ROME — When the Foreign Service was established in 1924, it was expected to become the training ground for all American ambassadors. In fact the great U.S. diplomats of this century--men like George F. Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen--have all come from its ranks. In the last two decades, more of its senior officers have met violent deaths--through terrorism--than those of any other branch of federal service, including the military.
Yet in spite of terrorism, a decline in America's image abroad and increasingly less-competitive salaries, our Foreign Service still attracts almost more candidates than it can examine. Many foreign diplomats still give us credit for having the best of all diplomatic services, despite every recent President's gift of ambassadorships to many unqualified political appointees. This is the secret of U.S. diplomacy's good overall performance: Incompetents may be, and are, named ambassadors, but they have skilled and hard-working staffs to make up for their deficiencies.
So, one might ask, since the overall result is what counts, would it be fair to say that things are pretty good on the diplomatic front in spite of the continuing spoils system? No. To use an undiplomatic word, things are lousy--and things have appreciably worsened during the current Administration. No postwar President has made so many political appointments to ambassadorships--roughly 40%--as has Ronald Reagan. Worse, in no other Administration have so many ambassadors--political appointees, not career officers--been accused of malfeasance, misconduct or just ineptitude.
The kindest thing one can say about some of these people is that a career selling soap in California or doing some volunteer work on behalf of Republicans in Pennsylvania must not have left them any time to learn how governments conduct relations with other governments. But what they should have learned, at a minimum, (and what the State Department did tell them when they joined the payroll) was not to use public office for private gain: a violation of law.
Yet recently we have seen the name of one of these political appointees in the press, suspected of filing false vouchers. A few months ago another political appointee, the President's ambassador to the Vatican, resigned after visiting Libyan leaders in Tripoli, presumably on private business--the same Libyan leaders who were plotting terrorist acts against other Americans. Nor is it so long since yet another of these ambassadors made himself a name in his country of assignment by knocking long and hard on the door of the wrong house at 3 a.m. Or take the case of the political appointee serving as our ambassador to the United Kingdom, who reportedly could not tear himself away from a Caribbean beach when the Falklands War began, and we began critical efforts toward a cease-fire in which our ambassador should obviously have been involved.
Which is not to say that a political appointee cannot be a good ambassador--far from it. A quarter-century ago in Panama, I worked for a Republican appointee who replaced a career ambassador who had simply gone sour. Joseph S. Farland got off a Panama Line ship, sensed the bad atmosphere in our relations with Panama and in six months made a decided change for the better. Not by giving the Panamanians a new canal treaty; that was still over a decade away. What Farland did was what might be called a good public-relations job. He put on a Panama hat and got his picture in all the papers dancing at the fiestas padronales of every little town on the isthmus--or kissing babies, as many as ever got bussed by a ward leader in Boston--and seeing all the Panamanians that counted, and listening to what they said to him. He didn't have the long-range answers (nor did Washington, at that point) but Farland was the man we needed then in Panama.
Or take the last ambassador I worked for, appointed by Reagan five years ago and still at his post. A political appointee, to be sure, but a man who in his youth spent seven years as aide to a senator and then five years at a key job in the Eisenhower White House. Hardly a neophyte in government, but rather a man who could convey to a minister or prime minister an excellent sense of top-level Administration thinking and what Washington wanted from its friends and allies. That, after all, is what an ambassador is supposed to be--a bridge between Presidents and prime ministers. But you can't be a bridge if you don't understand the mentality and the problems of the people in the country you are sent to--or even, as has been the case with some appointees, the basic aims of our own policy.
Why do unprepared people want to become ambassadors? Well, it is nice to be called honorable, and there is usually a fine house with servants in the bargain. The pay is not much; almost all Western European ambassadors are paid better than ours. But if one is already wealthy, one doesn't mind the modest salary.