Ambassadors' Role: Ceremony or Substance?

August 25, 1989

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President Bush has handed more ambassadorships to political supporters and heavy campaign contributors than previous presidents. Although few argue that political appointments are bad per se, critics say many of Bush's appointees lack even the basic qualifications for the job. But in an age of rapid communications and travel, special envoys and presidential diplomacy, how important is it that U.S. ambassadors have extensive experience in foreign affairs?

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President Bush got through his first months in office without a major diplomatic gaffe. Indeed, his performance in early July on a visit to Eastern Europe and to Paris for the annual economic summit of the seven major industrial nations was greeted in foreign capitals as a welcome indicator of the new administration's sensitivity to America's allies and to international events in general.

Back in Washington, however, a controversy arose that threatened to overshadow Bush's initial foreign policy accomplishments: Congressional hearings revealed that many of Bush's ambassadorial appointments possessed little knowledge of the countries to which they were being sent as the United States' highest representatives. Although federal law prohibits presidents from choosing ambassadors solely on the basis of how much money they have contributed to political campaigns, several of Bush's appointees appeared to have little else to offer. By the time Congress left town for its annual August recess, Senate critics were pledging to oppose confirmation of several Bush appointments, and some of this country's major allies were beginning to have second thoughts about the administration's seriousness in addressing international relations.

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