The State Department is too top-heavy with Obama political picks, says foreign service group

It matters because ‘The world is a mess,’ the association says

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the Diplomatic Corps holiday reception at the State Department in Washington December 19, 2012. (Yuri Gripas/REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the Diplomatic Corps holiday reception at the State Department in Washington December 19, 2012. (Yuri Gripas/REUTERS)

President Barack Obama’s fondness for rewarding big donors with plum diplomatic posts overseas made international headlines earlier this year when a few of them embarrassed themselves in confirmation hearings.

Now, the association that represents career U.S. diplomats is sounding the alarm about leadership at the very top of the State Department, warning that foreign service professionals are losing ground to “political” picks.

“The world is a mess,” American Foreign Service Association President Bob Silverman told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. “We need our most experienced people – people who have actually managed embassies, who have actually managed international programs – in the mix at the top of the leadership.”

With the retirement of Bill Burns, the highly regarded foreign service officer who served as the State Department’s No. 2, just one of the top nine jobs in American diplomacy is held by a career diplomat: Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy. (The number rises to 2 out of 10 if State Department Counselor Tom Shannon is included).

It’s not clear whether Obama will pick a career foreign service officer to replace Burns. Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken is widely seen as a top contender and would be a political appointment. Reached by email, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan declined to comment on prospects for Burns’s successor.

“It should be a career person. At least one of the top three at State should be a career person,” said Silverman. “That has been the tradition over many, many decades.”

Unlike the “ambassadonors,” though, it’s not primarily a question of shoehorning people who have shown they are supremely good at raising money into diplomatic posts for which they are questionably competent. The undersecretary of political affairs, Wendy Sherman, is a “political,” for instance, but has an impressive resume. She is the No. 3 at the State Department.

But Silverman said career diplomats understand the “machine” in Foggy Bottom and see how the parts fit together to make policy. He also noted that bringing in too much outside help damages morale among the career officials.

Obama has overseen an expansion of political appointments at the State Department. He has chosen fewer career diplomats for ambassadorial postings than his recent predecessors. And his administration has tripled the number of noncareer appointments under so-called “Schedule B authority,” which have soared from 26 to 89 employees between 2008 and 2012 at the senior levels.

“We’re not opposed to politicals. We welcome outsiders, talented outsiders. It’s just a matter of balance, and it’s out of balance right now. There are too many politicals right now,” said Silverman.

The AFSA president emphasized that he wants to be, well, diplomatic about pressuring the administration.

“We’re not rabble-rousers. We’re not going to be burning down the building,” he said. “I don’t want to say ‘angry.’ But we are concerned about the growing politicization throughout the State Department.”

Still, Silverman says, it’s time for “a mid-course correction,” with two years left in the Obama administration.

“I think this can be rebalanced. We have good partners in the administration, particularly among Secretary (of State John) Kerry’s top staff,” he said. “The system is not broken, it’s just a bit out of balance.”

Come Tuesday, AFSA could have an unlikely ally: Senate Republicans. A top GOP aide, asked what would happen to the stalled “ambassadonor” nominations, signaled that those would-be diplomats shouldn’t pack their bags.

When it comes to confirmations of Obama nominees in a Republican Senate, the aide said dryly, “partisan picks and Obama bundlers won’t be at the top of the list.”