They might not speak a relevant foreign language or have any diplomatic experience, but big donors to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign have “essential skills” qualifying them for ambassador jobs, according to State Department documents obtained by Yahoo News.
The assertions can be found in documents dubbed “Certificates of Competency,” which the administration is required by law to produce to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for each ambassadorial nominee. The documents have not been made public.
Earlier this year, three of Obama’s “ambassadonor” picks raised eyebrows in their confirmation hearing testimony. Real estate investor George Tsunis, nominated to be envoy to Norway, did not seem to know what kind of government that country has and attempted to bluff his way through questions about anti-immigration sentiment there. Soap opera producer Colleen Bell, tapped to go to Hungary, could not list any of America’s strategic interests there. Consultant Noah Bryson Mamet admitted he had never been to Argentina.
But each “will bring essential skills” to the job of chief U.S. diplomat, according to their certificates, which were obtained by Yahoo News.
Big donors or prominent political figures can make fine American diplomats. Caroline Kennedy has won strong reviews as ambassador to Japan. Charles Rivkin went from ambassador to France to assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, a post to which he won Senate confirmation in a 92-6 vote.
In Mamet’s defense, it’s not unusual for career diplomats to never have been to the country to which they are posted, though they usually possess strong regional credentials.
Moreover, the practice of naming big donors to prominent ambassadorial posts did not start with Obama — nor will it end with him.
In recent history, presidents have largely stuck to a 70-30 ratio of career diplomats to political appointees, according to data compiled by the American Foreign Service Association. In his first term, Obama nominated 63 percent career to 37 percent political. His second term so far shows nominees running at 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent.
But Tsunis, Bell and Mamet drew fire because they appeared to have been picked only because they bundled up vast quantities of cash to get Obama back in the White House.
Their “Certificates of Competency” are unlikely to douse that fire.
Tsunis is the founder, chairman and CEO of Chartwell Hotels, which runs hotels in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. “He is known for his legal and business acumen — particularly relating to land use and zoning, real estate, corporate law, municipal law, and commercial litigation — and strong commitment to public service.”
“A talented leader and experienced negotiator, Mr. Tsunis will bring essential skills to the task of furthering bilateral relations with the Government of Norway, a key U.S. ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” it says.
The certificate notes that Tsunis serves as a trustee of the Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Group — but that appears to be an error. Tsunis himself testified that he serves on the organization’s Foreign Policy Leadership Committee, whose members “provide financial support” and receive semiannual briefings from the institution’s members.
The last line in Tsunis’ certificate underlines that he “speaks conversational Greek.”
Bell “has a strong history of accomplishment in the television industry,” her certificate says.
“Known for her successful leadership in high-profile and influential social service, environmental and arts organizations, she has a wealth of experience in a wide range of fields from the economy, human rights and climate change to foreign policy, public health and education,” it says. And Bell “will bring essential skills to the task of furthering bilateral relations with the Government of Hungary.”
Her arts resume is truly impressive. But a “wealth of experience” in “foreign policy”? The only seemingly relevant entry is her membership in the “Los Angeles Leadership Council and Global Leadership Council of the Natural Resources Defense Council” since 2004.
“She speaks conversational Spanish.”
Mamet’s consulting company “works closely with a number of the nation’s leading business and philanthropic leaders.”
“He is known for his management expertise and talented leadership in both the private and public spheres, his knowledge of pressing international issues and his experience working closely with top U.S. officials over the past two decades.”
Mamet’s certificate lists nine campaign or fundraising posts and notes that he served as an election monitor for the National Democratic Institute in Sierra Leone in 1997, when he would have been about 26.
And, you guessed it, he “will bring essential skills to the task of managing bilateral relations with the Government of Argentina.’
But Mamet, at least, “speaks conversational Spanish.”