The Senate

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.