September 3, 2014
Former US diplomats challenge Mamet pick
Opposition to the White House’s pick for the next ambassador to Argentina gained traction yesterday as 15 former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) sent a strongly-worded letter to the Senate leadership that could jeopardize the confirmation process for Noah Mamet, the current nominee to be President Barack Obama’s representative in Buenos Aires. Simultaneously, AFSA is pushing for the State Department to release the details of the rationale for his nomination.
Referring to ambassadorial nominees Noah Mamet (Argentina), Colleen Bell (Hungary) and George Tsunis (Norway), the letter was addressed to senators such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations such as its Chairman Robert Menéndez (D-New Jersey), and the ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and bluntly states:
“As former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and trade union of career members of the Foreign Service, we urge you to oppose granting Senate consent to these three candidates. Although we have no reason to doubt that the nominees are conscientious and worthy Americans, the fact that they appear to have been chosen on the basis of their service in raising money for electoral campaigns, with minimal demonstrated qualifications for their posts, has subjected them to widespread public ridicule, not only in the US but also abroad. As a result, their effectiveness as US representatives in their host countries would be severely impaired from the start. Their nominations also convey a disrespectful message, that relations with the host country are not significant enough to demand a chief of mission with relevant expertise.”
The letter, the first of its kind, sets a new historical precedent and brings President Obama’s policy on ambassadorial designations under fresh scrutiny. For example, Colleen Bell, tapped to be next US ambassador in Budapest, is best known for her acumen producing soap operas. Should the Ukrainian crisis worsen, Hungary would most certainly be involved in the ensuing complex regional dance.
A Herald source has also confirmed that the AFSA is currently drafting another letter to the Senate expressing its concern about the increasing presence of “bundlers” within the foreign service. “Bundlers” generate funds for political parties to finance electoral campaigns and are later returned the favour with diplomatic posts around the world.
Yesterday’s missive to the Senate is in addition to the threats issued this week by the AFSA Governing Board to file a lawsuit against the US State Department for failing to disclose its internal “certificates of demonstrated competence” issued for the three ambassadorial nominees who have been most heavily questioned. These certificates are normally issued for all ambassadorial nominees — be they political or career — and contain the rationale for how the candidates meet the legal requirements to hold an ambassadorial post.
Mamet under the spotlight
Noah Mamet’s nomination to succeed former Ambassador Vilma Martínez has been problematic as he is widely seen to be a political appointee being compensated for his funding contributions to Obama’s re-election bid.
Marginally over half of Obama’s ambassadors in his second presidential term have been political nominations, and an AFSA source told the Herald that “there is concern among experienced diplomatic observers that Mamet’s first time at bat was a complete strike-out.”
Mamet stumbled through a hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations wherein he recognized his limited Spanish, that he had never been to Argentina and struggled to answer simple questions about the nature of US-Argentine diplomatic and economic relations. Upper estimates suggest that Mamet raised over US$2 million in support of Obama’s re-election bid and has a background in political consultancy, but not in diplomacy.
In a letter to the Editor published in the Washington Post on February 17, former US Ambassador to Argentina Vilma Martínez, herself a political appointee, wrote: “Mr. Mamet’s political, government and business experience is a strong asset; in fact, with an election heating up amid economic challenges, his experience is ideal for this position.”
Martínez’s support for Mamet is noteworthy in that one of her directives to her staff was that official business with their Argentine counterparts be conducted in Spanish, a task would-be Ambassador Mamet would not be able to accomplish.
Legal battle on the cards
AFSA first requested the certificates of demonstrated competence in July of 2013 under the Freedom of Information Act without any success thus far.
While AFSA has not yet questioned the competence of the three candidates, it has been active in its campaign to obtain information from the State Department before making a public comment. The threat to issue a lawsuit against the State Department promises to bring more attention to the quality of the candidates and begs the question as to why the State Department has failed to release the certificates so far.
The requirements to serve as an ambassador within the US foreign service, as specified by Section 304 of the Foreign Service Act, include a demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, which include a useful knowledge in the language of the host nation and knowledge of its history, culture and institutions.
The same act also stipulates that although non-career diplomats may be considered for appointments, political contributions should not be a deciding factor in the nomination process.
Confirmations on the backburner
The letter to the Senate, the congressional body responsible for the confirmation process, comes at a time when the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has been focusing on developments in the Middle East and Crimea.
In the interim, the confirmation processes have stalled and a vote on Mamet’s confirmation by the Committee on Foreign Relations has not been tabled. Should the Senate take into consideration the former AFSA presidents’ concerns, greater attention will be paid to the State Department’s failure to issue the certificates, leading to political pressure for it to do so and even greater scrutiny on Obama’s choices.