‘He’s a punchline’: ‘laughable’ pick for Greece envoy puts pressure on Biden

By David Smith in Washington
A woman walks in front of the US Embassy in Athens, Greece.
A woman walks in front of the US Embassy in Athens, Greece. Photograph: Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Joe Biden has styled himself as a defender of democracy but, critics say, is setting the worst possible example with his choice of envoy to Athens.

The US president nominated George Tsunis, a hotel developer and Democratic donor with no diplomatic experience, as US ambassador to Greece.

When Tsunis seeks confirmation at a Senate foreign relations committee hearing on Wednesday, he will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the train wreck that was his last appearance there eight years ago.

On that occasion Tsunis was Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Norway. Bumbling and ill-prepared, he admitted that he had never been to Norway and referred to the country as having a president when, as a constitutional monarchy, it does not.

Tsunis also claimed that Norway’s Progress party was among “fringe elements” that “spew their hatred” and was criticized by Norway’s government. In fact, the Progress party was part of the governing coalition.

The hapless nominee withdrew from consideration after causing dismay among Norwegian Americans and earning ridicule on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Now he is getting a do-over that, critics maintain, he does not deserve.

Brett Bruen, who was global engagement director of the Obama White House and recalls Tsunis’s first foray as a “debacle” in which he was “torn to shreds” by Senator John McCain, said: “The notion that he gets a second chance just utterly shocks me because in serious circles of international affairs he’s a punchline.

“So why in the world would you send someone to a significant country like Greece – at a dangerous time – to represent us there who in the eyes of most foreign policy hands can’t keep some fundamental facts straight and does not deserve to be ambassador to Ulaanbaatar, let alone Athens?”

A lawyer, developer and philanthropist, Tsunis has donated to both Democrats and Republicans, including more than $1.3m to Obama in 2012.

His nomination for the post in Greece maintains a controversial American practice of naming political donors with little or no diplomatic experience as ambassadors. There is said to be disappointment in the state department that Biden, who promised to elevate career diplomats, has chosen a majority of political appointees in his first year in office.

Bruen, now president the public affairs agency Global Situation Room, added: “Tsunis is likely the worst nominee that Biden has put forward and there’s some stiff competition because Biden has ignored the advice and the concerns of those with diplomatic experience, saying now is not the time to be doling out party favours to your donors.

“We need to have serious seasoned leadership in our embassies overseas. The whole nomination process reeks of backroom deals and favour trading but this is what Biden said he was going to clean up.”

Last month, when Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, admitted on Twitter that he would rather be serving in government than tweeting, Bruen replied: “Something’s seriously wrong with Biden’s selection process when those with absolutely no diplomatic experience are leading large embassies and seasoned ambassadors are sitting on the sidelines, ready to serve …”

Tsunis, a Greek American born in Queens, New York, founded Chartwell Hotels and chairs the Battery Park City Authority, which manages a 92-acre planned development on Manhattan’s lower west side. The White House has defended his nomination, noting that Tsunis is fluent in Greek, involved in Greek American organizations and has travelled to Greece many times.

An administration official said: “We believe Mr Tsunis is well-suited for this position and the Senate should confirm quickly so he can get started on the important work to be done.”

But Chas Freeman, a retired career diplomat and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Reuters news agency last year: “Aside from his Greek heritage, there is no reason to believe he is any more qualified to represent the United States in Athens than he was in Oslo.

“Our embassy in Athens should not be treated as a sinecure to be purchased in return for campaign contributions or as a training ground for novice diplomats, still less incompetent amateurs.”

Biden pledged to rebuild the state department and help diplomacy recover from the turmoil of Donald Trump’s presidency. But Senate Republicans have stalled the confirmation process in an effort to extract policy and personnel concessions from the White House, leaving many crucial posts unfilled.

When the questioning begins, Tsunis will be under considerable pressure to avoid the stumbles that made his first hearing in 2014 a subject of widespread mockery.

Dennis Jett, a professor at the Penn State School of International Affairs in Pennsylvania, said: “It was the most pathetic hearing performance I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t even answer a softball asking what would American businessmen do in Norway?

“And then the fact that he didn’t know anything about the Norwegian government, didn’t know anything about the political parties involved, which McCain pointed out. It was just awful. I think his qualifications are laughable.

“Somehow we in the United States have this impression that anybody who’s a successful money-grubbing businessman can be a first-class ambassador or an acceptable ambassador. It’s laughable. It’s been demonstrated over and over again that these people don’t know anything about government.”

Jett, a former US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru and author of the book American Ambassadors, shares concerns over the diplomatic positions being subject to a pay-to-play system. “We’re the only country in the world that has an open market for selling the title of ambassador,” he added.


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