Monday, April 15, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Caroline Kennedy as Ambassador to Japan

Let me first say that I know of no reason to dislike Caroline Kennedy. I don’t know her, but I will assume that she is a very pleasant person. She is, I will further assume, of moderate or better intelligence and good at her work – which has been law and writing.

These qualities, admirable though they are, do not qualify her to be ambassador to a very important country – which is a fair description, I think, of one of the world’s largest economies, located in a volatile region, next door to a raving lunatic who is armed with nuclear weapons

Also, though I don’t approve of the practice, I completely understand the tradition of paying off a political supporter with a cushy job like Ambassador to Jamaica, for which Ms. Kennedy would be very nicely suited; but Japan (or Germany, Russia, China, etc) is another matter entirely.

Let’s examine what can happen when an unqualified person is appointed as an ambassador. Here’s what happened in Luxembourg when the job was taken over by one of President Obama’s bundlers, Cynthia Stroum. Details are here, but this pretty well summarizes things:
How bad were things at the embassy under her management? Well, some embassy staffers accepted transfers to Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad, Iraq, which certainly is one way to make a statement.
And here’s another case, from Foreign Policy magazine, this one in the Bahamas;
Candidate Barack Obama promised to end the time-honored American practice of appointing ambassadors who have no experience in foreign policy, but President Obama has completely ignored that promise, appointing fundraisers to dozens of ambassadorships all over the world.
Today, the State Department revealed that another fundraiser turned ambassador ran her embassy into the ground ... only to return to fundraising and leave the State Department to pick up the pieces.

According to a new State Department inspector general's report on the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas, Ambassador Nicole Avant presided over "an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy" since she was appointed by the president in 2009. Prior to being America's envoy in the Caribbean, Avant was Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama's presidential campaign and vice president of Interior Music Publishing.
As the article quoted above notes, Obama promised to end the practice of selling ambassadorships and other government jobs, but even his most ardent supporters in the media are forced to admit that he has failed miserably in that task. Here’s the Washington Post on the subject:
Obama campaigned on what he called “the most sweeping ethics reform in history” and has frequently criticized the role of money in politics. That hasn’t stopped him from offering government jobs to some of his biggest bundlers, volunteer fundraisers who gather political contributions from other rich donors.
More than half of Obama’s 47 biggest fundraisers, those who collected at least $500,000 for his campaign, have been given administration jobs. Nine more have been appointed to presidential boards and committees.

At least 24 Obama bundlers were given posts as foreign ambassadors, including in Finland, Australia, Portugal and Luxembourg.
So appointing qualified ambassadors was just another empty campaign promise by Obama. Breaking campaign promises is, again, nothing new, though it’s particularly disappointing considering the wave of hope and optimism that accompanied Obama's election, and his soaring rhetoric about a new kind of politics. He’s just another politician giving fundraisers government jobs, with predictable results.

To be blunt, though, who really gives a damn about Luxembourg or the Bahamas? If one must appoint ‘diplomats’ with no experience, those are the appropriate places for them.

But, to return to my point, Japan is another matter.

And to see the potential consequences of giving an important diplomatic post, in troubled times, to an unqualified person, we need go no further afield than Caroline Kennedy’s own grandfather, the redoubtable Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., who contributed generously to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and received in return the post of Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (aka, the UK) in 1938. We’ll let Wikipedia describe the consequences:
Throughout 1938, while the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany and Austria intensified, Kennedy attempted to arrange a meeting with Adolf Hitler. Shortly before the Nazi aerial bombing of British cities began in September 1940, Kennedy once again sought a personal meeting with Hitler, again without the approval of the Department of State, "to bring about a better understanding between the United States and Germany". […]
Kennedy also argued strongly against giving military and economic aid to the United Kingdom. "Democracy is finished in England. It may be here," he stated in the Boston Sunday Globe of November 10, 1940.
That was enough to get him canned.

It may be too much to hope for that the practice of paying off big donors with ambassadorships and government offices might end someday – it clearly isn’t going to happen in this administration, and I see no reason to think that the next one, whichever party wins, will be much different. But can’t we at least minimize the damage that such appointees can do?

So, Caroline, what do you think of Jamaica? I hear the diving is great.

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