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Obama’s Million-Dollar Ambassadors

Is Obama selling cushy ambassadorships to the highest bidder? That’s the implication of a study discussed in the New York Times, which estimates the price of various ambassadorships in campaign donations. Given that about 30 percent of ambassador posts are held by the President’s political allies rather than career diplomats, the question is worth asking.

The practice itself doesn’t make Obama different from any of his predecessors, of course, but it has seemed to take on a more mercenary nature in recent years. So how do you figure the going rate for a cushy diplomatic posting these days?

Ambassadorial appointments do not, of course, come with price tags. But by combining information on what current ambassadors contributed along with data on the desirability of the ambassadors’ host countries, Dr. Fedderke and Dr. Jett arrived at “implied prices” for a selection of highly sought positions. The figures did not represent how much donors actually gave or raised to get the jobs, the researchers said, but rather their theoretical value in fund-raising terms. Those numbers in turn give a sense, Dr. Fedderke said, of how attractive each posting is in relation to the others. [. . .]

When isolating a country’s wealth over other factors, Luxembourg came in at the top of the chart, with a posting there valued at $3.1 million in direct contributions, while an appointment to Portugal was predicted to have a value of $602,686 in personal contributions. The model suggests that bundlers can get the same posts for less: Portugal was valued at about $341,160 in bundled contributions, Luxembourg at $1.8 million.

There is a problem here, but it’s a little different than people think. One reason why wealthy people are traditionally appointed to high prestige posts in places like London and Paris is that the government allowance for entertainment and representation doesn’t begin to cover what people locally expect of a U.S. ambassador. From this point of view the study may underestimate the costs for social climbers to get these jobs: The douceurs you pay the president and his campaign committees are just the beginning. The real cost of a stint in one of these embassies is a lot more than the entry ticket.

But before OWS and the Tea Party join forces to tear this system down, it’s important to understand that in many countries having a “political” ambassador as opposed to a “professional” one is actually something they want. The theory is that if the president appoints a close friend to represent America in your country, you will have better access to the White House. A professional diplomat can call his bureau in the State Department; a well-connected political appointee can go a lot higher than that.

Theoretically… But the system seems to be coarsening, with the buying and selling of embassies becoming more transactional. President Obama probably doesn’t even remember the names of all the people who gave or bundled hundreds of thousands of dollars to his record-setting re-election campaign. These rich ambassadors don’t always have the political access that people overseas think they have. (The parties, however, are often excellent. If you ever receive an invitation to Fourth of July party at a U.S. embassy where the ambassador is a wealthy political appointee, we suggest that you accept.)

Hard-working professional diplomats naturally resent having the juiciest plums in the State Department reserved for wealthy donors, and there are lots of stories about political appointees and their ghastly faux pas. But the post of ambassador was originally seen as the personal representative of one head of state in the capital of another. It’s not a bad system, and if presidents are careful to pick real friends who have both the dough and the good sense the job requires, the results can be good for both countries.

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