CABINET secretaries' heads roll in Washington with considerable regularity. Agency appointees of the president depart. But what about those other, often crucial, appointees of an American president - ambassadors?
It sometimes seems that distance lends, if not enchantment, at least immunity from scrutiny. The president doesn't need performance reviews on those he sees daily, but devising a method to replace ambassadors who are not performing well - whether they are political appointees or come from career ranks - will make American embassies more effective.
The State Department inspector general and his corps of inspectors do report on the performance of ambassadors when they inspect an embassy. But my impression, based on experience in the Foreign Service and conversations with former inspectors general and senior retired diplomats, is that critical reports on noncareer chiefs of mission may reach the level of the secretary of state, but they rarely, if ever, find their way to the one who appointed them - the president. After all, is the secretary of state going to tell the president that a close friend or important political supporter should be removed?
Ambassadors are the personal representatives of the president. Their performance, more than that of any other American, sets the tone and establishes the reputation of the administration they represent. Those of us who visit American embassies learn quickly when the chief of mission is a credit neither to our country nor to the president. And in this respect, it makes no difference whether the ambassador is or is not a career officer.
Hire a monitor
Presidents have no way of knowing in advance whether the individuals they wish to appoint to embassies will do a good job. There have been times when the State Department errs in its judgment of a Foreign Service officer's capabilities or character, although the State Department usually takes the necessary action in such cases. The Senate is rarely willing to withhold its advice and consent even if there is some concern about an appointee's qualification or suitability; there are always more important matters on which to take issue with a president.
But a president could himself monitor the performance of his personal representatives. He could appoint his own inspector who would report only on chiefs of mission - both career and noncareer - and only to him. What action the president then chose to take would, of course, be up to him. But at least he would know when an ambassador was a liability rather than an asset. And if he did not consider it practical to remove him or her, at least he would know the argument against reappointment. Obviously, the person appointed to fulfill this function in the White House should be someone in whom the president has sufficient confidence to be able to accept criticism of any appointment - even that of a close friend.
How would the person performing this task know where to look? The information could be collected from a variety of sources (including the State Department inspector general's office, senators and representatives who had visited a post, and senior officials of other departments). Random visits would provide another source of information. It is surprising how much an alert visitor can learn about a US ambassador's reputation in a few days of exposure to the capital in which that ambassador is serving.
Insist on high standards abroad
This country is well served by the vast majority of its ambassadors. They are representatives of whom not only the president but all Americans can be proud. But as in any other field, there are a few who should not be where they are. In a high-level position in Washington, that fact would become obvious to all with whom the official dealt and thus to the president. In a foreign capital, far away from daily contact with other officials and the scrutiny of the press, that is often not so.
The country to which the ambassador is accredited, the representation of the US, and the reputation of administrations have suffered in the past because presidents have not known about such cases. There is a way to find out - if they care.