Seattleland: A Local History of the Bundling, Bungling Diplomat

When Gary Locke departed China for Seattle last week after two and a half years as U.S. Ambassador, the Beijing government saluted him with a nose-thumbing. He was a “banana,” as one of the government’s news services put it, whose “yellow skin and white heart” would “inevitably start to rot.”

China’s old Commie rulers ridiculed Locke’s commoner habit of carrying his own luggage and flying coach. They also blamed Obama’s man in China for fouling the Asian air. “When he arrived, so did Beijing’s smog,” the news service said of the former Washington governor and King County executive. “With his departure, Beijing’s sky suddenly turned blue.”

In other words, thanks for leaving. Meanwhile, Suzi LeVine, Obama’s latest ambassadorial pick from Seattleland, could be hearing a different kind of mocking once she arrives in Switzerland this year.

It won’t be because the wonderland of watches, chocolate, and secret bank accounts is politically fraught; the place is famously neutral, with an army best known for its wine-opening knives. It will be because the president, who handed China to Locke as a challenge, gave Switzerland to LeVine as a gift.

For much the same reason, and raising the same eyebrows, he gave Norway to hotel executive George Tsunis and Argentina to political consultant Noah Bryson Mamet. These two and LeVine are key Obama fundraisers, and the posts were rewards to the trio for “bundling” (née hustling) $3.1 million in donations from party faithful.

Handing out political jobs in return for cash can get you thrown in jail. But this is the hallowed tradition of patronage, practiced by every president since Washington first handed work to those who supported that newfangled Constitution.

While critical diplomatic posts go to more capable career officers, and plum spots like Paris or Rome are doled to major political allies, other locales—the Icelands and Luxembourgs—are tossed like bangles to the bundlers.

The general rule is to allot 30 percent of such appointments as political gifts. But Obama has been extra-generous at 37 percent. A compilation by Slate shows that in his second term he handed ambassadorships to 24 bundlers who had raised almost $17 million.

You get what you pay for, however. LeVine, still awaiting a confirmation hearing, is not giving interviews, and describes herself on Twitter as “an Impact-a-holic—must make a positive difference!” Thus most of what we know about her ambassadorial cred is that she raised $1.3 million to gain it.

The foremost question to be asked is whether she’s actually been to Switzerland. The U.S. has more than 130 ambassadors from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe serving “at the pleasure of the president.” Knowing the lay of the land would seem a prerequisite.

But as nominee Tsunis recently told a Senate panel, he’s never been to Norway. Likewise, Mamet confessed he hasn’t stepped foot in Argentina—nor does he speak Spanish. (Even Max Baucus, the venerable ex-Montana senator Obama picked to replace Locke, blurted that “I’m no real expert on China.”)

LeVine joins other memorable local nominees such as Seattle venture capitalist Cynthia Stroum, a bundler appointed by Obama in 2009 to Luxembourg, a place she’d never been either. As Jon Stewart asked on The Daily Show last week, “Is there a rule that ambassadors can’t have set foot in the country they’re going to ambassador? Would it ruin the surprise?”

Stroum went on to become Luxembourg’s queen of mean, forced to step down after bringing the embassy to a state of dysfunction. Her manner was so intimidating she caused staffers to transfer to more peaceful posts—Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another venture capitalist, Susan McCaw, of the pioneering Seattle cell phone family, and former King County Republican Party Chair Pat Herbold also bundled their ways overseas. George W. Bush sent McCaw to Austria and Herbold to Singapore after their money-raising efforts in 2004. They were no real experts, either. But Herbold had been to Singapore twice, and McCaw said she’d made “several trips” to Austria.

Ethnic background apparently is also no barrier. The late House Speaker Tom Foley, a Spokane Irishman, was Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Japan, while ex-Seattle Mariners owner and Bush II appointee George Argyros, of Greek ancestry, was ambassador to Spain (even while his California land company was illegally evicting and overcharging Latino renters).

Onetime Olympic Peninsula carpenter Joseph Wilson, however, impressed a lot of people when he became G. H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq during Operation Desert Shield. He helped free 150 American hostages and was the last U.S. official to meet with Saddam Hussein before the 1990 Gulf War began. (Wilson flatly rejected Saddam’s offer of endless oil for the U.S. if he could just have Kuwait.)

Wilson went on to help expose Bush II’s rush to unnecessary war in Iraq, and later was the eye of the storm over his wife’s CIA exposure in Plamegate. He told me he got his foreign career start in Seattle, inspired by a meeting with influential University of Washington public-affairs professor Brewster Denny. “I owe it all to him,” Wilson said.

So our major contribution to international diplomacy may be all those bundling diplomats. But we did help clear the fog in the White House—oh, and the smog over Beijing.

Rick Anderson writes about sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing.

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