When we need surgery, we don’t ask a bank president to perform the operation. To lead soldiers into battle, we don’t assign data engineers.
Yet, in assigning leaders for our foreign policy teams in U.S. embassies, we sometimes appoint those with no experience in foreign affairs. Instead, the criteria used for ambassadors to some of our embassies, is how much the candidate has contributed to the election of the president.
Both political parties have used the appointment of ambassadors to reward political donors and party apparatchiks. Around thirty percent of our ambassadors have been political appointees. Some talented and conscientious appointees use their career staff and function well. Others are more interested in refurbishing the ambassador’s residence than in meaningful work.
American men and women enter the U.S. Foreign Service, our diplomatic corps, after rigorous exams and vetting. Once appointed, they study foreign languages, statecraft, relevant computer applications, leadership training, and the regions where they will be assigned. They advance through the diplomatic ranks according to an up or out system like the military, gaining experience in the foreign countries where they begin at the lowest levels.
Yet when ambassadors are assigned to our largest embassies, career Foreign Service officers often are ignored for the positions.
My first assignment as a new Foreign Service officer was to Saudi Arabia, shortly before the first Gulf War began in 1991. As the war progressed to victory for the American led alliance against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, we worked under a competent team. Charles Freeman was the U.S. career ambassador working with the Saudi government, as General “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf directed the military operation.
Since then, although U.S. military leadership in the Middle East is still entrusted to career soldiers, all ambassadorial appointments to Saudi Arabia have been political appointees. Perhaps that’s one reason we so often seem to win the war but lose the peace.