Rivkin cited three main areas where political appointees have an advantage over career diplomats. First, "they have a relationship with the White House."
Second, they tend to bring innovation and are more willing to challenge the bureaucracy and "fight institutional lethargy," because they are not afraid of
wrecking their careers. Third, they usually have extensive management and leadership experience.
That is certainly a description of the perfect political ambassador, and it possibly applies to Rivkin and a few others, such as Clark (Sandy) Randt,
President George W. Bush's ambassador to China for whom former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had high praise. President "Hu Jintao
once told me that Sandy knew more Chinese people than Hu Jintao did," Rice said of Randt, who is a fluent Mandarin speaker.
However, not all political ambassadors have a direct line to the White House, and even if they do, they rarely use it. While those with executive business
background are usually good managers, there are others who are not. As for innovation, that depends on the individual. Another common argument in favor of
political ambassadorships is that those wealthy Americans can help underfunded embassies by paying for parties and other events, which might not be
possible otherwise. That, however, raises the more important question of whether Washington's national security priorities are in the right place if it
relies on private citizens to bankroll its diplomacy.
Among the political ambassadors considered successful, though not perfect, in recent years, are Tom Schieffer, whom Bush sent to Australia and then Japan,
and Howard Baker, Schieffer's predecessor in Tokyo. Neither of them spoke Japanese. Schieffer had long business and management experience and was a close
friend of Bush's. Baker, a former Senate majority leader and chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, had superb understanding of how Washington works,
which is one of the main deficiencies of the Foreign Service, whose work takes place mainly overseas. Other Bush ambassadors, however, "didn't work out,
and we had to fire them," Powell told me after leaving office in 2005, without naming names.
Obama's appointments have also been a mixed bag, career diplomats said. Cynthia Stroum, a former investor in start-up companies, was forced to resign as
ambassador to Luxembourg in early 2011 after just 11 months in the job, following a scathing report of her tenure by the Office of the Inspector-General.
"Most employees describe the ambassador as aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating, which has resulted in an extremely difficult, unhappy and
uncertain work environment," the report said. "The bulk of the mission's internal problems are linked to her leadership deficiencies, the most damaging of
which is an abusive management style." Things got so bad that "most of the senior staff, including two deputy chiefs of mission and two section chiefs,
have either curtailed or volunteered for service in Kabul and Baghdad."