A string of gaffes and scandals has cast a spotlight on President Donald Trump’s habit of staffing US embassies with campaign donors and personal friends who have irked key allies and stood out for their lack of qualifications.
In Iceland – a nation so safe that the president runs errands on a bicycle – US Ambassador Jeffery Ross Gunter has left locals aghast with his request for armed bodyguards.
Gunter also angered Icelandic lawmakers and residents alike in late July by retweeting a post from President Donald Trump that referred to the novel coronavirus as the “Invisible China Virus”, repeating the epithet and adding the Icelandic flag.
Not particularly diplomatic? Well, that makes sense. Gunter is not a diplomat by training – he’s a dermatologist. But he was also a contributor to Trump’s campaign, and that may have been enough to land him the post in Reykjavik.
An NBC News report last year found that at least 14 contributors to the Trump inauguration fund – with an average donation of more than $350,000 each – were later nominated as ambassadors.
What really raised eyebrows in Iceland was the embassy’s advertisement for armed bodyguards. That was a shock for a country that has been deemed the most peaceful country in the world every year since 2008, according to the Global Peace Index published by the Institute for Economics & Peace.
Reykjavik’s Chief of Police Sigridur Gudjonsdottir told The Associated Press last week that police haven’t decided whether to allow the armed bodyguards.
“We are still weighing the request and assessing the level of potential threat for foreign embassies in Iceland,” she said.
‘Inexperienced and unqualified’
Gunter’s actions, and those of other politically connected US ambassadors, highlight the risks that come with giving diplomatic postings to campaign donors and presidential friends who have few international qualifications.
“America is an extreme outlier in sending inexperienced and unqualified ambassadors,” said Barbara Stephenson, a former career foreign service officer, ambassador to Panama and ex-president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents US diplomats.
Political supporters can make fine diplomats and many have – a personal relationship with the president and an understanding of his agenda can be an advantage. But those clearly unfit for the job are expected to be weeded out through the Senate confirmation process.
Still, some have arrived at their embassies lacking the skills or tact that would have allowed them to avoid controversy.
US Ambassador Robert “Woody” Johnson in Britain is facing accusations that he tried to steer the British Open toward being held at the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Scotland. The New York Times reported last month that Johnson told multiple colleagues that Trump asked him to see if the British government could help bring the tournament to Turnberry. Johnson reportedly raised the idea with the UK’s secretary of state for Scotland, David Mundell, but failed to get an agreement. Trump has denied the claims.
CNN reported that Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, was also the subject of a State Department investigation for making racist and sexist comments.
Johnson has denied the allegations, telling associates he is “mystified” by the complaints of inappropriate behaviour, which included the summary dismissal of his highly regarded No. 2 for making favourable references to former president Barack Obama in speeches, according to current and former officials.
‘Corrosive’ to diplomacy
Ambassador Peter Hoekstra, a former congressman, ignited controversy in the Netherlands and beyond in July by posting a photograph of himself visiting a cemetery for German soldiers killed in World War I and World War II – including the Nazi troops who occupied the country in which he serves.
Hoekstra previously irritated his host country by falsely claiming that there were no-go zones in the Netherlands occupied by Muslim extremists.
Although Trump’s diplomatic team has highlighted the foibles of ambassadors lacking diplomatic experience, similar problems have surfaced in the administrations of both political parties. Yet the issue is attracting greater attention in the Trump era as the percentage of politically connected ambassadors, which normally hovers around 30%, has soared to 42%, the highest level since the mid-1970s.
“All nominees for the position of ambassador should be qualified for the job and the number of political appointments should not exceed historical norms,” said Eric Rubin, the current president of the foreign service association.
The administration has defended its diplomatic appointments, citing a backlog in Senate confirmations as one reason for the high percentage of non-career envoys now serving. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticised Democrats for delays in confirming nominees, including career diplomats.
But some current political appointees have been accused of more than being undiplomatic. Johnson’s actions regarding the golf tournament have raised questions of whether he violated federal ethics rules.
Many Trump appointees have a deep mistrust of the State Department and its career diplomats, a distrust that has been at the root of many internal embassy clashes. Trump and his top aides have rejected the longstanding bipartisan foreign policy of his predecessors, instead criticising foreign service staff as being part of the entrenched “deep state”.
The result has been the widespread dismissal of veteran career diplomats – those officials who are normally seen as being valuable resources for first-time ambassadors who are just arriving in-country or who have only cursory diplomatic training.
Gunter has run through at least seven deputies since taking up his post, although the State Department says four of them had been assigned to Reykjavik for limited, 30-day tours.
The US ambassador to France, wealthy Trump donor Jamie McCourt, has gone through at least two deputy chiefs of mission, complaining about their lack of loyalty. The ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, clashed with her career staff while she was Trump’s envoy to Canada.
Similar shake-ups have occurred in embassies in Germany and South Africa, current and former officials tell the Associated Press.
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, released a report last week criticising the administration’s “decimation” of the career diplomatic corps.
All too often the administration has “smeared them as radical bureaucrats and deep state” agents and shown a “complete and utter disdain for their expertise”, said Menendez, who is also a vocal critic of Trump.
“These unwarranted attacks are corrosive to our diplomacy and damaging to our democracy.”
(FRANCE 24 & AP)