The confirmation last week of two spectacularly unqualified political nominees to head U.S. embassies in two budding autocracies , Hungary and Argentina, prompted some predictable tut-tutting.
Sadly, President Barack Obama’s approach to State Department appointments has deeper problems than garden-variety patronage. Political hirelings have been insinuated much lower into the department’s bureaucracy. And after trumpeting tough ethics rules, the administration has carved out loopholes for hiring former lobbyists and “special government employees” who can earn outside income while in their official posts. Never mind the impact this breach of boundaries has on Foreign Service officers’ dreams of future policy greatness. It’s a recipe for flawed, and potentially corrupt, policy-making.
Of course, even the uber-diplomatic George H. W. Bush had his undiplomatic appointments. My favorite: Peter Secchia, a Michigan building magnate who, before arriving to take up his post in Rome, said: “I saw the new Italian Navy. Its boats have glass bottoms so they can see the old Italian Navy.”
The Obama administration, however, has taken the practice of bringing in the underqualified to new extremes … . Since 2009, 35 percent of ambassadors have been political appointees, more than in the administrations of either George W. Bush (30 percent) or Bill Clinton (28 percent).
Political appointees have filled an efflorescence of “special envoy” slots — more than 40 at last count, many of them created under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Remember Ronan Farrow’s great achievements as “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for Global Youth Issues?” Didn’t think so. There are also special envoys to Muslim communities, civil society, faith-based and community initiatives, global intergovernmental affairs, international information programs — each one a political appointee supplemented by sundry strap-hangers.
Within established bureaus, according to the American Foreign Service Association, this administration has also made more mid-level management appointments than its predecessors: So-called “schedule B” employees — brought in from outside the Civil Service or the Foreign Service — more than tripled between 2008 and 2012.
Smart outsiders can bring valuable experience to an institution that John F. Kennedy once derided as “a bowl full of jelly” with “all those people who are constantly smiling.” (Full disclosure: I smiled from 1989 to 1997.) Moreover, as the government studies guru James Q. Wilson observed, presidents like to sprinkle their own people throughout the government because they “see much of the bureaucracy as their natural enemy and are always searching for ways to bring it to heel.”
But even assuming smart appointees, going too deep with them can backfire. According to the National Academy of Public Administration, the average appointee stays for only 2.5 years. All that churn can weaken institutional memory and operational skill. Special envoys short-circuit the policy process and sideline expertise: Do you need to create a new Arctic Council special envoy when you already have a whole Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs?
More mid-level apparatchiks also means more yes-men and fewer experienced balloon-poppers to question bad ideas. And confronted by an artificial career ceiling, the best Foreign Service officers can be forgiven for thinking they have a brighter future elsewhere. Almost half of the respondents in one forthcoming poll of FSOs said such constraints were prompting them to consider ditching the service.
If that weren’t bad enough, the Obama’s administration’s willingness to bend hiring rules should give pause to even its defenders.
Exhibit A is the case of Robin Raphel, an ex-diplomat turned lobbyist for Pakistan who was re-hired at the State Department as a senior adviser on Pakistan policy. She’s now under federal investigation as part of a counterintelligence probe. One mystery is how she could have been hired in the first place: Her previous work for Pakistan put her outside the spirit, if not the letter, of the administration’s stringent no-lobbyist rules.
Unfortunately, the list of exceptions to those rules is long and growing. The State Department, for instance, just named a former lobbyist for Marathon Oil (and, indirectly, Libya and Muamar Gadhafi) as its “special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs.” Come to think of it, one of his predecessors also lobbied for Libya. So much for the bold words of presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007: “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.” Seven years later, his diplomatic appointments suggest he’s singing a different tune.
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine.