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Obama's Ambassadors

"Not everyone applauded when President Barack Obama's appointment of political fundraiser Louis Susman brought Chicago-style deal-making to the Court of St. James," the Tribune's Greg Burns wrote this week.

No kidding.

Even the staid CBS News played it this way: "Obama Picks Crony As U.K. Ambassador."

This was just what Obama promised not to do during his campaign, but when he backtracked during the transition we should have seen it coming.

In February, Carol Felsenthal penned a revealing profile of Susman for Chicago magazine.

Let's take a look.

"The retired Chicago businessman Louis Susman recently became the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, an appointment widely regarded as the prize for his ferocious fundraising on behalf of the Obama campaign. Derided by the British press as the 'vacuum cleaner,' Susman is only the most prominent example of a continuing - and questionable - American tradition."


"The tradition dates to President Andrew Jackson, but didn't Obama promise change? 'I think that President Obama, as all presidents, choose who they think is the most qualified and deserving person to become an ambassador,' Susman told me last October. 'The qualifications are the first order of business, and I think, if it's relevant, the second order of business would be if they're deserving.'"

A) So George W. Bush also chose the most qualified persons as ambassadors?

B) And by "qualifications" Susman means you contributed to the president's campaign and by "deserving" he means you contributed a lot.


Oh lord, look at that photo!


"When asked if he had a conversation with Obama about the possibility of an ambassadorship, he snaps, 'Of course not, it's against the law.' (A 1980 law states: 'Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.' The law's weak wording seems, over the years, to have negated its impact.)

"Susman leaves the impression that he never gave a moment's thought to what he might gain should Obama win. Several friends tell another story. 'I had known for a long time of his interest in getting an ambassadorship,' says William Singer, a Chicago lawyer, who calls Susman 'one of my closest friends' and adds that London was Susman's first choice.

"'When it turned out that he raised as much as he did, he began to think, Wow, I bet I can get an ambassadorship if this guy's elected,' says Barbara Eagleton, who has known Susman since he worked on the 1968 U.S. Senate race of her late husband, Tom, in Missouri. 'I think [the Susmans] thought that they were going to get a nice [ambassadorship], but I don't think they dreamed of getting London.'"


"Like it or not, though, Susman became Exhibit A in the debate over the virtues of naming political appointees (approximately 30 percent of appointments in recent years) as opposed to foreign-service professionals to ambassadorships. To many in Britain and to members of the diplomatic corps, London was a test case of Obama's campaign criticism of turning donors into ambassadors."


"Both the American Foreign Service Association and the American Academy of Diplomacy had lobbied the candidates during the 2008 campaign to limit political appointments to about 10 percent of the 185 total ambassadorships. Based on Obama's early appointments, Ronald Neumann predicted that Obama 'is ticking to be worse in numbers [than George W. Bush].' In fact, they're about even. At presstime, 29.7 percent of Obama's appointments had been political, compared with Bush's eventual total of approximately 30 percent.

"'Why is [President Obama] letting the political appointments office downstairs in the basement of the West Wing hand out these prizes to a bunch of people who have no qualifications whatsoever to do these jobs?' asks Seitz. 'As far as they are concerned it's payoff time. . . . Do they think this approach to foreign policy . . . is good for this country?'"


"'I've never made any comment ever, any place, anywhere about Tony Blair,' Susman huffed when I asked him about [a Financial Times] interview. "I don't think you saw that right. Never, ever.' (Here's the link to the Financial Times article.)"


"After Salomon Brothers became part of Citigroup in 1998, Susman worked his way up to the position of vice chairman of Citigroup's corporate and investment banking. Two of the deals Susman worked on here would not win him the 'Mr. Chicago' title. In 1990, Susman negotiated the sale of Marshall Field's to his client, Dayton Hudson, for $1.04 billion. In 1995, his client LG, a Korean company, took over another local institution, Zenith Electronics."

One might say he prepared for an ambassadorship by sending jobs overseas.


Q: If Susman hadn't given Obama a penny, would he be an ambassador today? If the answer is Yes, he was truly qualified and deserving. If the answer is No, then why go through the charade of pretending otherwise? And we all know the answer is No.


"Margie 'can't stand any sort of mess,' says Eagleton. The new ambassador's wife quickly decided that the private quarters were not up to snuff and 'redecorated everything in like three weeks.' Margie's taste, adds Eagleton, is 'very minimalist. . . . Everything is monochromatic.' (Louis Susman's spokesman would not comment on whether Susman personally paid for the redecoration.)"

I take that as a No.

Didn't you take enough money out of our pockets when you worked at Citigroup, Lou?


"In our phone interview in October, I asked Susman to describe a typical workday, and he proceeded to drop some impressive names. 'You're constantly involved in all of the strategic objectives of the United States. I have met with General Petraeus, I've met with [the Middle East Envoy] George Mitchell, I've met with Chairman Bernanke, I've met with Treasury Secretary Geithner. I just finished a meeting with General Stanley McChrystal. I've met with the prime minister, I've met with his secretary of state and his chancellor. I've met with the opposition party leader, David Cameron, and his chief shadow foreign secretary. . . . So it's a major job with major issues.'"

Q: Why is an investment banker and campaign contributor meeting with folks like this? Stick to tour groups, Lou.


See also: Key Obama Campaign Backers Who Were Appointed Ambassadors


And from the Wall Street Journal's Donors Find a Home in Obama's Ambasssador Corps:

"The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo has seen its share of luminaries in the ambassador's suite. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Senate Majority Leaders Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker and former House Speaker Tom Foley are among those who have brokered relations with a complex and critical ally in a region bristling with military and trade tensions.

"President Barack Obama's pick for the post is from a different mold: John Roos, a San Francisco Bay area lawyer, was the president's chief Silicon Valley fundraiser and contributions 'bundler.' He has no diplomatic experience.

"Mr. Obama's choice of Mr. Roos, along with other political boosters - from former investment banker Louis B. Susman, known as the 'vacuum cleaner' for his fundraising prowess, to Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney - has raised eyebrows among some who thought the president would extend his mantra of change to the diplomatic corps.

"'We're not only insulting nations [that] we're appointing these bundlers to, we're risking U.S. diplomatic efforts in these key countries,' said Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist at watchdog group Public Citizen.

"This tension can be traced back to Mr. Obama's claim during last year's campaign that President George W. Bush engaged in an 'extraordinary politicization of foreign policy.' Mr. Obama said he instead would ensure that hires are based on merit, rather than party or ideology."


"Mr. Obama's ambassadorial nominees include Kentucky Internet executive Matthew Barzun, an Obama fundraiser, for Sweden; Colorado businessman Vinai Thummalapally, the president's roommate at Occidental College, for Belize; and Howard W. Gutman, who pulled together a half million dollars in Obama contributions, for Belgium.

"The Court of St. James's in London would get Mr. Susman, the former investment banker, who bundled at least $100,000 from donors for Mr. Obama's presidential run and $300,000 for his inauguration celebration, according to Public Citizen. Mr. Rooney, tapped for Ireland, threw his weight behind Mr. Obama ahead of the Pennsylvania primary. And Charles H. Rivkin, who if confirmed will be heading for Paris, is chief executive of entertainment company W!LDBRAIN Inc. and former president of Jim Henson Co., creator of the Muppets."


"The Swiss media aired some concerns about the choice of car-dealership magnate Don Beyer for the Geneva posting. The hope was for someone seasoned in financial issues, given White House pressure on Switzerland to make its banking system more transparent, according to Mr. Holman of Public Citizen.

"Many in Japan, meanwhile, were surprised and even disappointed at the choice of Mr. Roos - in part because it had been rumored in local media that the choice was to be Joseph Nye, a Harvard University professor of international relations and former assistant secretary of defense. Some commentators suggested the Roos nomination showed Mr. Obama's lack of interest in relations with Japan."

It's not personal, Japan. It's just business - as usual.


Comments welcome.


Posted on April 9, 2010

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