No Change: Obama Appoints Big Donors as Ambassadors

Friday, 29 May 2009 08:20 AM

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WASHINGTON – Despite his promises of change, President Barack Obama has kept tradition by naming top donors to plum ambassador posts, drawing fire from career US diplomats and causing dismay among some US allies.

Obama has been criticized for naming fund raisers with no diplomatic experience - and who together drummed up well over a million dollars for his record-shattering campaign - to be ambassadors to Britain, France and Japan.

"It's an 18th-century practice we are continuing which no other major democratic country does," said Ronald Neumann, a veteran ambassador and head of the American Academy of Diplomacy, a lobby of former senior diplomats.

"It's not 'change you can believe in,' but it's not terribly surprising," said Neumann, referring to Obama's campaign slogan.

Obama named Louis Susman, a former Citigroup banker in Chicago once dubbed the "vacuum cleaner" for his prowess sucking up money, as ambassador to London.

Obama also tapped two major California fund raisers - naming Charles Rivkin, the former producer of "The Muppets" children show, to Paris and Silicon Valley lawyer John Roos to Tokyo.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Thursday defended the picks, noting that Obama also appointed respected figures such as former congressman Timothy Roemer as ambassador to India.

"It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants ... who haven't come through the ranks of civil service," Gibbs said.

British newspapers described Obama's appointment to London as "cronyism." Some dailies had speculated hopefully that the US president would pick one of his more glamorous friends - Oprah Winfrey.

While US ambassador residences in London and Paris have long been retreats for presidents' wealthy friends, Tokyo has been used to heavy hitters including former vice president Walter Mondale, former Senate majority leaders Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker and ex-House speaker Tom Foley.

Many Japanese are nervous that the United States will ignore its longstanding Asian ally as it builds ties with a rapidly growing China.

While Tokyo publicly welcomed Roos' appointment, one Japanese magazine worried that Obama was "Japan-passing" - opposed to US "Japan-bashing" during the 1980s trade wars.

Tokyo-based analyst Robert Dujarric said Japanese worry that Roos is "lightweight" compared with Obama's pick for Beijing, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman - a Mandarin speaker who some eye as a future president himself.

"It's a symptom of Japan's anxiety over its future, its ties with America and being overshadowed by China," said Dujarric, director of Temple University's Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies.

"Hence the trauma of a senior politician going to Beijing compared with a guy in Tokyo who no one has ever heard of with no political or Asian expertise -- although to be fair, I assume as a Silicon Valley player he knows a thing or two about Japanese high-tech," Dujarric said.

But Dujarric said Japan put too much emphasis on the US ambassador, who has far less influence than US cabinet members who meet regularly with Japanese counterparts through the Group of Seven and other forums.

Obama worked early to show his commitment to the Japan relationship by inviting Prime Minister Taro Aso as his first foreign guest at the White House.

Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has served as ambassador to Thailand and Turkey, said that while it was deplorable to give positions based on money, some Obama fund raisers could make solid diplomats.

"Despite the rhetoric, this administration is no different than previous administrations, expect it looks like their appointments might be better," Abramowitz said.

"Diplomacy has to be much more creative and much more dynamic these days as we're not the big power we once were. It's important to have people as good as we can get," he said.

© 2009 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

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