Cynthia Stroum (photo courtesy of Department of State)

President Obama is a very smart and highly intelligent man who knew more about the world than most presidential candidates do before taking office. So why did he appoint a political ambassador whose tenure has been nothing short of a disgrace, just because she was a significant contributor to his election campaign?

There are some excellent political appointees, but Cynthia Stroum, ambassador to Luxembourg, wasn’t one of them. She was forced to resign last week, following a scathing report of her management style and the damage she did to her embassy by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

I’ve covered the department for a decade and have rarely seen such a categorical, pointed and harsh document. Obama has every reason to be embarrassed.

“Most employees describe the ambassador as aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating, which has resulted in an extremely difficult, unhappy, and uncertain work environment,” the OIG report said after a two-month investigation last fall. “The bulk of the mission’s internal problems are linked to her leadership deficiencies, the most damaging of which is an abusive management style.”

Since Stroum assumed her post in December 2009, “most of the senior staff, including two deputy chiefs of mission (DCM) and two section chiefs, has either curtailed or volunteered for service in Kabul and Baghdad. Other U.S. staff members have also departed early,” the OIG said. “Of the seven permanent and temporary staff who served” as DCM, “only one has remained for longer than 6 months.”

Many ambassadors and their wives indulge in costly renovations of their residences, but Stroum apparently went too far. The OIG “believes that too many of the limited resources of this embassy have been allocated to issues related to her personal support,” the report said.

During a six-week period in 2010, an embassy employee spent 80 to 90 percent of his time searching for a temporary residence for Stroum. “In late summer, he and several other staff members, as well as the management officer, spent several days locating and purchasing an umbrella” for the ambassador’s new patio, it said.

Most career diplomats — and many others — think the practice of awarding campaign donors with ambassadorships, which began in the Kennedy administration, should be ended. The infamous WikiLeaks cables showed the general public how complex and intricate the work of U.S. diplomats is. Why do people think that anyone can do it? Would you let someone operate on you if they don’t have the necessary medical training?

In July 2009, I broke a story that the White House, unaware of historic norms, had been on track to give more than the usual 30 percent of ambassadorial posts to political appointees until objections from career diplomats forced it to reconsider. Overall, that number still holds, but according to a list of ambassadors maintained by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), so far Obama has appointed 60 percent career and 40 percent political ambassadors.

Although campaign fund-raising is not a sufficient qualification for being a U.S. ambassador, there is a case to be made that political appointees are useful from time to time. I’ve met several good ones over the years, including Howard Baker, a former Republican senator and White House chief of staff under President Reagan, who was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Japan.

Even Foreign Service officers say that they need an outsider’s point of view and a fresh perspective on things every once in a while. Someone with Baker’s political skills, stature and connections in Washington can actually be a huge asset to an embassy and the country where he serves.

On the other hand, Stroum wasn’t quite qualified for the job — even in tiny Luxembourg — but it seems the White House didn’t much care about that. She is by no means the only one. Bush’s ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, Roy L. Austin, was the subject of two OIG reports. Before his appointment, Austin was a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University — but his best achievement was that he befriended Bush when both studied at Yale University. He changed five DCMs during his tenure, but amazingly he survived all the eight years of the Bush administration.

So while I don’t expect political ambassadors to disappear, the White House should take their appointment much more seriously and consider their knowledge and skills before they start acting like kings and queens around the world.


Related stories:

Political ambassadorships hold at 30%

Career diplomats protest Obama appointments

Diplomats in the news for wrong reasons

Foreign Service: America’s other army

One Response to Why are political ambassadors tolerated?

  1. Having worked for both career and political Ambassadors throughout my career, I’ll take a career one any time. Many career ambassadors are far from perfect but at least it’s not like having to train them in Embassy basics. Been there, done that. Seen it in DC, too.

    Yes, it is possible to find an outstanding political Ambassador — and I’ve heard that John Huntsman was one. He knew China intimately and spoke fluent Mandarin. But far too many politicals don’t know the country to which they are appointed, can’t speak the language and also don’t know how an embassy and the State Department run. I thought it was three strikes and you are out — but that clearly doesn’t count for most of these people.

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