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Patronage Diplomacy

By Edward J. Barr / November 18, 1996



America stands alone in using political patronage as the primary means of filling key foreign policy positions in government. From ambassadorial posts to senior Pentagon officials, the "qualifications" of political appointees often have nothing to do with the job to which they are appointed. This system has contributed to the ongoing lack of coherence and continuity in national security policy.

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During the cold war, the geopolitical landscape limited the options of United States foreign policy and kept some sense of general focus. That focus is gone. The president's focus on domestic issues and reactive foreign policy has chafed both United States and allied foreign policy experts. The critics are correct. From Somalia to Bosnia to Haiti, there has been confusion over what the United States stands for and why it acts.

The foreign policy patronage system cannot be easily dismantled. It has support from both parties and has some legitimacy. A president sets foreign policy and should be allowed to select and place key officials to support and implement policies. Bureaucracies are difficult beasts to tame, and presidents throughout history have learned that dedicated bureaucratic inertia is not easy to overcome.

But the most important reason that the system will not be dismantled is that it has become an increasingly powerful tool of rewarding political allies. The number of non-professional ambassador appointees has grown steadily over the last two decades, even under foreign policy-focused President Bush.

With no domestic constituency supporting their position, much-maligned foreign policy professionals have seen their opportunities and morale plummet.

Many positions are filled with experts from academia, full of research and publication skills but with limited managerial and practical experience in their fields.

If the system cannot be dismantled, can it be modified? Perhaps. A reelected President Clinton can focus on ways to improve government, and the Republican majority should support ways to institute professionalism in a part of government they perceive as having been weakened by the current administration. At a minimum, a nonbinding qualification process should be established using a similar system to that used by the American Bar Association for judicial appointments. For ambassador appointees, old qualifications such as contributing $100,000 to a campaign could be replaced by reviewing the following criteria:

*Does the appointee speak the language of the country to which appointed, or any foreign language?

*Has the appointee ever lived overseas in a foreign culture?

*Does the appointee have any formal schooling in international or national security affairs?

*Does the appointee have any direct foreign policy experience?

*Does the appointee have any international business experience that includes frequent travel abroad?

A weighted system could be developed and a group such as the Foreign Service Officers Association recruited to validate the process.

Such a modification of the patronage process would add legitimacy to appointees, show our allies that the United States takes foreign policy seriously, and bolster the morale of America's national security professionals who often have to cover for and withstand the errors of unqualified superiors. As for the $100,000 contributors, Washington can always use a few more blue ribbon commissions, perhaps meeting in the luxury boxes during Redskins games.

*Edward J. Barr is a professor at the Joint Military Intelligence College in Washington.