So, You Wanna Be an Ambassador…

When the average voter hears someone described as the “US Ambassador to the EU,” they probably picture a seasoned diplomatic professional who speaks a few languages and understands Important Things About Important Things. In reality, our EU Ambassador is a random rich white guy who turned a small fortune into a large one as a real estate developer.

Gordon Sondland, your ambassador to the EU and a key pawn in the Administration’s scheme to extort the Ukrainian government, bought the title for a cool million. There’s a former soap opera actress and chiropractor named Carla Sands embarrassing us in Denmark. A Trump golf buddy and telemarketing scammer named David Cornstein is licking the jack-boots of Hungary’s fascist leader. Wealthy heir, Trump golf club member and handbag designer, Lana Marks, is Ambassador to South Africa. For just under a million, failed hedge fund investor and polo player Duke Buchan bought the embassy in Spain. Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer bought the sensitive and strategic embassy in Israel.

As one might expect, the Trump Administration has dispatched a remarkably corrupt and incompetent class of Ambassadors to represent you abroad. But like so much of the corruption in this administration, his treatment of our diplomatic appointments is merely an extension of a longstanding abusive practice. Outside the shithole countries, “US Ambassador” isn’t a job, it’s a reward.

A 2013 study estimated it would cost you a little over half a million to buy a nice, comfortable European Embassy in some country you’ve never heard of. You’ll need to shell out well into seven-figures for one of the plums, France, Monaco, UK or one of those places people like to hide money. Can’t swing that kind of cash? Deliver several years of high-quality work for a campaign or PAC and you might be considered for an embassy in one of the Latin American countries where you can drink the water, or in one of the innumerable and irrelevant little Caribbean postings.

No one in the private sector is scrambling for the chance to head up our embassy in Iraq or Pakistan. None of these donors and political hacks want to live holed up in a secure facility, doing actual work for the actual US public.

Leading an embassy in a place with an uncomfortable climate, with few parties and poor shopping is reserved for our embattled, disrespected professional diplomats. As is all of the actual public service work of our embassies in “nice” places like Paris. Ambassador to Cambodia or Paraguay is a job for a penniless career public servant, fighting off long-term complications of malaria picked up serving her country in some unglamorous corner of the world. In other words, those jobs are for suckers.

An opportunity hides amid the damage of the Trump Administration. By destroying the polite conventions and careful euphemisms that masked the bribery inherent in our system, we’re getting an unusually candid look at the machinery of our democracy. That look, and the horror it inspires, grants us a once in a lifetime chance at reform.

Yes, Trump is running a wildly racist Administration, but the difference between Trump and your median Republican is more language and tact than substance. Mitt Romney has complained about Trump’s inflammatory language since the beginning of the ’16 campaign, but can you identify a single substantive policy dispute between them? Sure, Trump is a Fascist, but what precisely are the differences between his governing outcomes and those we experienced under George W. Bush?

Democrats may complain about this administration’s unapologetic corruption, but have you seen Nancy Pelosi’s tax returns? Want to guess why you haven’t, and won’t? Public outrage of the Trump family’s trashy overseas scams is muddled by the trashy overseas scams of the former Vice President’s son. Why is no one in either party interested in investigating Jeffrey Epstein? How did Donald Trump run a criminal organization for decades without being punished?

It would be nice if we could reference the stomach-churning corruption of Trump’s diplomatic appointments as a disqualifying trait, but we can’t. As in so many other areas, Trump’s actions are horrifying not because they are unique, but rather for their brazenness. Donald Trump is not a departure from precedent. He is the boil on our democracy that has been growing for decades, waiting for the lance and threatening to go septic.

Don’t be surprised that only one of the Democrats’ Presidential candidates is even mentioning public corruption as a campaign issue. The front-runner, Joe Biden, is running on a platform of nostalgia, promising to paint over the whole Trump Era and pretend it never happened. By contrast, Elizabeth Warren is promising to end the practice of selling our embassies to political donors. She’s promising to build a campaign on small donors. She’s the only candidate to even acknowledge the leviathan of money and influence that makes public-centered policy in the US impossible in both parties.

Trump has ripped the smiling face of civility off of our culture of bribery. There is no going back. We’ll either confront this monster, with all the wrenching discord the fight will entail, or we’ll sink deeper than ever into cross-partisan kleptocracy. If you think any Presidential candidate other than Warren will lift a finger to fight corruption, I have an embassy to sell you.

26 Comments

  1. I’m going to chime in from the northernmost major city in the nation, on the northern left coast (Seattle). There are a number of interesting thoughts in the post and the comments:
    1. Regarding big campaign contributors getting plum ambassadorial postings, unfortunately that has been the case for both parties. It has been much worse under Trump. However, I will observe that in the last several administrations, DOS has generally been deemphasized and under funded during Republican administrations and has fared better under Democratic ones. However, in general both D and R administrations have tended to deemphasized DOS in favor of the NSC. I believe that DOS should be responsible for diplomacy and have a large role in foreign affairs. The NSC was conceived as a coordination body between the various national security departments such as State, Justice, Treasury, Defense and others. That should be its primary role.
    2. Ambassadorial positions should be selected from career public servants using a merit based system.
    3. Warren is my candidate of choice now, though I originally preferred Harris. Warren is building a real movement, promises to crack down on market abuses, is building her campaign on small donations – I make a small monthly donation and generally reform the financial and corporate structure and much of the political structure. She also has solid plans to correct many of the ills. All of which are essential to the survival of our democracy. But what actually gets through Congress is another matter.
    4. Regarding women being opposed to Warren, because she is a women and women should not be President. As far as I am concerned that is a bunch of BS. I believe that we may have an oversupply of testosterone in the federal government. Women in my circle are independent, make up their own minds and vote as they please. Many of them are divorced, widowed, or have never married. Most of the men, including myself, approach their marital and significant relationships with their partners as a partnership. That is the approach that myself and my life partner have.
    5. I personally consider myself as a PROGRESSIVE CAPITALIST (as Stiglitz discussed in ‘People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent’). That philosophy is typically referred to as Democratic Socialism in the general political discourse. But in the U.S. the word “socialism” is akin to a four letter word. Progressive Capitalism incorporates the positions of RHOU, Stephen, Aaron and many of the others on this blog.
    6. I mailed my ballot for Tuesday’s election today. And I voted against a SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE candidate as my City Council Representative – largely because she takes more of a true socialist position on many issues, is a grandstander, does not tend to the nitty gritty of city business, and tends to be non-cooperative with other members of the city council. She also refused partial public campaign financing, because that meant a restriction on how much money she could raise from out-of-state sources. She also campaigned for Jill Stein, which helped DJT win the EC.

    I may be just an oddball, but that is not at all out of the ordinary in this corner of the nation and much of the left coast.

  2. The old Mad Magazine of my youth did a satire of an old poem to comment on this very subject:

    “Taffy was a rich man
    Taffy was connected
    Taffy spent 500 grand
    To get his man elected
    Now Taffy’s an Ambassador
    And struts around with pride
    Why don’t you spend 500 grand?
    Then you’ll be qualified”

    That has been stuck in my head for years.

  3. So, addressing this particular topic, if we can set rules for ambassador qualifications, what do people think they should be? A certain minimum number of years in the foreign service? A track record of honest business dealings in a particular region? All campaigns for Federal office publicly funded so that one can buy their way in?

    1. There’s already a process. The State Dept recommends an ambassador from the foreign service based on experience and expertise. That’s still how about half or so of our embassies are led. No donor wants to be the Ambassador to Yemen or Somalia. Warren is just suggesting we use the standard, merit-based process across the board instead of auctioning these positions like some banana republic.

    2. EJ

      I would love to see the US ambassador to Germany be an actual German, who speaks the language and understands the cultural references, and who can act as a meaningful go-between between the nations. The US is uniquely poised to do this, due to its vast wealth of immigrants. Of the large number of people with dual German-American citizenship, there must be at least one who commands the respect of both of their sets of fellow citizens.

      If there aren’t enough Lesothoan-Americans? Well, better get some in. Lady Liberty needs her huddled masses.

  4. I do love the fact that Warren reTweets Wall St. fat cats’ handwringing and pearl clutching about her with an endorsement of the message.

    These greedy fools don’t yet realize that Warren is far, far better than the torches and pitchforks.

    On a semi-related note, fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg, for refusing to take down political ads on Facebook with obvious lies. You may not have envisioned Facebook being used in this way, and don’t want the responsibility, but to paraphrase Stan Lee, you ended up with a lot of power, and responsibility to the country that created the conditions to grow your business is part of the package. Like the fat cats mentioned above, you can clean up your act, or have someone else clean it up for you.

    1. I love it when you talk dirty, Fly (-:

      Zuckerberg has a lot to atone for. If he refuses to volunteer for the job, I’m all in favor of government doing it for him. Of course, after the famous White House meeting between Zuck and Trump, guess the heat is off for anti-trust.

  5. So Chris, should the real title of this article be “I hereby endorse Elizabeth Warren”?
    And if not, what are the reasons for not doing so?

    I have always liked Warren a lot. I think that the Primary has pushed her to some extreme positions that are less level-headed and pragmatic compared to how she has acted in the past 10 years, but I am giving her the benefit of the doubt since she has to find a way to beat Bernie first …

      1. “Can’t see myself voting for anyone but Warren at this point”

        You mean in the primary or you mean that if Warren doesn’t get the nomination you would sit the general election out? (I’d be surprised if it is the latter since I would have put you on the “Any functioning adult 2020”-train).

    1. Warren has been my candidate since forever.

      She actually sees capitalism. For most the other candidates — and the Rs — it’s mostly just an ism.

      It’s interesting to me that locally, in small groups, women will say how much they personally love Warren. But.. fracking, socialism, female…

      It’s exasperating.

      1. “It’s interesting to me that locally, in small groups, women will say how much they personally love Warren. But.. fracking, socialism, female…

        It’s exasperating.”

        My mother, a liberal Boomer, and her friends her age say they won’t vote for Warren in the primary because they don’t think a woman can win.

        It goes to show that generation needs to age out and step aside. Women my age don’t take that bullshit, nor should they. No one should.

        If you can’t stand up for what you believe in, you shouldn’t join a party that represents what you don’t.

      2. This “I don’t think a woman can win” is an extremely frustrating example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Primaries are your chance to vote with your heart (hopefully your head is part of the decision process too). If Warren is the best fit for what you want in a President, then you forget about her gender, her race/ethnicity, any other thing that has no bearing on her fitness for office, and you vote for her. Sane thing if you decide that Booker or Biden or Harris or Buttigieg or Sanders or _______ is who you like best. Even if your candidate doesn’t win the nomination, if they have a strong enough showing, they could have influence over the party platform on the issues you care about and made you choose him/her.

        But what you CANNOT do is quit if your candidate doesn’t win. There was a bummed out Beto volunteer interviewed in WaPo talking quitting talk. Yeah, it sucks that you put in a lot of work and it didn’t get you the result you wanted. All of us who volunteered for his Senate run last year get that. But Beto would want you to support whoever ends up as the nominee.

      3. Uh hum, may I remind all the naysayers here that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million? Of course, she probably lost as many votes from those who could not stomach another Clinton in office, “especially” HRC.

        Warren has a great mind, is tough, and is a tireless worker. Her agenda, not her gender, is what will hurt her most and help her most. IOW, roll the dice. Of the moderate republicans I still converse with, most of them are repulsed by the faux “socialism” label pinned on Warren. She is principled, she does have concrete ideas, but I believe she’s smart enough to compromise to reach goals in increments if that’s what it takes. The question is, will the majority of the American voting public give her a chance?

        I learned long ago that perfect is the enemy of good. I will support and work for whoever the Democratic nominee is. The alternative is unfathomable to me.

  6. Elizabeth Warren is becoming my candidate of choice: she has plans (I may not agree with all of them, but she has concrete plans), and she is proving to be fearless in the face of Wall Street and croneyism. I cannot say I trust any of the other Democratic candidates, while some of them seem to be coming from the right place, they are just not going to cut it. As I have been following many candidates for months now, I keep coming back to Warren as the one I can support.

    As for DJT, he is just not acceptable in any way, shape or form. So, not an option.

    Chris, thanks again for clarifying our political corruption on both sides of the aisle. This is something that we need to face up to before we can rise above it.

  7. Coming to the conclusion we might have the best chance of cleaning up our country with a Warren Presidency. And she is the real deal, a real capitalist. Wanting to fix capitalism not discard it. What we have now is crony capitalism. Know in the old times as fascist capitalism. We need free markets for most of the economy and some form of socialism where capitalism is not a good fit. My two cents worth.

    1. I am soooo over the whole “socialist” label. Now we have all these people out there saying they want socialism when all they want is universal healthcare and access to education. We are letting the Republicans define these things as socialism and then people say they want sociliasm. And I don’t understand why dems aren’t pushing back on this.

      WE DO NOT WANT SOCIALISM per the definition of any Wikipedia article or Encyclopedia.
      All we want is to provide the necessary framework and regulation that is REQUIRED for capitalism and free markets to thrive long term. Many of these are recognized as by free market economists:

      1) Equal Opportunity to Education by making sure it is high quality and affordable for everyone

      2) Regulations that price Externalities into the product prices (e.g. Chris’ ideas about mandatory gun liability insurance, carbon tax, etc. )

      3) Regulations that prevent truly free market (e.g. price fixing, insider trading, monopolies, etc.)

      4) Regulate areas where free markets fail because there is no true offer/demand and choice that would set a price
      a) Infrastructure (I only need one to my house and one electricity line)
      b) Health Care (because when we need healthcare we need it right not, to stay alive, it’s not like a vacation we can pass on or wait until the price drops)

      5) Provide a Safety Net (which provides a possibility to failure when you want to be entrepreneurial without risking everything)

      None of the above are socialism …

      1. During the course of my life, the right wing has screamed socialism against every idea the Democrats have had, while the left wing has screamed racism against every idea the Republicans have had.

        So in 2016, the Republicans said, “Fine, we’re racists” and the Democrats responded with, “Fine, we’re socialists.”

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