Obama Padding Diplomatic Ranks With His Donors

Thursday, 19 Nov 2009 04:09 PM

By John Rossomando

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Many hoped that Barack Obama would change how business is done in Washington when he became president, but he appears to be continuing the long tradition of presidents' rewarding top donors with plum ambassadorships.

Since January, 56 percent of the 80 ambassador nominees he has sent to the Senate for confirmation have been high-stakes Democratic donors or party loyalists, while the other 44 percent have been career diplomats.

Nearly two dozen top Obama contributors, who raised more than $10 million for the president’s campaign, have been sent abroad to represent the United States to foreign governments.

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Beatrice Wilkinson Welters, Obama’s recent appointee as ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, is among the most noteworthy. She and her husband, Anthony, an executive with UnitedHealth, generated between $200,000 and $500,000 in donations to Obama’s presidential campaign, as well as $100,000 for his inauguration, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Getting the nod for the sought-after post of ambassador to the Bahamas was Nicole Avant, a member of the Motown family dynasty who generated $800,000 in donations for the campaign.

Others donors and their rewards include:

  • Charles H. Rivkin, a Los Angeles-based children’s executive who raised $800,000 for the campaign, who has become ambassador to France

  • Don Beyer, a Virginia Volvo dealer who raised $745,000, has been sent to Switzerland

  • Alan Solomont, a Boston-based investor who helped raise $500,000, ambassador to Spain

  • Louis B. Susman, a Chicago investor who raised $500,000, ambassador to the United Kingdom

    Another new ambassador, Philip Murphy, whose post is in Germany, has donated $1.5 million to the Democratic Party since 1989.

    The quid pro quo system of appointing people some consider unqualified must stop, according to experts in the field.

    “It is time to stop the spoils system and these de facto, three-year term rentals of ambassadorships,” Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, told Politico. “We believe the appointment of noncareer individuals, however accomplished they may be in their own field, to lead American diplomatic missions should be exceptional and circumscribed, and not the routine practice it has become over the last three or four decades.”

    The roles American ambassadors play has changed in recent years because their formerly ceremonial roles have been transformed by the demands of issues such as human and drug trafficking, kidnapping, war, and intelligence gathering, Johnson said. This necessitates having trained professionals in ambassador roles rather than inexperienced political appointees, she said.

    The president’s defenders say he never promised to change the ambassador system.

    The administration should not be judged by its first wave of ambassador nominations because they involved posts that traditionally have been given to political appointees, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told Politico.

    Career diplomatic posts that run in staggered three-year terms should be opening up in the next year or two, which will produce a second wave of nominations that career foreign service officers, Vietor said.

    Obama’s election had filled many in the career diplomatic corps with hope that he would be different than his predecessors.

    “There is a bit of disappointment, largely because expectations were raised by the ‘change’ theme in the Obama campaign and that there no longer would be ‘business as usual’ in Washington,” Johnson said.

    The careerists have found their postings equally disappointing because they have been sent largely to backwaters such as Haiti and Zimbabwe, while the political appointees have received the more prestigious postings.

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