Colleen Bell, Bradley Bell and their daughter arrive at 2011 MOCA Gala on Nov.12, 2011, in Los Angeles, Calif.

State Department Union Tries to Embarrass-Proof Ambassadors

'Knowledge of the host country culture and language' is on the list.

Colleen Bell, Bradley Bell and their daughter arrive at 2011 MOCA Gala on Nov.12, 2011, in Los Angeles, Calif.

Colleen Bell, left, with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles, is one of several ambassador nominees to face criticism in recent weeks for lacking the qualifications for foreign service.

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Being an ambassador is a big job and it takes someone with a certain set of something to do it, says the American Foreign Service Association. The group, a professional association and labor union for all American career diplomats, on Tuesday released four rather simple skills that ambassadors should have, in an attempt to help embarrass-proof the country when new diplomats head overseas.

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Robert Silverman, the organization’s president, said the list wasn’t necessarily released in response to three of President Barack Obama’s nominees for ambassadorships – Colleen Bell, George Tsunis and Noah Mamet – giving particularly grueling performances before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in recent weeks. (For example: “I haven’t had the opportunity to be there,” replied Mamet, when asked if he’d ever been to Argentina, the country of his post.)

“The genesis for this initiative well predated the controversies,” Silverman told Whispers. “But we are happy, to be honest that … the press [is] focusing on it because it’s a big, long-standing problem that’s been exacerbated.”

The problem is that, unlike other countries, the United States, and presidents in both parties, give plum embassy assignments to top political donors. While the Foreign Service Act of 1980 says that “contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission,” it doesn’t fully ban a little tit for tat.

“Now, let’s be clear, someone who is a big donor, but who is also a person with a lot of international experience, that speaks foreign languages – that person can potentially qualify,” Silverman explained. “It’s not a disqualifier in and of itself, but if that’s the only reason that person is being nominated for all we could tell, then that person should not be qualified.”

Silverman and his cohorts assembled 10 foreign service pros, former ambassadors who were both career and non-career diplomats, to come up with the new list. The recommendations read, in no ranking order, that the “chief of mission” have “leadership, character and interpersonal skills;" an “understanding of high level policy and operations” in the country; “relevant management experience;” and an “understanding” of the host country. 

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“The nominee has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages,” the recommendation reads.

Silverman called these easy and common sense.

“As you see they’re pretty flexible standards, but yet it does require some experience, if not in the country itself, then in the region,” Silverman said, using Argentina as an example. “Well maybe that person has not visited Argentina, but has been in Latin America many times, they’ve lived in Paraguay for instance. You can’t check that box that he’s lived in Argentina, but he has other suitable international experience.” 

So far, Silverman said the new recommendations have been greeted positively. He’s meeting with the White House Wednesday. But he and AFSA's board of directors will also meet next week to decide if they will publicly come out against nominees Bell, Tsunis and Mamet.

“We are not trying to play gotcha, we are not interested in embarrassing any administration,” he said. “What we want is to make effective change and to help reform a process that is frankly corrupt – and we can do it.”