Embassies With a Sticker Price

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IN many of his appointments, President Bush has shown a preference for Washington pros - people who know their way around government and how to get things done. In at least one personnel matter, though, George Bush the pragmatic politician seems inclined to follow a dubious practice that, while far from new, was increased by President Reagan. That's turning the keys to US embassies over to amateurs, especially campaign contributors.

In recent times, about 25 percent of American ambassadorships have gone to non-diplomats. Under Mr. Reagan, that rose to 40 percent, and it's likely to stay about the same. Already Bush - who was himself a dilettante diplomat in China - has named political cohorts and fund-raisers to the top posts in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Switzerland, among others. (He has appointed experienced State Department veterans as the US ambassadors to the United Nations, Japan, Mexico, and the European Community, however).

What some people regard as the ``selling'' of many US ambassadorships is a perennial source of indignation in newspaper columns. But does it really matter?

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It matters within the Foreign Service. Ambassadorial aspiration keeps many a career diplomat climbing the long, hard ladder, even though just a handful of Foreign Service Officers make it. Other FSOs find it dispiriting to serve under rank - and sometimes embarrassing - amateurs. The political appointment of ambassadors unquestionably hurts morale in the diplomatic corps.

It's less evident that the practice impairs the conduct of US foreign policy. Today, US ambassadors in many countries can get by with being spreaders of good cheer - a task for which a private entertainment budget is useful. Most technical dealings with host countries on trade, economic, and security matters are handled either by experts on embassy staffs or emissaries dispatched directly from Foggy Bottom.

It would be hard to come up with recent episodes in which US dabblers abroad did anything more damaging to American interests than put a nose or two out of joint. And recall that many outstanding diplomats didn't come up through the ranks, people like Averill Harriman, John McCloy, Sol Linowitz, and, most recently, Mike Mansfield.

In any event, the political appointment of ambassadors isn't going to end soon, all the editorial-page dudgeon notwithstanding. Presidents simply find the patronage too valuable.

Perhaps the need is to develop new career tracks, expectations, responsibilities, and rewards for professional diplomats, so that the crowning achievement of a Foreign Service career in most cases is a rank other than ambassador, just as British and French civil servants can attain high glory outside the political chain of command.

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