Caroline Kennedy Nomination: Some U.S. Ambassadors Are Cronies, But Who Cares?

Are U.S. ambassadorial appointments full of cronyism? The answer is that a lot of them are. Is this a bad thing? Not generally. Will the system of appointments change? Probably not.

The issue has arisen most recently in the president's appointment of Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan. Some Republicans have questioned whether Kennedy, who has no government or foreign policy experience, should represent the U.S. to Japan at a time of growing regional concern over North Korea's military threats, some of which seem aimed at Japan.

But Kennedy is the sole surviving child of President John F. Kennedy. While diplomatically inexperienced, she is a nationally known attorney and author who carries a cachet as the scion of a U.S. political dynasty. It likely gives her the stature to match the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Moreover, the machinery of the alliance, both military and political, that Kennedy will represent to Japan is far more substantial than just her personal relationship with the Japanese leadership.

One ambassador described the duties of the job as being the U.S. president's primary representative for all American interests in that part of the world. That varies from being responsible for taking care of the American citizens and their needs, to the issuance of visas, to discussions about political, economic, trade, and commerce issues. It also includes working on military relationships, dealing with a rapidly changing security environment.

Though political appointees are sometimes disparaged, even career diplomats are not immune from reproach over their dealings with foreign governments. Francis J. Ricciardone, U.S. ambassador to Turkey, was slammed over his unvarnished criticism of the country's apparently political detention of military officers. Ricciardone is no diplomatic novice: he was deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, and served as ambassador to Egypt, the Philippines, and Peru.

Also recently, complaints of cronyism have arisen over President Obama's appointment of fellow Chicagoan Bruce Heyman as ambassador to Canada. Heyman, a Goldman Sachs partner, in was a significant fundraiser for the Obama re-election campaign and member of the Obama campaign's national finance committee. He replaces Chicago attorney David  Jacobson who was also a fundraiser for the president.

But such appointments are not unusual. Traditionally, the Washington Post reports, some 30% of the 160 or so envoy positions are political picks, while the rest go to career Foreign Service officers. The Post adds that President Obama's appointment of ambassadors has generally followed his predecessors' style of picks.

President George W. Bush, for instance, named David Wilkins, the South Carolina chair of his 2004 reelection campaign, as ambassador to Canada. George H.W. Bush had picked his press secretary and former RNC spokesman Peter Barry Teeley as ambassador to Canada. There is a long list of such appointments by other presidents.

Under Article 2 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the president has the power to appoint ambassadors, but only with advice and consent of the Senate, which is not always cooperative. For instance, in 2011 the Senate failed to confirm president Obama's appointment of Maria Carmen Aponte as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador when Republicans questioned her long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus. The president used a recess appointment to place her in the position and later the Senate voted to approve her appointment.

So, while we are likely to see continuing challenges to presidential ambassadorial appointments, the positions are too valuable to both parties as political plums and too gratifying to the countries that have celebrities appointed as their ambassadors to have the system changed.