Where you can ignore the US ambassador

The US ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, pictured above, allegedly solicited prostitutes (some of them underage) on a regular basis in a Brussels park.  How, you wonder, did he get that post?  Well, he was an Obama bundler responsible for bringing in $775,000 in donations to the campaign.  Probably that’s one appointment the president’s team regrets having handed out, but a surprisingly large percentage of all ambassadorships are determined this way.

My uncle and grandfather were both career diplomats in the Foreign Service so a Penn State study by Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis C. Jett about how much it costs to buy an ambassadorial appointment caught my eye.  Being an ambassador is a prestige position, of course, so it is inevitable that some wealthy donors to presidential campaigns will try to extract an appointment in return.  Across Democratic and Republican administrations, roughly 30% of ambassadorships are handed out to political appointees; the other 70% go to career diplomats in the Foreign Service.  It is the rare donor who angles for, say, ambassador to Yemen and, generally speaking, the State Department wouldn’t want them there anyway because there is actual diplomatic work to do.  So the political appointments tend to be to cushy, tourist postings in Europe where not much happens and much fun can be had.  In the embassy org chart, the person second to the ambassador is the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) and since they are Foreign Service officers they can run the place while a dilettante ambassador goes to parties and represents the nation.

The study calculates the implied cost of getting a particular appointment this way:

POLITICOi = Xiβ+ui



1 if ∃ a political appointment, with probability Pr (Y = 1) = P

0 if  a political appointment, with probability Pr (Y = 0) = 1 − P

But, to translate that, they basically include factors like GDP, tourist arrivals (presumably as a proxy for quality of life), hardship, and danger.  The results are no surprise: the first two factors are directly correlated to the likelihood an appointment will be political and the latter two are indirectly correlated.  The study finds that the implied cost for the Court of St. James (that is, the UK and thus an enormously prestigious position) is between $650,000 and $2.3m; for France, it can be as much as $6.2m in personal contributions.

Is this worth it?  Well, it reminds me of the old Ottoman practice of selling aristocratic titles, so that every newly rich effendi in the provinces had a shot at becoming a bey.  The result was that those titles got so watered down that in Cairo today parking attendants address every driver of a decent car as either a ‘pasha’ or a ‘bey.’  Maybe ‘ambassador’ is next…



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