Unfortunately," he said, "this is a time-honored tradition, but it's becoming harder to argue that awarding ambassadorships almost solely on a candidate's fundraising skills, campaign contributions, or ties to the first family--as the Bush administration and others have clearly done--is the best way for a superpower to run its international affairs. Numerous recent ambassador appointments lack even basic foreign policy qualifications or knowledge of the country and local language where they are posted. Those would seem to be basic qualifications."
Indeed, the Foreign Service was created in 1924 precisely because government reformers and U.S. businesses with interests abroad were alarmed by the disruptions created when the entire U.S. diplomatic corps turned over and was infused with rookies every time the White House changed hands. In recent decades, roughly one-third of U.S. ambassadors have been political appointees, not career Foreign Service officers.
Quite understandably, the tradition of giving many of the choicest foreign postings to a President's wealthy pals hurts Foreign Service morale, especially since horror stories about political appointees' blunders are legendary. "I've served under all types of political appointees, and while a number have been very good, others have proven absolute embarrassments to the United States," one retired senior Foreign Service officer remarked.
Faux pas by noncareer ambassadors include cocaine smuggling using diplomatic pouches, drunken imbroglios at embassy functions, embarrassing adulterous affairs, and simple ineptitude. "I've seen ambassadors who couldn't speak the local language, who lacked the competence to manage the complex interagency team that resides under the U.S. embassy's roof, and who were not smart enough to pick those skills up quickly," the former Foreign Service officer added.
Fluent in Fundraising
Generous contributors' expectations of rewards have risen right along with the costs of campaigns, many analysts say. Richard Holbrooke, a former career Foreign Service officer and political appointee as ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration, said: "Some of our best ambassadors in the past have been noncareer appointees, but there are also a lot of people in both parties who think that simply having given a lot of money qualifies them for ambassadorships. It's downright embarrassing."
According to the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative, the average donation given to George W. Bush by the 310 Cabinet and sub-Cabinet nominees announced through July 26 was $8,300, nearly double the average given by President Clinton's appointees.
But only a half-dozen of Bush's first 35 political appointees to the diplomatic corps had contributed less than $20,000 to Bush and to other Republican campaigns and committees during 1999-2000. And even many of the political diplomats who did not personally give large donations raised impressive sums--often millions of dollars--for Bush and the GOP.
Of the Bush nominations that have sailed through the confirmation process, generous campaign contributors, former business partners, and family friends have figured prominently. To scenic Switzerland, for instance, Bush sent Mercer Reynolds, a wealthy investor who helped bail out Bush's struggling oil company in 1984 and who brought Bush in on the 1989 purchase of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Reynolds and his wife donated $456,173 to Bush and other Republican candidates in the 1999-2000 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Reynolds and his business partner raised more than $3 million for the Bush campaign. Reynolds also served as co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney inaugural committee, which took in $40 million.
The prestigious U.S. ambassadorship to France, meanwhile, went to Howard Leach, a reported billionaire who doesn't speak French but who, with his wife, gave $289,359 to GOP candidates and party committees in 1999-2000, $10,000 to the Bush-Cheney recount fund, and $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney inaugural committee.
Ambassador to Spain George Argyros, a real estate tycoon, is also fluent in fundraising, though not in Spanish. He chaired the GOP's Victory 2000 effort in California and, during the 1999-2000 election cycle, contributed $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney inaugural committee and $5,000 to the Bush-Cheney recount effort. He and his wife gave $29,000 to GOP candidates and party committees.
At a time when the Northern Ireland peace process is in danger of collapse, Bush chose Richard Egan, the chairman and CEO of EMC Corp., as ambassador to Ireland. Eagan and his wife gave $370,100 to Republican campaigns and parties in the 1999-2000 election cycle, in addition to $100,000 given to the Bush-Cheney inaugural fund and another $10,000 to the Bush-Cheney recount effort.
The fierce backroom political jockeying that precedes these patronage appointments popped into public view during the recent scrum over the ambassadorship to Italy. Bush's first choice, Rockwell Schnabel, another major GOP contributor, was reportedly sandbagged following intense lobbying by New York's Republican governor, George E. Pataki, on behalf of his economic adviser, Charles Gargano, an Italian-American supported by the National Italian American Foundation. The proposed switch irked the Italian government, which has long felt that it is patronizing for the United States to select Italian-Americans for the post.
In the end, Bush opted for Mel Sembler, who is a close family friend of Vice President Dick Cheney, served as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee during Bush's campaign, and was a fundraiser for brother Jeb Bush's two gubernatorial races in Florida. When nominated to be ambassador to Australia during the elder Bush's administration, Sembler, a wealthy Florida developer, caused a stir when he and the nominee for ambassador to Spain used virtually identical words to describe themselves in disclosure forms for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A public relations consultant had drafted their answers. To a language-proficiency question, Sembler replied: "English (fluent)."
Peter Eisner, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, contends: "The ambassador nomination process has simply become another extension of the increased importance of money in American politics." Because campaign costs have grown so dramatically, there are more and more pipers expecting to be paid, he adds.
"Increasingly, you not only have to be a millionaire to run for high elective office, but once in power, you are more likely to reward other supportive millionaires in your own elite class with key jobs in the administration," Eisner said. If the United States were truly about government "of the people," he argues, postings to London, Paris, Dublin, Madrid, and Rome would go to the experts best qualified to advance long-term U.S. goals in those countries. "Instead, they go to people who gave a lot of money and are being rewarded for it. This patronage has become such a long-standing perk of winning the presidency that no one thinks twice about a process that should be cause for real embarrassment. Many of these political appointees find themselves quite out of their element, leaving the United States open to international ridicule."
Pros and Rookies
Former insiders who have witnessed ambassadorial selections firsthand describe a delicate balancing act in which U.S. interests, the desires of host countries, the specific qualifications of career and noncareer candidates, and the largesse of political supporters are all carefully weighed by the White House and State Department.
By dint of their strategic importance and clout in Washington, certain nations expect and usually receive political appointees of the highest stature, qualifications, and connections to the White House. As the world's second-largest economy and the United States' most important ally in Asia, for instance, Japan routinely receives elder statesmen as its U.S. ambassador. The Japanese press calls these American emissaries o-mano, or "big guys." Past U.S. ambassadors to Japan include former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and former Speaker of the House Tom Foley. Bush appointed former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker.
Other strategically important nations, including Russia, China, and Germany, also normally rate high-profile political appointees or rising stars of the career Foreign Service. Clinton's ambassador to China was Joseph Prueher, a retired Navy four-star admiral who once commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He is being replaced by a Bush fraternity brother, Clark Randt Jr., who with his wife contributed $23,000 to Republican candidates and committees in 1999-2000 and $1,000 to the Bush-Cheney Transition Foundation. But Randt also has extensive experience in China as a trade lawyer based in Hong Kong for the law firm Shearman & Sterling. For Germany, Bush tapped former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who served on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees and who was narrowly passed over for Defense Secretary. For Russia, Bush turned to Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow, a respected Foreign Service officer who distinguished himself as ambassador to NATO.
A second tier of nations normally receives senior Foreign Service officers because they are strategically or diplomatically sensitive, or are considered "operational" posts that need an experienced diplomat steeped in the local culture and conversant in the intricacies of regional tensions. The first group includes such countries as Greece, the Philippines, Thailand and Turkey. The second encompasses such hot spots as Bosnia, the Congo, Serbia and Sierra Leone.
"A lot of people don't understand that the places where the quality of the U.S. ambassador can really have a dramatic impact are normally not the most prestigious posts from a social standpoint, but rather distant capitals that have little other day-to-day contact with senior U.S. decision makers," Holbrooke said. "That's why the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia is more important in the overall scheme of U.S. foreign policy than the ambassador to Great Britain."
Yet plum patronage posts in European capitals and tropical islands routinely draw the most scrutiny from critics and often prove most controversial. Foreign Service veterans say the tradition of awarding these attractive assignments to well-heeled donors with little or no foreign policy experience upsets the career diplomatic corps, especially deputies assigned to clean up the mess created by blundering novices.
Although rarely publicized, political appointees' screwups are infamous in diplomatic circles. In 1937, for instance, Franklin Roosevelt appointed wealthy industrialist and campaign contributor Joseph Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain. That posting added cachet to the career of the patriarch of what would become one of the most powerful families in American politics. Kennedy, however, failed to endear himself to his hosts with his isolationist and appeasement views toward the Nazis. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, the ambassador reportedly declared that "democracy is finished in England." Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not amused.
Or take the curious case of William A. Wilson, Ronald Reagan's friend and the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. One of the difficult tasks that newly minted political appointees face is distinguishing where the ceremonial pomp of an ambassadorship ends and true authority begins. The Vatican embassy, which has only a handful of staff, is one of the United States' smallest and least significant. But the limits of his job were apparently lost on Wilson, who in January of 1986 launched an unauthorized diplomatic mission to Libya and secretly met with Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in an effort to smooth relations between their countries. Secretary of State George Shultz officially reprimanded Wilson.
Brash campaign contributors who have risen to the tops of their professions, often as CEOs of their own companies or as "Masters of the Universe" on Wall Street, are sometimes slow to grasp that diplomacy often means not speaking your mind. The behavior of Evan Galbraith, a wealthy investment banker who served as Reagan's first ambassador to France, is a classic example. He may have set a record by drawing four formal protests from the French foreign ministry, the last for an exit interview he gave in 1985 in which he criticized the government of President Francois Mitterrand for allowing Communist ministers in his Cabinet and in which he gleefully predicted that the ruling Socialist Party would be defeated in the next French elections. Not exactly a team player, Galbraith was publicly rebuked by Shultz for asserting that a Foreign Service career "takes the guts out of people."
Other political appointees have become carried away by the whirlwind of entertainment and social duties of a U.S. ambassador. According to a knowledgeable source, no less than three U.S. ambassadors--whom he refused to identify--were recalled from Scandinavia alone in the 1980s because of social missteps.
One notorious incident started with the candlelit dinner the Danes put on for visiting Vice President Bush in 1983 at the spectacular Kronberg Castle in Elsinore, the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet. According to The Washington Post, as the "well-lubricated" dinner wore on, several officials in the Bush entourage began "visibly drooping, snoozing in fact, as the toasts were exchanged." Not long after, U.S. Ambassador John Loeb, a New York financier, was recalled from Denmark after grumbles about his "social high jinks."
Then there was the case of former U.S. Ambassador to Norway Mark Evans Austad, an outspoken former Mormon missionary who tangled with Norway's opposition Labor Party, a local Norwegian council, student groups, and a Norwegian media that frequently ran such headlines as "Austad Strikes Again." Austad again found his name in the local papers after Norwegian police were summoned to a house where he was bellowing loudly and banging on a woman's door at 3 a.m. According to Austad, after hosting a cocktail buffet, he had embarked on a late-night visit to a friend's house "to plan a salmon fishing trip," and the taxi had taken him to the wrong address. The police returned Austad to his hotel.
The temptations of nearly constant socializing can unhinge the unwary political appointee, as perhaps happened to Joseph Zappala, a wealthy Florida developer and major fundraiser for former President Bush who was appointed ambassador to Spain despite his inability to speak Spanish. As Florida papers reported, Zappala's tenure in Madrid was marred when he took up with another woman, ending his 30-year marriage. "This guy's roaming eye for the Spanish ladies became very embarrassing for us in the career Foreign Service," said someone who served in Madrid with Zappala.
Another potential pitfall for untested diplomats is "clientitis:" seeing the world more from the host country's perspective than that of the U.S. State Department. A glaring example of "going native" involved then-U.S. Ambassador to Romania James Rosapepe, a Clinton appointee who became the subject of a blistering report by the State Department's inspector general.
The report accused Rosapepe of failing to inform Washington of key developments in Romania, giving too much weight to Romania's domestic agenda, displaying a lack of discretion by including Romanian nationals in many embassy meetings, and sometimes bringing only a Romanian national--and not a U.S. Foreign Service officer--to high-level meetings with the Romanian government. Rosapepe's information was so slanted that "we really have no idea what is going on there," the inspector general's report quoted a State Department official as saying.
Perhaps no diplomatic embarrassment prompted by the appointment of a wealthy contributor was more egregiously self-inflicted than the Clinton administration's selection of California hotel magnate Larry Lawrence to be ambassador to Switzerland. When nominated, Lawrence had more than two dozen cases pending against him in federal tax court. The shadow that cast on his integrity prompted the American Foreign Service Association to issue a rare and unsuccessful recommendation that he not be confirmed.
Lawrence died in 1996 and received a waiver to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery based on his claim of having been wounded during World War II while serving in the Merchant Marines. Later, it was revealed that he never served in the Merchant Marines and that much of the rest of his life story was also fabricated. Ultimately, his body was exhumed and reburied in San Diego, and the Justice Department launched an investigation into how the State Department and White House failed to catch Lawrence's many lies during his background check.
Just as the practice of awarding generous supporters and family friends with ambassadorships goes back centuries, controversial and dramatic showdowns between the White House and Senate over important nominations are the stuff of Washington lore. Allen Drury published his best-selling novel Advise and Consent about a doomed Cabinet-level nomination in 1959--the year the Senate rejected President Eisenhower's choice for Secretary of Commerce, Lewis Strauss, because of questions about his integrity and staunch conservatism.
In recent years, nominees for ambassadorships--both political appointees and career Foreign Service officers--have increasingly become convenient targets in bitter partisan political battles that sometimes have nothing to do with the nominee's qualifications.
In former ambassador Holbrooke's view, "The confirmation process for ambassadors and other presidential appointments has become a nightmarish obstacle course where everyone is trying to play 'gotcha' for partisan political or personal reasons, thus immobilizing the entire process. We need to call off these dogs of revenge, because the endless holds and delays on our ambassadors are having a very negative impact on U.S. national interests."
For more than 12 months in 1999-2000, the United States was without an ambassador to the Philippines, a nation that an Islamic insurgency threatened to destabilize. Career diplomat Peter Burleigh had his nomination blocked by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who was upset about an unrelated whistleblower case at the State Department. By the time the federal Office of Special Counsel found that State had not mistreated the employee, a frustrated Burleigh had retired.
Last year, then-Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., placed holds on seven ambassadorial nominations to signal his concerns about security at the State Department. Those holds followed the high-profile torpedoing in 1997 of the nomination of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld to be ambassador to Mexico. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly considered his fellow Republican soft on illegal drugs. Helms never even granted Weld a hearing. Later in Clinton's second term, three Republican Senators who claimed that philanthropist James Hormel was a gay-rights activist blocked his nomination to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel became the first openly gay ambassador when Clinton took the unusual step of bypassing the Senate by giving him a "recess" appointment.
"Over the last 20 years, this process of senators blocking or putting holds on ambassadorial nominations for weeks, months, and even longer has morphed into a monster," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank in Washington. "It's gotten to the point where if a senator wants anything from the administration, they just look around for an important nomination to take hostage. The human toll this practice takes on honorable people who are willing to put their lives on the line for public service, and then are left twisting in the wind for months, should not be underestimated."
Yale law professor Stephen Carter notes in his 1995 book, The Confirmation Mess, that contested presidential appointments were relatively rare in the century before Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Once Reagan took office, however, Democrats rediscovered the more literal, pre-Reconstruction interpretation of the Constitution's "advise and consent" clause.
Paul Light, senior adviser to the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative, wants to change what he sees as a broken nomination process. "Reagan and his administration understood that sub-Cabinet, judicial, and ambassadorial nominations really matter in determining how a government operates, so they nominated very ideologically stringent candidates for many of these positions," Light said. "Democrats responded by using every delaying and blocking technique at their disposal, to the point where candidates often had to mount furious campaigns just to get a hearing. And since that time, both political parties have gone to school on each other's techniques."
Reagan's picks for key ambassadorial and State Department positions did indeed cause heated controversies. Reagan's first nominee to be assistant secretary of State for human rights and humanitarian affairs, Ernest Lefever, was rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as unsuitable for the post after he reportedly told then-Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill., that those opposed to his confirmation were "Communists." Reagan's next choice, Elliot Abrams, also raised the hackles of many Democrats: He was a liberal-basher who was later pardoned by former President Bush after pleading guilty to lying to Congress over the Iran-Contra affair. Likewise, Reagan's nomination of Kenneth Adelman, a noted arms control skeptic, to be director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency provoked a three-month debate on the Reagan administration's commitment to arms control before he was confirmed.
Three Reagan-appointed ambassadors went on to call for Secretary of State Shultz's resignation on the grounds that he supposedly was insufficiently anti-Communist and was "undermining President Reagan's foreign policy."
Meanwhile, career diplomats are increasingly drawn into partisan confirmation battles in ways that are undermining their ability to loyally serve across administrations.
For much of the past year and half, for instance, as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has rattled the bars of his cage and undermined international sanctions imposed after the Persian Gulf War, the United States had no ambassador in neighboring Kuwait. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Helms refused to grant career Foreign Service officer Larry Pope a hearing on his nomination as ambassador to Kuwait. Helms was upset that Pope's former boss, U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Anthony Zinni, had criticized legislation calling for direct U.S. assistance to Iraqi dissidents dedicated to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Eventually, the exasperated Pope retired from government service. The Senate recently confirmed career Foreign Service officer Richard Henry Jones as Kuwaiti ambassador.
"To get a hearing on my nomination, Senator Helms's staff essentially said I [would have] had to inform on my boss. That would have undermined the relationship of trust necessary within the government bureaucracy," Pope recalled.
He noted that punishing career Foreign Service officers for implementing the policy of whatever administration they serve undercuts the principle that the diplomatic corps, like the military, should remain above the partisan fray. "I'm not saying we're policy eunuchs who shouldn't be held accountable for our views, but Congress shouldn't penalize us for loyally supporting the President's policies," Pope said.
A confirmation battle may be brewing over Bush's nomination of John Negroponte to be ambassador to the United Nations. Negroponte has been controversial since the Reagan era. Senate Democrats want to question him about his role in arming the Contras and his knowledge of human rights abuses when he was ambassador to Honduras in 1981-85.
Some Senate staffers argue that blocking ambassadorial nominations is an understandable attempt by Congress to reassert its foreign policy role. "The President has more autonomy in the execution of foreign policy, and Congress has less influence, than the framers of the Constitution originally intended," said a senior Republican Senate staff member. "If the President undertakes a foreign policy initiative that runs counter to the collective will of Capitol Hill, we need some other weapon besides the blunt force of legislation or withholding appropriations. Putting a hold on an ambassadorial nomination is much more subtle and nimble, because they can be slapped on and off very quickly. They are like precision-guided munitions in that way, but, like any weapon, they can be misused."
Yet a number of experts argue that it's time to overhaul the system. Some specialists have called for the re-establishment of a bipartisan commission--such as the one tried in the Carter administration--to screen political appointees for competence and integrity. The American Foreign Service Association has recommended limiting noncareer political appointees to 20 percent of the ambassador corps, down from an average of 33 percent. And to streamline the nominations process, the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative wants to limit senatorial "holds" to 14 days and to require the Senate to vote on nominees within 45 days.
But many longtime observers of Washington's diplomatic selection process--in which matchmakers scrutinize both pedigree and dowry--don't expect dramatic changes. "The fact that campaign contributors are rewarded with ambassadorships, and that career nominees get caught up in partisan battles, are unfortunately enduring aspects of our political landscape. People wring their hands and shake their heads about it, but by and large, little changes," said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington and a former ambassador to Turkey and Thailand. "The simplest reform would be to only select good people. Barring that, you hope that Presidents will send the less qualified people to countries where they can do the least harm."
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