Watching for diplomatic assignments


Brussels or the Bahamas. Lisbon or Luxembourg. Paris or Prague.

These plum posts, along with the title of U.S. ambassador, often are as the ultimate rewards for political support and generous campaign contributions.

“Ambassadorships are traditionally the number one sinecure for very big donors,” said Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that follows the connections between money and politics. “They are positions of great prestige that often can be given at little political costs.”

Whether politics will play a role in the new administration’s picks for such prime posts remains to be seen.

The administration of President George W. Bush has revealed little about its plans for filling ambassador positions.

“We are moving with as much speed and efficiency as we can to determine which posts need to be filled first and to send names to Congress as quickly as we can,” Bush spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss said.

The president, she said, “will clearly go for the most qualified and those best suited for each individual position.”

One name being mentioned is Republican Curt Weldon, for ambassador to Russia. One of Congress’ leading Russian experts, Weldon “is not actively pursuing an ambassadorship,” although he is flattered to be considered, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Republican said.

Pete Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in the Clinton administration, said in a statement earlier this month that he had been asked to stay on in Hanoi for “an indefinite period.”

George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, said the Bush administration has asked him to remain in his post as U.S. ambassador to Rome-based U.N. agencies. “I have accepted,” he told The Associated Press.

The State Department lists 164 ambassadors, or “chiefs of mission.” About a third, 54, are political appointees; the rest are held by career foreign service members. The breakdown has been that way for decades.

Once the Senate confirms the entire Cabinet, Bush is expected to fill other top agency and administration posts before turning his attention to diplomats.

“I don’t think it’s high on his radar screen,” said Bruce Laingen, president of American Academy of Diplomacy. If probably is a higher priority now for Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said.

“Political appointees as ambassadors are a reality. They’re a tradition of this nation and there’s a lot of good to it because it’s part of the public service tradition,” said Marshall Adair, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the organization of career diplomats.

Most of the posts assigned to political appointees are in Europe, such as London, Rome, Paris, Vienna.

Many appointees do outstanding jobs in their posts despite lacking a background in the diplomatic service, Adair said, citing Tom Foley in Tokyo and Felix Rohatyn in Paris as examples.

“Our main interest is that this administration make an extra effort to choose quality people who have the skills and preferably the background to be outstanding representatives of the United States overseas,” Adair said. “Sometimes that’s difficult to do when you have all the political pressures on you.”

It is customary for all U.S. ambassadors, whether appointed or career, to submit their resignations when a new administration takes office.

“Most new administrations like to put their own team in place,” Foley explained in Tokyo last fall when he announced his plans to step down.

In Paris, Rohatyn created a vacancy when he left to begin his new job — with a think tank in New York — and work on his memoirs.

“What you will see about now is virtually all of the political people packing their bags and coming back home,” said Casimir Yost, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. At that point, the charge d’affaires, the embassy’s No. 2 person, takes control until a new ambassador arrives.

Among the vacancies is one in the Philippines, where the most recent candidate for ambassador retired after his nomination was tied up for nine months in the Senate.

Career diplomat Peter Burleigh, who drew wide praise as acting U.N. ambassador during the Kosovo crisis, was named to the Manila post by the Clinton administration. But his nomination was blocked by Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, because of a standoff with the State Department over a whistle-blower at the United Nations.