Obama rewards donors with plum posts abroad

Top ambassadorships, from Paris and London to Ottawa and Nassau, are likely to wind up in the hands of President Obama’s biggest campaign contributors.

Eight of Obama’s early ambassadorial nominees gave heavily to his presidential campaign or the Democratic Party, according to public documents, continuing the tradition of sending friends overseas to represent the nation.

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Obama has announced 24 ambassadorial nominations, but only two, those to Iraq and Afghanistan, have been confirmed. Some are high-profile posts that attract prominent diplomats and political heavyweights; others are cushy jobs that will go to top bundlers and key supporters.

One of the biggest donors picked to represent the U.S. is Lou Susman, a former Citigroup vice chairman and director of the nonpartisan Center for National Policy. He bundled $239,000 for Obama’s campaign, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Susman is a longtime Democratic fundraiser with a mansion on Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast. He served as Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) finance chairman during the 2004 campaign. He will be in London as the ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Across the English Channel will be Charles Rivkin, Obama’s nominee as ambassador to France. A member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, Rivkin was president and CEO of the Jim Henson Co. and was co-chairman of Obama’s California finance committee. He helped raise $500,000 for Obama’s campaign.

David Jacobson, who served as deputy finance chairman for Obama’s campaign and has been at the White House as an aide to the president for the Office of Presidential Personnel, will be America’s ambassador to Canada.

Another official with a hand in hiring decisions, White House Personnel Director Don Gips, will become ambassador to South Africa, if confirmed by the Senate. Gips raised $500,000 for the campaign and has been a longtime Obama ally, initially helping Obama assemble staff for his Senate office.

Obama has tapped Laurie Fulton, a Washington attorney who bundled more than $100,000 for the campaign and was once married to ex-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), to serve as ambassador to Denmark. Fulton was a leader of Virginia Women for Obama during the campaign. A South Dakota native, Fulton worked for ex-Sen. George McGovern’s (D-S.D.) campaigns before Daschle, then her husband, won a seat in Congress.

Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team and a key Obama backer during the campaign, will be nominated as ambassador to Ireland. First announced in mid-March, Rooney has yet to be nominated formally for the post.

Los Angeles businesswoman and philanthropist Nicole Avant is receiving what is perhaps the plushest post. She will head up the U.S. mission in the Bahamas, one of the most sought-after locales in the diplomatic world. Avant raised $500,000 for Obama’s campaign and was a co-host at a Beverly Hills fundraiser the president attended last week. With Rivkin, Avant was co-chairwoman of the campaign’s California finance team.

At least one of the picks has rattled a host country. Obama nominated John Roos, a Silicon Valley attorney who bundled more than $500,000 for the campaign, to serve as Washington’s top ambassador to Japan.

Picking Roos came as a surprise to Tokyo, which has been concerned that the U.S. is looking past Japan in order to solidify a relationship with China. Japanese media noted that Roos’s nomination was announced in a press release while Obama publicly introduced his nominee for ambassador to China.

The practice of picking allies to head overseas is nothing new. According to a report by Public Citizen, 29 of President Bush’s ambassadors had reached Pioneer or Ranger fundraising status, titles conferred upon top donors to each of his two campaigns.

“This is pretty much par for the course. These are close allies, and let’s face it — these aren’t exactly hardship posts,” said Daniel Drezner, a diplomatic history expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Far from it being a faux pas to appoint someone with little diplomatic training to represent the country to a close ally, the practice has become so common that few bat an eye. Both of Bush’s ambassadors to Great Britain were major donors, while Bush sent two businessmen with whom he co-owned the Texas Rangers baseball team to Japan and France.

“The attitudes about these [appointments] have sort of evolved over time. It used to be though that this was a joke, it was an insult to the country to send some rich businessman,” Drezner said.

But now, he said, “some of these countries actually like having these kind of ambassadors, because it’s thought the president will actually listen to them.”

The White House has no plans to apologize for picking its friends for prominent posts.

“I think you see a group of committed individuals and proven professionals that are eager to serve their country. Some of those individuals were fundraisers; some of those were career ambassadors; some of those were people that left either teaching or some other thing like that,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at a May 28 briefing.

Obama himself has admitted he would appoint donors to ambassadorial posts.

“It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service,” Obama said at a Jan. 9 press conference, according to a report from Bloomberg News Service.

Two ambassadors to foreign countries have already been confirmed. Christopher Hill, a career diplomat, is representing the U.S. in Iraq, and retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry is the country’s ambassador in Afghanistan.

Obama has also picked a number of political heavyweights for more sensitive posts. Last week he introduced Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) as his choice for ambassador to China, and ex-Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) will be ambassador to India. Career diplomats have been tapped to be ambassadors to Brazil, Iceland, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Guinea, Haiti and Lithuania.