Since the beginning of his second term, President Obama has appointed campaign fundraisers, party allies and other political figures as ambassadors at a level that is now almost double what has prevailed in the last few administrations.
More than 56% of Obama's 41 second-term ambassadorial nominations have been political, compared with an average of about 30% for recent administrations, according to U.S. government figures compiled by the American Foreign Service Assn. Of the political nominees, at least half have had fundraising roles.
The trend has emerged as the nomination of Caroline Kennedy to be ambassador to Japan, announced Wednesday, could renew the debate about selecting political allies who may have little diplomatic or country-specific expertise.
But critics say the professionals still have an advantage, which is why America's most important allies, including Japan, generally assign career diplomats who can make their case on television in English to serve in Washington. The current Japanese ambassador to the U.S. is a 39-year veteran of the Foreign Ministry.
"Our ambassadors so often don't really know much about the place," said Clyde Prestowitz, an Asia specialist and former U.S. official. "And their ability to play the game is a lot less."
Kennedy has been trying to learn more about Japan and is considering hiring a Japan specialist as a personal advisor if she becomes ambassador, according to Washington experts on Japan.
Yet even with a good staff, "it's not optimal," said Douglas Paal, an Asia specialist and former U.S. official with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.Last year, Foreign Policy reported:
Candidate Barack Obama promised to end the time-honored American practice of appointing ambassadors who have no experience in foreign policy, but President Obama has completely ignored that promise, appointing fundraisers to dozens of ambassadorships all over the world.
Today, the State Department revealed that another fundraiser turned ambassador ran her embassy into the ground ... only to return to fundraising and leave the State Department to pick up the pieces.
According to a new State Department inspector general's report on the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas, Ambassador Nicole Avant presided over "an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy" since she was appointed by the president in 2009. Prior to being America's envoy in the Caribbean, Avant was Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama's presidential campaign and vice president of Interior Music Publishing.
According to her glowingly positive Wikipedia page, Avant spent her time in the Bahamas "focused on five priority initiatives: Education, Alternative Energy, Economic and Small Business Development, Women's Empowerment and Raising awareness of the challenges facing people with disabilities."
But according to the State Department's internal investigation, Avant was away from the embassy an inordinate amount of time -- mainly shuttling back and forth to her home in Los Angeles -- and when she was in town, she worked from her residence most of the day.
Avant was absent from the embassy 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, including 102 "personal" days and 77 "work travel" days to the United States, of which only 23 were on official orders