Rising tide of noncareer US envoys worries experts
When 21 US ambassadors, all political appointees of the Reagan administration , publicly endorsed Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina for reelection this fall, professional diplomats were both angry and embarrassed.Skip to next paragraph
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''State Department people pride themselves on being unflappable, but this struck a real nerve,'' says Dennis Hays, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional group that represents career diplomats. ''There was a strong gut feeling that this was a mistake that hurt not only the individuals, but us as a nation by sending out very confusing signals.''
Although technically legal, the partisan action was widely considered inappropriate for top US representatives abroad and a violation of diplomatic tradition. The resulting fuss - including an indignant joint statement of protest by 36 former ambassadors and senior officers - probably will keep it from happening again in the near future.
But the incident raises fresh concerns about the degree to which US presidents dole out ambassadorships as political rewards, the caliber of those chosen, and the sensitivity of the posts assigned.
Since World War II, most presidents have reserved about one-third of the country's ambassadorial slots for their political friends. Under President Carter, the proportion fell to 27 percent. The political share has edged up to 41 percent under President Reagan, a figure matched only by the late President John Kennedy. Even some political appointees say privately that their proportion of slots may be too high.
And it is not just the large embassies of Western Europe and Canada which serve as the political plums. Increasingly, many of the smaller embassies, some of the more sensitive spots in Central and South America, and almost all the nations in southern Africa are in the hands of noncareer ambassadors. Most other industrialized nations assign few political ambassadors to overseas embassies.
Yet the US has such an abundance of trained diplomatic officers that it amounts to what one careerist complained is ''an officer glut.'' The US has an extensive career-diplomat training program, and a corps of 3,500 officers. Each ambassadorship siphoned off on the political side makes it that much harder for the US Foreign Service to recruit and keep good professionals, says David Simcox , president of the Foreign Service Officer Association. The problem is compounded by a 1980 US law, which says that those career officers who are not promoted within a certain period of time are ''selected out'' of the service and much retire.
''It's as if you said you wanted to build a professional Navy but that the captains of the ships would be appointed from the outside,'' notes Viron (Pete) Vaky, a former career ambassador to Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. ''If you don't provide some opportunity to rise to the top, it will have a deteriorating effect on the career service. I think a key question is, 'Do you really want a top-rate, professional diplomatic service?' ''
AFSA's Mr. Hays says a number of Foreign Service officers who see promotion opportunities growing slimmer are leaving at mid-career levels after 15 or 20 years of training and experience.
''There's a real threat that we'll lose our next generation of leaders,'' he says. The level of politically appointed ambassadors ''is already unacceptable and having a major impact on us. I think there's a danger it could go even higher, which will compound the problem.''
Still, most State Department professionals insist numbers are not the issue. What bothers them most, they say, is the caliber of those chosen. They insist such exemplary noncareer ambassadors as Mike Mansfield, George Bush, and Ellsworth Bunker - all applauded by professionals - are rare.