I've written that Barack Obama is the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon. He dominates and doesn't delegate. Just ask his first secretary of state. But the notion that the Obama administration's reliance on political appointees or marginalization of the State Department is somehow new or Obama's responsibility just doesn't add up.
The Obama administration has certainly furthered the trend. Only five of the 35 special envoys, representatives, advisers, and coordinators appointed during Obama's first term were Foreign Service offers. But who are we kidding? The State Department hasn't been the chief driver of U.S. foreign policy since the days of James Baker. Moreover, the tendency of both U.S. administrations and host governments to bypass ambassadors and deal with each other directly has been in train for years -- a trend that has been encouraged not just by the White House, but also by secretaries of state who also routinely bypassed their own Foreign Service in favor of more senior host government contacts. In a previous column, David Rothkopf himself raised the matter of whether or not we even need ambassadors anymore:
But today, for the purposes of most really important diplomatic exchanges there is almost always a better conduit than the ambassador and for the ones that aren't that important, do we really need someone in a special ceremonial post?
The trend toward ignoring and politicizing the Foreign Service is a bad one. But the nature of patronage, political payoffs, for fundraising are a part of the system, and that's not going to change. Finding the balance in U.S. politics on many issues is the key. In unusual and exceptional cases, a rational argument can be made for assigning a non-foreign policy specialist with no special experience in diplomacy, government, or expertise to a country -- even to an important country and ally like Japan. And, yes, access to the president, the cachet of a famous name, even the image of an ambassador who represents a set of American experiences other than those of conventional diplomats can be important.
Caroline Kennedy may or may not prove to be an effective non-diplomat diplomat. But to prejudge her appointment, blast her in the process, and assume that because she's not a Foggy Bottom heavy she cannot represent the United States capably -- even brilliantly -- makes no sense. That kind of elitism also sends a terrible message about America.