Obama continues the grand tradition of handing out cushy ambassadorships.
But the argument against political appointees isn't that they're incompetent. John F. Kennedy made many keen political appointments, like sending Harvard professor Edwin O. Reischauer to Japan and John Kenneth Galbraith to India. Walter Mondale was well-liked in Japan. In France, Benjamin Franklin wasn't so bad, either.
No, the argument is that plum jobs should go to diplomats who dedicate their careers to the foreign service. A young person isn't likely to sign up with the State Department if the most he can hope for is to someday be deputy assistant ambassador to Botswana. Plus, the cushier embassies make good training grounds. "You want to test your people before you plunk them into a war zone," says Thomas Pickering, vice chairman of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former ambassador to Jordan, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Russia, among other locales. Finally, there's always a chance that today's sleepy hamlet is tomorrow's disaster area. For example, Barbados was a relaxed gig until the bloody coup in neighboring Grenada in 1983. Indonesia in 2004 wasn't too shabby. Then a tsunami hit.
Some say that a friend of the president can be more effective than a professional diplomat. After all, he can speak for the president and has the president's ear. Pickering rejects that claim. The ambassador is supposed to go through the secretary of state—not contact the president directly. "That's a very disorderly way to make foreign policy," he says.
Obama may appoint more career diplomats in the future. When a new administration takes over, the political appointees are usually the first to go, and therefore the first to need replacing. But this first round isn't likely to please the diplomatic corps. If Obama's not careful, they might write a resolution denouncing him.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of San Sebastian, Spain, by Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Creative Image.