Colleen Bell

Colleen Bell, US ambassador designate to Hungary, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Let’s move from Budapest to Washington today. On September 26, 2013 I wrote about the likelihood that the next ambassador to Hungary will a political appointee, Colleen Bell, producer of the TV soap “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

At the time I expressed my dismay over the appointment. Not because I had anything against Ms Bell but because I consider the political situation so serious in Hungary that I think it would behoove US interests to have a career diplomat with some knowledge of the region and experience in diplomacy representing the American government on the spot.

Political appointees come from the ranks of those well-heeled people who not only give generously to the political party in power but also solicit large donations from others. Colleen Bell was apparently the source of about a million dollars to the Obama campaigns. Currently there are 32 ambassadorial candidates waiting to be confirmed by the Senate, out of whom 18 are political appointees. The Senate is in no great hurry; the candidates have been on hold for about four months.

Colleen Bradley Bell at the Senate Confirmation Hearing on January 16, 2014

Colleen Bradley Bell at the Senate Confirmation Hearing on January 16, 2014

On January 16 Colleen Bell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Normally she is quite a fashion plate, but for the occasion she dressed more like a nun, all in black with a small white collar. Obviously, she wanted to be very professional looking. Beside her were two other candidates: Robert C. Barber, a lawyer who is heading to Iceland, and George Tsunis, a Long Island businessman who is going to be sent to Norway.

Each candidate delivered a statement, which started with the usual niceties about the trust President Obama and Secretary Kerry placed in them and with thanks for the support of their families. Bell, after relating the close partnership of the two countries in military matters and their common interest in security as NATO allies, came to the important part of American concerns. Let me quote the relevant passages verbatim:

At the same time, we have been open over the last two years about our concerns about the state of checks and balances in Hungary and the independence of some key institutions. Many argue that sweeping legislative and constitutional changes have hurt the international investment climate, undermined property rights, weakened the judiciary, and centralized power in the hands of the executive.
The United States has not been alone in this regard. The perceived erosion of
democratic checks and balances has garnered scrutiny from various bodies within
the European Union. If confirmed, I will work tirelessly to uphold American and
European democratic values, to express our concerns where appropriate, and to
urge our Hungarian partners to work collaboratively with international partners and
civil society on these issues.

The idea of pluralism is integral to our understanding of what it means to be
a democracy. Democracies recognize that no one entity — no state, no political
party, no leader — will ever have all the answers to the challenges we face. And,
depending on their circumstances and traditions, people need the latitude to work
toward and select their own solutions. Our democracies do not and should not look
the same. Governments by the people, for the people, and of the people will reflect
the people they represent. But we all recognize the reality and importance of these
differences. Pluralism flows from these differences.

The United States has also expressed concern about the rise of extremism
which unfortunately is a trend not unique to Hungary. However, the rise in
Hungary of extremist parties is of particular concern. If confirmed, protecting and
promoting a climate of tolerance will be one of my key priorities.

The Hungarian government has undertaken a series of steps to address
lingering hatred and the legacy of the Holocaust, to include planned events in 2014
to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the large scale deportations to Auschwitz,
and the 2015 assumption of the Presidency of the International Holocaust
Remembrance Alliance. If confirmed, I look forward to working with government
organizations, civic and religious groups, and other stakeholders to confront and
defeat prejudice and hatred in all of its forms.

After delivering the statements, the senators asked a few questions. The Democrats gentle and helpful ones. George Tsunis, who was perhaps the weakest of the three, managed to fumble even on the helpful question of one of the Democratic senators. There were two interesting exchanges relating to the confirmation hearing of Ms Bell. One was a fatherly warning by Senator Ben Cardin (D), co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, who is very well informed on the latest developments in Budapest. He warned Bell that her stay in Budapest is not going to be a picnic. She has to prepare herself to use tough language. She shouldn’t be misled by promises given to her by government officials because they are in the habit of saying one thing at home and another thing when they talk with foreigners. “You have the responsibility to take a very strong role.” Cardin encouraged Bell to keep in touch with Congress and take advice from them if necessary.

Then came a few very uncomfortable moments when John McCain (R) took over, who certainly wasn’t as nice as his Democratic colleagues. McCain wanted specifics. Bell talked about opportunities for closer cooperation but what kind of cooperation did she have in mind? Bell was unable to expand on or add anything to what was in her written statement.  McCain was not satisfied and, after mentioning that Bell’s predecessor had a very hard time with the Hungarian government, asked her what she would do differently. Unfortunately Bell had no answer to this question. And then came the final blow. McCain wanted to know what the strategic interest of the United States is in Hungary? It looked as if Ms Bell didn’t even understand the question.

Colleen Bell graduated with high honors from Sweet Briar College, majoring in political science and economics, and spent a year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Presumably she’s not stupid. So, the only thing I can think of is that she was not well prepared by the State Department. One had the feeling that the only thing she knows about Hungarian politics is what is in her written statement. But she had 123 days to prepare for this hearing and her future duties as ambassador to Hungary. She didn’t seem to have been a diligent student.

Ms Bell’s performance wasn’t the worst of the three, but there is no question that her post is the most difficult one. Norway and Ireland are democratic countries where the ambassador’s job will be a great deal less stressful than that of the US ambassador to Hungary. Let’s hope that Ms Bell will learn fast and will be able to be tough as Senator Cardin suggested. Because this is the only way with Viktor Orbán.

New American ambassador in Budapest

I will devote today’s post to U.S.-Hungarian relations. At last the White House appointed a new ambassador to replace Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, whose tenure as U.S. ambassador to Hungary came to an end in July.

I devoted at least three posts to her less than sterling ambassadorship. In passing I also talked about her predecessor, April H. Foley, who was totally under the spell of Viktor Orbán and János Martonyi and hence had a very bad relationship with the socialist-liberal Hungarian government.  These two as well as their predecessors were so-called political appointees with no prior experience in diplomacy and no prior knowledge of the country in which they served. In September I introduced Colleen Bell, the producer of a very successful daytime soap, as the possible next U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And indeed, it is official: Ms Bell will soon be in Budapest. Right now, I’m certain, she is being prepped by the officials of the State Department. I can well imagine how difficult it must be to cram all the basic information about the past and present of a country one most likely knew nothing about a couple of months ago. I mean that in all sincerity. Of course, she will have a large staff of professionals who will help her along, but it still won’t be easy.

I wonder whether she is fully aware of the depth of the strained relations between Washington and Budapest, which hit a new low two days ago, exactly when Bell was appointed ambassador. The U.S. embassy in Budapest published the following press release:

The United States strongly condemns the shameful event organized by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism, to unveil a bust honoring Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader during World War II, at the entrance to the Hungarian Reformed Church at the edge of Szabadsag ter in Budapest on November 3.  Those who organized and participated in the event, including members of Hungary’s Parliament, promoted not only their own intolerance, but also a dramatically negative image of Hungary.  Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers’ views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary’s highest ranking leaders.

Seasoned reporters don’t remember such a strongly worded communiqué from the United States government in the longest time. In this press release the U.S. is calling on Viktor Orbán himself to condemn what happened on Szabadság tér. For the time being we haven’t heard anything from either Viktor Orbán or his deputies Tibor Navracsics and Zsolt Semjén. I am expecting an official silence, which will further strain the relations between the two countries.

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest Source: commons.wikipedia.org

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest
Source: commons.wikipedia.org

Of course, we all know that the warning comes straight from the State Department. Perhaps with the change of personnel that occurred after John Kerry took over the post of secretary of state, the State Department decided to be tougher on the Orbán government than it had been in the last three years. Perhaps they began to realize in Washington that the Orbán team doesn’t understand the polite language of diplomacy. One must be plain spoken and hard hitting with the man. As an old acquaintance of Orbán said, the Hungarian prime minister is basically a bellicose coward who when meeting strong resolve and firm resistance on the other side usually retreats. At least temporarily.

Gábor Horváth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, wrote an editorial in today’s paper in which he expressed his sympathy for the incoming ambassador who might not be aware of the difficulties she will face in Budapest. Horváth for a number of years was the paper’s correspondent in Washington, and therefore he is thoroughly familiar with the Washington scene. In his opinion, the millions of dollars the Hungarian government is spending in Washington are a total waste: the Orbán government’s reputation is irreparably ruined due to Viktor Orbán’s policies and behavior. And the government does indeed spend a lot of money lobbying “in Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” For details on the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, see politics.hu’s exclusive by Lili Bayer.

Horváth thinks that the ambassador will have difficulties establishing a cordial relationship with the Hungarian government. I agree with him, with one correction. She will have no difficulty establishing a working relationship with János Martonyi, the minister of foreign affairs, but that will not take her very far. Martonyi will assure her that everything is just fine and dandy and that what she and her staff see is not really so. But all this means nothing because the conduct of foreign policy is not in the hands of Martonyi. The semi-official organ of the government, Magyar Nemzet, only today accused the United States of spying on Viktor Orbán and his government in order to pass on information to the socialist-liberal opposition. So, this is where we stand. I hope the new ambassador will understand the workings of the Hungarian government because otherwise she will be truly lost.

Another political appointee as U.S. ambassador to Hungary?

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.

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary / Source: www.welovesoaps.com

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary. Source: http://www.welovesoaps.com

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.