Choice Ambassadors

PRESIDENT Bush has upped the ante for ambassadorial appointments: The norm has been that about 30 percent of that August group of extraordinaries and plenipotentiaries come from the pool of big campaign donors. Now it's up to 50 percent. Where is the restraint?

Take John Ong, chairman emeritus of B.F. Goodrich, nominated just last week to be ambassador to Norway. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based money-in-politics watchdog, Mr. Ong gave well in excess of $100,000 to the elect-George W. Bush war chest.

Rewarding wealthy donors with ambassadorships began long ago. But it's getting out of hand. What can a democratic nation, which ought to have higher standards for its representatives abroad, do to improve this situation?

White House officials have said these individuals weren't chosen for their fiscal largess - rather, that their business experience and Republican views can help forward the Bush agenda. But it's hard not to discern a connection between large contributions to candidate Bush and his party and the bestowal of plum ambassador posts. Consider the following appointments, with contribution amounts:

• Stephen Brauer, chief of Hunter Engineering of Missouri, $413,000 - Belgium.

• Washington real estate tycoon Stuart Bernstein, $182,600 - Denmark.

• Billionaire investor Howard Leach, $114,000 - France.

• Former Bush business partner, and investor, Mercer Reynolds, $111,973 - Switzerland.

• Telecom magnate Clifford Sobel, $109,000 - The Netherlands.

What to do? Campaign contributions, in themselves, are not objectionable. They can indicate civic involvement. But tied to ambassadorial posts, they point to quid pro quos, choice handouts given those with deep pockets.

While some business/political types have done well representing their country abroad, the norm ought to be to choose career foreign service officers. Their job is to know the nuances of diplomatic relations and the specifics of individual countries.

Should the president choose to make a public switch to such a stance, the move could help foster a reconnect between a cynical citizenry and the government it elects. And it would be a strong indication that there are actually limits to the influence and position money can buy. The privilege of conducting the country's business abroad would then rightly be a matter of merit, not patronage.

Mr. Bush may be working hard to distinguish this administration from its predecessors, but on this issue, it looks remarkably the same.

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