Irksome in Iceland, brusque in Britain? US envoys draw ire

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Iceland's president Guni Th. Jhannesson waves as he gets into a car following his inauguration in Reykjavik, Iceland Saturday Aug. 1, 2020. In Iceland, a nation so safe that its president runs errands on a bicycle, U.S. Ambassador Jeffery Ross Gunter has left locals aghast with his request to hire armed bodyguards. He's also enraged lawmakers by casually and groundlessly hitching Iceland to President Donald Trump's controversial "China virus label for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/rni Torfason)

REYKJAVIK – In Iceland, a nation so safe its president runs errands on a bicycle, U.S. Ambassador Jeffery Ross Gunter has left locals aghast with his request to hire armed bodyguards.

Gunter has also enraged lawmakers by casually and groundlessly hitching Iceland to President Donald Trump's controversial "China virus” label for the coronavirus.

Not particularly diplomatic? Well, Gunter is hardly a diplomat by training. He’s a dermatologist. But he's also a contributor to Trump’s campaign, and that landed him the post in Reykjavik.

Gunter's actions, and those of other politically connected U.S. ambassadors, highlight the risks that come with the peculiarly American institution of handing coveted diplomatic postings to campaign donors and presidential friends who have few other qualifications. The practice has increased under Trump.

“America is an extreme outlier in sending inexperienced and unqualified ambassadors,” said Barbara Stephenson, a former career foreign service officer, ambassador to Panama and ex-president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.

Presidential political supporters can make fine diplomats, and many have. A personal relationship with the president and understanding of his agenda can be an advantage. And those clearly unfit are expected to be weeded out through the Senate confirmation process. But still, some arrive in their embassies lacking the ability to sidestep controversy.

In Britain, Ambassador Robert “Woody” Johnson faces accusations he tried to steer golf's British Open toward a Trump resort in Scotland and made racist and sexist comments.

In the Netherlands last week, Ambassador Peter Hoekstra, a former congressman, posted a photograph of himself visiting a cemetery for German soldiers killed during the two World Wars, including Nazi troops who occupied the country. Other ambassadors are running roughshod over their more experienced but less senior diplomatic staff.