Through Embassy Windows: The Job Of The Modern American Ambassador

Speech at Texas A&M University

Frequently people still ask me, “What exactly does an ambassador do?”

There are many ways I try to answer this question, all comparisons with something else. One is to say that an American ambassador is an overseas branch manager of the US Government. The word “ambassador”, you see, is just a title, like “general” or “commissioner”. The job itself is called “chief of mission”. And the modern US mission abroad is composed of several agencies. The State Department may be in the lead but is by means alone. A small to mid-sized post like Qatar may have representatives of the Defense Department, the Justice Department (FBI), and the Commerce Department. Larger posts as in London or México City or Tokyo will have many more: From Agriculture to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Treasury.

It is up to the chief of mission – our ambassador – to meld all these agencies into one united effort, the so-called country team. This may not be easy, since US Government agencies often have different objectives and outright rivalries. The ambassador is the boss of the whole outfit, but he or she knows that each agency representative posted abroad has a boss far away in Washington who will determine the next assignment and the next promotion. The challenge for the chief of mission is to recognize this dual loyalty and persuade every member of the country team that pursuing the ambassador’s agenda will make everyone look good back home on the Potomac.

Another useful comparison of what the ambassador’s job is like is with that of the captain of a naval vessel under independent steaming orders. The ship – the embassy – may be part of a larger fleet – US foreign policy in all its forms in that region of the world – and subject to orders from higher authority. But on a day-to-day basis the ambassador is in command, given full power by the president to win support for American objectives and to keep the embassy, its people, and the American community secure. That is the meaning of the funny-sounding words in the complete title “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary” — extraordinary in the sense of being the one-and-only personal representative of the president of the United States in that country, and plenipotentiary straight from the Latin pleni potens, with full power.

A final way of describing the job of ambassador came to me when Diana and I were visited in Doha by our friend Corbin Van Arsdale, a member of the Texas House of Representatives from Northwest Harris County. I took Corbin with me as I spoke to a conference of educators, attended a festival at the American School of Doha, met with ambassadors from various Asian countries, and went for a day’s camping in the desert with key members of the national petroleum company. At one point I turned to Corbin and said, “You know, being an ambassador is a whole lot like being a state representative.”

Having been a state rep myself many years before, I knew that the daily life of the aspiring politician contains many such events that you attend either to address or to signal support by merely showing up. The chief difference is that the ambassador is out to make friends for the United States, and the politician is out to make friends for himself. The techniques are the same, however.

I was a so-called political appointee, or “non-career” ambassador. All ambassadors are chosen by the president and are subject to the confirmation of the Senate before taking their posts. But historically some two-thirds of all ambassadors at any time are career diplomats, members of the Foreign Service, selected for assignment abroad by an internal process of the State Department for recommendation to the president. This process may be quite political in its own way if you define “political” as having backers in key places who can and will work the system to get your name instead of someone else’s on the list that goes to the White House.

The one-third who are non-career appointees come from a variety of backgrounds. Most typically, in either Democratic or Republican administrations, these are wealthy people who give and raise a great deal of money for the president or his party. Often a president may not know these people well, having only been in their swanky homes in Beverly Hills or Highland Park a time or two for a high-dollar fundraiser.

Others may be very well known to the president: They may have been his college classmates, as was Clark Ranft, our Chinese-speaking ambassador in Beijing. They may have been his business partners, as was Tom Schieffer, our ambassador to Tokyo and before that to Canberra, who was the President’s close associate in the Texas Rangers baseball team. They may have been his colleagues in government and politics, as was Tony Garza, our ambassador in Mexico City, who was Texas secretary of state under then-Governor George W. Bush. And they may even be relatives, as is Craig Stapleton, our very able ambassador to Paris and previously to Prague, who is married to the current President Bush’s first cousin.

There is an ancient and unending debate as to whether the United States would be better served by having career diplomats fill all its posts abroad. Certainly the very professional members of the Foreign Service feel this way, as typified in a wonderful story told by Malcolm Toon, a highly-respected career diplomat who served as ambassador to Israel and the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

“As an old Navy hand, I was [once] invited to sail with the Sixth Fleet. Before joining the carriers, I dined with a senior admiral in Naples who, after dinner, informed me that he faced retirement … and thought he’d like to be an ambassador. I asked him why he thought he was qualified for the job. His answer was that ambassadors dealt primarily with ‘people problems’ and he had been concerned with such problems his entire naval career.

“I told the admiral that I, too, was contemplating retirement … and felt I should seek a second career. I thought I could qualify for a naval command. The admiral blew his stack, and it helped little to calm him down when I explained that because of my five years with the Navy, with ample command and combat experience, I felt I was more qualified to take over a naval command than he was to take over an embassy.

“The sequel to the story is that the following year he was appointed ambassador [to Spain], and I have yet to take over the Sixth Fleet.”

The fact is, there are sound arguments on both sides of this debate, which is why it will continue forever. Strongly on the career folks’ side is usually (but by no means exclusively) having many years’ experience in the region of the world where they are appointed, knowing its language and culture. They also have an intimate and invaluable knowledge of how the State Department works, with old chums scattered all over the building and the globe who may be helpful in a crunch. They also have that unique skill of knowing how to classify a cable back to Washington so that exactly the right people see it and no one else.

The non-career appointee may lack all these abilities. In my case, for example, I did not speak Arabic and had spent a total of 18 hours on the Arabian Peninsula before receiving that unexpected “golden telephone call” from the White House to go to Qatar. What the “politicals” often have in their favor is management experience, able to get the disparate agencies inside their embassy to work together for the bottom-line goals of the whole. The fact political appointees do not spend their professional lifetimes inside the State Department means they are less likely to favor State’s interest over that of Defense or CIA in a policy dispute; they can survey the scene dispassionately without the pressure of knowing their future career depends on winning the day for Foggy Bottom.

It’s often said that politically-appointed ambassadors have the extra-special clout of “being able to pick up the phone and call the president”. I never had recourse to that ultimate action, but thanks to knowing the President’s people and having worked a dozen years in Washington, I was able to call friends in the White House and in the agencies when I needed to. A career diplomat would have likelier sent a cable to State, asking if someone back there would please go through channels in order to contact these same people.

Neither side will ever completely win this argument, and you can bet that as soon as the next president starts picking ambassadors there will be news stories and op-eds that lament the selection of campaign fundraisers for diplomatic posts.

In this debate, the party most affected is never consulted, and that is the receiving country. This is only proper, since the choice of an ambassador is an intensely internal issue. The other country does have the right to reject the president’s choice, but this seldom occurs. It’s probably just as well for the Foreign Service that the foreign land is never queried as to whom the president should pick. Imagine this diplomatic note to a foreign leader:

“Your Excellency: Please indicate your choice of the following two men we are considering as ambassador to your country. The first is our most eminent career diplomat, Quincy Adams Frothingham IV, whom you know because you went to school together. He speaks your language and its seven main dialects; he married into one of your most prominent families; and he has the world’s finest collection of the ancient pottery of your country. The other choice is Billy Bob Huggins, a shopping center developer from Gator Patch, Florida. He has never been in your country or anywhere close to it. He does not speak your language or any language other than English. He has never been interested in foreign affairs. But he raised $13 million for the President in his last campaign. Whom do you prefer?”

Since foreign leaders always want American ambassadors with access to top decision makers back in Washington, I suspect that in this imaginary scenario, Billy Bob would get to pack his bags and Quincy would not.

In the three years after unpacking my bags in Doha, I would often close letters or emails to friends by saying: “When we get together again, I’ll tell you tales of what it’s like to deal with a mysterious, feudal, and exotic government. And if there’s time I’ll tell you what it’s been like dealing with Qatar, too.”

It’s a truism for any ambassador from any country to any country that the greatest challenge of the job is dealing with the government back home more than the one to which you are accredited. This is especially true for the modern American ambassador, with the huge federal establishment back in Washington. If it weren’t enough for an ambassador just to deal with the State Department, there are the Pentagon, the CIA, Homeland Security, and numerous other departments and agencies as well.

There’s also the Congress, who have oversight of all the above and give out the money, too. For this reason, I made a point of going to the airport day and night to greet congressmen and senators and their staffs whenever they came to or just passed through Qatar.

I often said that I drew my paycheck from the State Department but was not of the State Department. This implied no antipathy to Mother State, for I have to this day only the greatest respect (and, in several cases, personal fondness) for the extremely talented career diplomats with whom I served. What I meant was that in pursuing America’s interests in Qatar, I did not start off with a “side” in the constant inter-agency struggles that go on over US policy toward any part of the world. When once the director of the CIA thanked me for working cooperatively with his officers, I replied that I didn’t know I should have acted otherwise.

If I had any agency bias at all, it was toward the Defense Department and in particular the Central Command, which has its forward headquarters and our most important air base just outside Doha. This was primarily due to the fact I saw the US-Qatar defense relationship as paramount, especially in wartime. In this endeavor, I had a steady ally in CENTCOM and its two commanders during my time, General John Abizaid and Admiral Tom Fallon. We often found ourselves ranged against the most powerful forces in the Bush Administration, who were furious with Qatar over the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language television channel centered in Doha. The internal bureaucratic battle was often intense, but in that fight I wanted always to be on the side of the people actually fighting the war – and I was proud to do so.

The story is told that Ronald Reagan’s secretary of State, George Shultz, would receive US ambassadors when they were back in Washington. After a discussion in armchairs, the Secretary would ask each ambassador to follow him over to a corner of the room where there was a large standing globe. “Would you mind showing me exactly where your country is?” Shultz would inquire. Ambassadors were surprised that Shultz, holder of a doctorate in economics, needed to be shown where Norway or Nigeria are, but they would dutifully spin the globe and point to the country where they were serving. At that moment, Shultz had them. “No, it isn’t,” he would say, spinning the globe back and pointing to the United States.“Always remember, this is your country.”

This anecdote illustrates another unending issue affecting all ambassadors: Whether they are the faithful conveyor of their country’s policies to the host country or whether they are more often the faithful conveyor back home of the host country’s attitudes toward those policies. Clearly, a good ambassador needs to be both. He or she needs to be a vigorous promoter of America’s political, military, and economic interests. But he or she also needs to tell Washington what’s really going on. Washington may not always like hearing the truth, and someone in an office thousands of miles from the scene will always grumble, “It looks like old Fred has gone native.” But this prospect should never deter the ambassador from reporting the truth as he or she honestly sees it.

Otherwise, why in the 21st century should countries still send human beings abroad in an “extraordinary and plenipotentiary” fashion, just as in the days of the Renaissance? It would surely be easier and cheaper – not to mention “edgy” and “cool” — if countries sent each other fax machines instead. That way, diplomatic notes could be delivered to the foreign capital precisely as some brilliant soul wrote them, without a creature called ambassador to fudge the text or its tone. For that matter, why couldn’t heads of state simply text each other? Think how much money their governments could save in furnishing embassies, armoring limousines, buying flagpoles, clipping lawns, and preparing canapés!

Alas, modern technology in all its speed, dazzle, and capacity can never supplant the services of the old, serviceable, able, loyal, and honest Diplomat 1.0.

Neither can technology yield the benefits of having that diplomat’s spouse on the job for the home country, too, at little extra expense. That was certainly the case in Qatar from 2004 to 2007, when Diana magnified the presence of the United States through her embrace of the Qatari people and their culture. She became so celebrated locally that some people actually called me “the husband of the wife of the American ambassador”. And here to tell you about that experience is my helpmate and partner in life, love, and diplomacy, Diana Cumming Kendrick Untermeyer.


Comments are closed.