The Muppets take Paris

By Felix Salmon
August 17, 2009
Earlier this month, 34 of Barack Obama's first 60 ambassadorial appointments were political appointees rather than career diplomats -- an astonishingly high percentage for a man who said when he took office that his "general inclination is to have civil service wherever possible serve in these posts". Today, that ratio has gone up: it's now 38 of the first 65, which means that four of the last five ambassadorial appointments have been political: plums given out to major fund-raisers.


" data-share-img="" data-share="twitter,facebook,linkedin,reddit,google" data-share-count="true">

Earlier this month, 34 of Barack Obama’s first 60 ambassadorial appointments were political appointees rather than career diplomats — an astonishingly high percentage for a man who said when he took office that his “general inclination is to have civil service wherever possible serve in these posts”. Today, that ratio has gone up: it’s now 38 of the first 65, which means that four of the last five ambassadorial appointments have been political: plums given out to major fund-raisers.

The new ambassador to Paris is Charles Rivkin, whose history in the entertainment industry has him being forced to defend “the Dogg-frog flap” to the NYT:

“It’s a natural segue,” he said, referring not just to the Dogg-frog flap but to his broader background in children’s television. From the brilliant Mr. Henson, Mr. Rivkin said, he learned powerful lessons about communicating, and his background in children’s entertainment “prepared me well to engage Europe’s young generation of first-time voters”.

I’m sure the French are suitably impressed. Or not.

Matthew Yglesias attempts a partial defense of this practice, before giving up:

It’s simply in the nature of things that Spain’s ambassador in Washington will be a more senior figure in Spanish policy circles than America’s ambassador in Spain is in American policy circles. Which is to say that whether or not we appoint career professionals, government-to-government contacts that need to be run through an embassy will almost certainly be run through embassies located in Washington, where most countries are represented by very senior officials…

At the same time, for American foreign service officers heavy reliance on political appointees is extremely demoralizing.

To be fair to Mr Rivkin, Paris is something of a special case, although I’m not entirely sure why. When Obama said that “it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service,” I, for one, thought to myself “OK, he’s going to do Paris and maybe a couple of others”. But thirty-eight of these appointments is far too many.

Besides, I’m not at all sure that Yglesias is right that when a foreign government wants to go through an embassy it will go through its own embassy in Washington rather than through the US embassy in its own country. That might be true some of the time, for some governments. But it’s not a reliable general rule which the State Department can count on. America’s ambassadors are important — and when they’re famous mostly for their connection with the Muppets, that devalues the seriousness with which the US views the rest of the world.

7 comments

Comments are closed.