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July 25, 2013

Politics, Money Play Key Role in Obama Ambassador Appointments

by Ken Bredemeier

U.S. President Barack Obama is following the tradition of recent American leaders by appointing some of his biggest political supporters and donors to key overseas ambassadorial postings.
 
The latest is Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, nominated as American ambassador to Japan.  She was not a major fundraiser for the president, but was an early supporter as sought the presidency in 2008.  She would replace John Roos, who has been a top Obama fundraiser.
 
U.S. political watchdog, OpenSecrets, says Obama "seems to be no exception" to presidents naming their biggest donors and fundraisers, rather than career diplomats, as their key envoys.  The group said during his four-plus years in office, Obama has named 23 ambassadors who helped raise $500,000 or more for one or both of his presidential campaigns.  
 
The biggest donors have often been selected to head embassies in countries that are among the closest U.S. allies.  
 
While Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents have appointed big fundraisers, the group representing career diplomats, the American Foreign Service Association, has derided the practice.  
 
In a statement last year, the group said, "Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto 'three-year rental' of ambassadorships. The United States is alone in this practice; no other major democracy routinely appoints non-diplomats to serve as envoys to other countries."
 
The diplomats' group said the appointment of political donors "should be exceptional and circumscribed, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades."
 
Other examples include, technology-savvy business executive Matthew Barzun, who helped raise $1.2 million for Obama's re-election campaign last year.  He was the U.S. ambassador to Sweden for part of Obama's first term, and now has been named as the country's chief envoy in England.
 
Among others, James Costos, an executive with the HBO cable television network who raised more than $500,000 for Obama's 2012 campaign, is headed to Madrid as the U.S. ambassador to Spain.  John Emerson, the head of a global investment management firm and another $500,000 Obama fundraiser, is ticketed for Germany.