Those Ignorant Ambassadors

Few events in Washington are more predictable and perennial than cherry blossoms in the spring -- and articles about the ignorance of some of those chosen to be U.S. ambassadors.

Critics should unwring their hands because selling ambassadorships is a time-honored tradition that is not going to change. America's representation abroad could be improved, but editorial indignation won't do it.

The outrage arises because Senate confirmation hearings can show how little a budding ambassador knows about the country to which he or she is being sent.

Former Sen. Max Baucus, now our man in Beijing, began a response to a question in his recent confirmation hearing by saying, "I'm no real expert on China."

George Tsunis, a highly successful businessman picked for Norway, could offer no response when asked what opportunities he saw for American businessmen in that country. Since he has never been to Norway and did not know a prime minister and not a president heads its government, how could he be expected to have a reply to such a hardball question?

Sending people as ambassadors to countries about which they know next to nothing is as American as apple pie because no other serious country has such a practice. Nonetheless, for more than a half-century presidents have relied on political appointees for about 30 percent of their ambassadors. Before that the percentage was even higher.

They do so for reasons that have very little to do with the country in question.

Mr. Tsunis bundled or contributed $1.3 million for President Barack Obama's reelection effort and other Democratic candidates. He had contributed $50,000 to Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign in 2008, but switched horses and parties the following year. It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that some of the harshest comments in his hearing came from Mr. McCain.

Given that politics has always played a role in appointments and that presidential campaigns now cost more than a billion dollars, the tradition of nominating big contributors and political allies as ambassadors is not going to change. The American belief in a market economy is such that politicians and embassies are just a couple more commodities for sale. But there is at least a partial solution to the problem of inadequate envoys, and it has already proved effective in a few cases.

Governments always have difficulty measuring how well they govern. In an embassy, the report done by the State Department's inspector general is the best measure of how well it is being run. Even though the law says each post should be inspected every five years, on average inspections occur only every eight years because they are so expensive and time consuming. Since an ambassador's term is usually three years, most will serve their time without a thorough review of their performance.

In the past, matters were made worse because these reports were treated as sensitive information. In a remarkable victory for transparency, the inspector general's office started a few years ago to put the inspection reports on its website, with minimal redactions. As a result, the ambassadors in Malta, Luxembourg, Kenya and the Bahamas resigned when their mismanagement was revealed in these reports.

The price of having incompetent ambassadors is real and not just in terms of America's image abroad. In Luxembourg, embassy staff were volunteering for Afghanistan to cut short their tours under the ambassador there. Government agencies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit, train and locate personnel overseas. The cost to the taxpayer of low morale, resignations and reassignments, and the general inefficiency in an embassy with bad leadership therefore is high.

As part of the inspection of an embassy, every employee is required to fill out a Personal Questionnaire in which they are asked to rate the work environment and management of the post. Instead of this happening only when an embassy comes up for an inspection, an abbreviated PQ could be sent in electronically by everyone at every post every year. The embassies with the most serious problems could then be easily identified and a small team sent to do a rapid review.

A similar system also could be used at the State Department in Washington to rate the effectiveness of every bureau and the assistant secretary who runs it. The results could be added to the IG's website.

This system would apply to career officials as well as political appointees. While none of the four ambassadors who resigned was a career officer, career ambassadors may fail just as often. That is in part because they face bigger challenges than their political counterparts. Morale problems are typically worst at hardship embassies where employees earn danger pay. These are places where political appointees never tread.

But such a system should be applied to everyone in positions of responsibility because it would improve the performance of the State Department and save tax dollars. And when faced with the prospect of being a very public failure, perhaps those who aspire to the title ambassador would think twice about buying the job if their only qualification is the size of their checkbook.

This originally appeared on The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.