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Foreign Service group urges administration to raise bar on diplomat nominees

 

The union representing America's Foreign Service professionals has a novel idea -- diplomatic nominees should have international experience and probably know a thing or two about the host country where they're being assigned. 

The recommendations were part of proposed diplomatic job qualifications put out Tuesday by the American Foreign Service Association, in a bid to increase pressure on the administration to raise the bar on the quality of its ambassadorial picks. The guidelines come after a string of rocky confirmation hearings for a few of President Obama's diplomatic nominees, and amid heightened scrutiny of the time-honored presidential practice of selecting political donors and friends for these high-profile posts. 

"It is essential ... that ambassadors chosen to represent the president and lead our diplomatic missions possess the attributes, experience and skills to do so successfully," the group said in its report published Tuesday. 

The proposed guidelines were put together by a panel of former diplomats. The association itself has long argued that administrations of both parties should favor career Foreign Service professionals, and not political donors, when choosing ambassadors. 

The guidelines reiterated that theses posts "should normally be accorded to career members," while acknowledging that those outside the Foreign Service ranks "can bring other highly valuable experience and attributes." 

However, the panel outlined four sets of requirements that any good nominee should meet. 

Notably, one of those requirements was "understanding of host country and international affairs." 

The section could be a subtle reference to nominees' recent confirmation hearings. During the confirmation hearing of Obama's nominee to Argentina, Noah Bryson Mamet, the nominee admitted he'd never been to the South American country. The nominee to Norway, George Tsunis, also flubbed some key facts about the Scandinavian nation at his confirmation hearing. Colleen Bradley Bell, a soap opera producer nominated for ambassador to Hungary, also recently struggled to answer what America's strategic interests are in that country. 

The association reportedly plans to vote next month on whether to oppose those nominees. 

The AFSA guidelines said diplomatic nominees should have experience "in or with the host country or other suitable international experience" and be knowledgeable about the host country's culture and language or other foreign cultures or languages. 

The guidelines also recommended that nominees have "relevant management experience;" understand high-level policy and operations; and have "leadership, character and proven interpersonal skills." 

The administration has stressed that it's too early to say, especially based on scattered confirmation hearing performances, how its recent nominees would do in their jobs. 

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Tuesday that the administration would review AFSA's recommendations. 

"Broadly speaking, in filling these posts, the Administration looks for the most qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life," Schultz said in a statement. "We have received interest and have recruited talented people from all across the country and all kinds of professional backgrounds. Our nominees have a mix of sterling academic credentials, years of public service and private sector experience that make them eminently qualified for the positions to which they were appointed." 

Officials note that many esteemed U.S. ambassadors have come from outside the Foreign Service career path, including former Vice President Walter Mondale in Japan, and Sargent Shriver in France.