Way back in May, Al Kamen of The Washington Post wrote on his popular blog “In the Loop” that about fifty new ambassadors will be named by Barack Obama. As he said, “many high-rolling Obama contributors have been jockeying for these plum jobs since the day after the election.” Kamen mentioned a few of the possible appointees and among them was Colleen Bell, the producer of the TV soap “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who “is in line for a posting, perhaps Belgium or Hungary.” Well, it looks as if it is Hungary. It is not yet official, but people in the know think that her appointment is likely.
Those who are not familiar with American soap operas–I’m one of them–can learn from soaps.com that the daytime show, which started in 1987, focuses on the trials and tribulations of the beautiful people of the fashion world in Beverly Hills.
According to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell is also a philanthropist and an advocate for the environment, arts, and social causes. And what is most important when it comes to an ambassadorship is that she and her husband are generous contributors to Democratic causes and specifically to the Obama campaign. Just as Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, the last U.S. ambassador to Hungary (2010-2013) was. April H. Foley (2006-2009) was a contributor to Republican causes (and was George W. Bush’s girlfriend at the Harvard Business School). For three years, between October 2003 and August 2006, a cousin of the elder Bush got the job after Nancy Goodman Brinker (2001-2003), another generous contributor to the Republican party, was called back to occupy an important position in the Bush campaign.
In the last twenty years all U.S. ambassadors to Hungary were political appointees. In fact, with the exception of the ambassadors appointed immediately after World War I and World War II, career diplomats rarely served as ambassadors in Budapest. The list of U.S. ambassadors to Hungary is available online.
When Barack Obama ran for office he promised to change the system of rewarding top donors with ambassadorships. As you can see, the practice is continuing unabated. I suppose one could argue that these appointees have the advantage of easier access to the president. But they operate within the framework of the State Department, not the White House, so this so-called advantage rarely makes a real difference.
How have the last two ambassadors worked out? Foley did more harm than good. She was an ardent neo-conservative who suspected communists around every corner. She received plenty of ammunition to feed her distorted view of Hungarian politics from Viktor Orbán, who charmed her. She consulted more with the opposition than with government officials. One of her favorites was János Martonyi, who is capable of looking like a perfect democrat and a moderate but who continues in his post as foreign minister despite being entirely ignored by the prime minister, who conducts his own foreign policy with his minions. Foley fed all of her suspicions to the State Department, whose staff seemed to have been taken in by her misinformation and became convinced that the Hungarian government was courting Putin’s Russia. At one point the relationship between Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and April Foley was so strained that they refused to speak to each other.
As for Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, I devoted at least three posts to her. To give you an idea of her skill in reading people, she said in an interview with HVG that Orbán reminded her of the Bill Clinton of twenty years earlier. The two men resemble each other mostly because of “their commitment and passion for people.” In the interview Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis mentioned that she had also met with Gordon Bajnai, then prime minister, but it seems that Bajnai didn’t make much of an impression on her. I can only assume that this Obama appointee didn’t know that Orbán had until the very last moment been keeping fingers crossed for a Republican victory and considered Sarah Palin “an extraordinarily talented politician, an excellent debater, and a very successful governor.”
At the Central European University in Budapest she gave a lecture where someone asked her opinion on the new constitution. She could have said that she hopes that the new constitution will be democratic, but no, she felt compelled to add that “the new constitution is being written by people who are well qualified. The new constitution will be a good one. The rule of law, the freedom of the press and expression will be ensured.” This was the U.S. ambassador who is supposed to remind Viktor Orbán and his government about Hungary’s commitment to democratic values and the rule of law.
And I understand that this woman, who surely had not the foggiest idea of what was going on around her, was hoping to be reappointed. Luckily that didn’t happen, but a political appointee from the world of soaps doesn’t strike me as an obvious improvement. Perhaps we will all be pleasantly surprised and Colleen Bell will be a terrific, hard-hitting U.S. ambassador who has a thorough understanding of the political situation in which she has to operate. But given the track record of political appointees going to Budapest with little knowledge and zero experience I don’t expect miracles.
I must say that I simply don’t understand what the United States government is doing. Don’t they realize how significant Hungary has become in the last three or four years? The Orbán regime’s undemocratic practices are starting to look attractive to some of the countries in East-Central Europe. There are indications of a possible return of the Kaczyński regime in Poland and danger signs in Romania and Bulgaria as well. An experienced, tough-minded U.S. ambassador is needed in Budapest. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of appointing Colleen Bell.