Among the more outrageous features of American foreign affairs is the continuance under all Administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, of our diplomatic spoils system.
We are unique among advanced countries in sending totally unqualified individuals abroad as ambassadors.
We do so in spite of long-standing legislation, Section 304(a)(2) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, that specifies that positions as ambassador should normally be accorded to career members of the Foreign Service. The Act also says that an ambassador should, to the maximum extent practicable, know the language of the country in which he or she is to serve, and should possess "knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people."
It is true that in recent decades, Presidents have usually filled around two-thirds of ambassadorial positions with experienced career officers. But the biggest posts have almost all gone to political appointees, many of them totally lacking in the necessary experience.
In all of our republic's history, only one career Foreign Service officer has ever been our ambassador to the United Kingdom--our most important ally. This was Raymond Seitz, who served in London with great distinction in 1991-94. In contrast, the British almost invariably send one of their most experienced career diplomats to Washington. The last non-career British ambassador to the United States, Peter Jay, was sent to Washington in 1977. The present incumbent, Peter Westmacott, has four decades of experience, including prior posts as deputy under secretary of state and ambassador to Turkey and to France.
Now, a month into the second Obama Administration, rumors abound about who will be made an envoy for helping the President get reelected. The New York Times reported, however, on January 18 that would-be envoys were being warned not to expect much if they had not raised at least a million dollars for the election campaign!
Besides money there is another factor--the ethnic and/or religious factor--that often weighs in with political appointments. All too often we send, for example, Irish Americans to Dublin, Jewish Americans to Tel Aviv, and Catholic Americans to the Vatican. That may please Americans of those backgrounds, but can Arab Americans have confidence in a Jewish American ambassador to Israel, or non-Catholics in a Catholic ambassador to the Vatican? Nor do such...