Luxembourg ambassadorship scandal shows why giving jobs to campaign donors is rarely a good idea

I’m not the first to mention this on the blogosphere, but I thought it merited a comment nevertheless. It seems that the US Ambassador to Luxembourg, a certain Cynthia Stroum, has had to resign because she was such an awful, incompetent, corrupt, petty, bullying individual:

The now-former U.S Ambassador to Luxembourg, Cynthia Stroum, had members of the small staff of the embassy spend the majority of their time on the important task of finding her a temporary residence that met her high standards; made refurbishing the bathroom at the ambassador’s residence a top personal priority; told them that she could snoop on their e-mails; and left her office so demoralized that some top staffers volunteered to serve in two war zone embassies rather than continue to work under her leadership.

That’s all according to a State Department Inspector General report, which concludes that Stroum’s “confrontational management style, chronic gaps in senior and other staffing caused by curtailments, and the absence of a sense of direction have brought major elements of Embassy Luxembourg to a state of dysfunction”…

Most employees described Stroum to inspectors as “aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating, which has resulted in an extremely difficult, unhappy, and uncertain work environment.”

Cynthia Stroum was a big-time democratic donor – raising over $500,000 for President Obama’s 2008 campaign. But she has no political or diplomatic experience. And she’s not alone. Many big ambassadorships were given to campaign donors:

  • Louis Susman, lawyer and investment banker, raised at least $100,000 for Obama’s presidential campaign and at least $300,000 for his inauguration. He is now Ambassador to the UK.
  • Charles Rivkin, head of the entertainment company W!LDBRAIN, raised roughly half a million dollars for the Obama campaign, and was picked to represent the United States in France.
  • John Roos, a lawyer, raised a similar amount and was chosen as US Ambassador to Japan.
  • Laurie Fulton, another lawyer, brought in over $100,000 and was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Denmark.

I could go on. The point is that it is taken as more or less a given that campaign donors will be given ambassadorships or other plum posts to reward their financial support during the election. Democrats pick trial lawyers as ambassadors; republicans pick Texas oil men. Bush was just as bad, as was Clinton, and Bush senior before him. Now, granted, there are always a few exceptions – former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as envoy to China, and former Congressman Tim Roemer running the Embassy in India. But the most valuable jobs are given to the people who raise the most money.

There are obviously two problems with this. The first is one of political corruption – while I’m not suggesting that there’s an explicit quid-pro-quo, cash for jobs would be seen as a corrupt practice in most modern democracies. The British press has certainly condemned such goings-on in UK politics in the past. And it’s not an easy thing to combat, because it’s so entrenched – the rich won’t donate nearly as much if they don’t get any love in return.

The second major issue is one of competency. One has to have some brains (or a parent who had brains) to actually earn enough money to become a major political donor. But the skills honed by becoming rich are not the same ones that one needs to be an effective diplomat. That’s why US ambassadors are often mere figureheads, and embassies are run by senior diplomats, while other countries generally tend to pick career diplomats for all but a few ambassadorships. While I’m not against the idea of picking from outside the diplomatic pool to fill such posts, an effective envoy should have at least a little political and/or foreign affairs experience and knowledge. Otherwise, you’re just putting yourself at a natural disadvantage at the negotiating table.

N.B. This post isn’t meant to single out President Obama, who’s been better on transparency and open government than his predecessors, even if he hasn’t been nearly as good as he could have been. President Bush appointed oil execs as ambassadors. President Clinton gave donors and rich allies the same treatment. That doesn’t excuse this administration’s approach to patronage, though – and hopefully, if Obama is elected to a second term, he’ll actually have the courage to break with the past and pick the kind of people who should fill such posts, rather than the kind of people who have in the past.

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