A bizarre incident occurred on Capitol Hill during the confirmation hearing of Noah Mamet, the Obama administration’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Argentina. During a grilling by members of the Foreign Relations Committee, including New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, it came out — via a question from Rubio that quickly madeits way into viral stardom— that the would-be ambassador had never been to Argentina.
Mamet is not a diplomat (like most ambassadorial appointees) but rather a long-time supporter of the Democratic Party. Mamet raised a reportedhalf a million dollarsfor President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and critics are calling the ambassadorial post his reward. The blunder sparked off a minor domestic firestorm, with opponents of the president attacking him for cronyism and questioning his foreign-policy chops. BySlate’s reckoning, Mamet is not alone in being a bundler with a prestige ambassadorial appointment — 23 have made it into the diplomatic corps so far since the start of Obama’s first term. True, Obama is not the first leader who has nominated individuals to diplomatic posts as a reward. Nevertheless, anABC commentaryhighlights that he has “has rewarded political supporters with plum ambassadorships more than his predecessors. So far, 37 percent of Obama’s appointments have been political, compared to 30 percent under George W. Bush and 28 percent under Bill Clinton.”
The domestic politicking around this gaffe is entertaining, but it’s at the international level that the incident with Mamet becomes interesting. The Argentine government does not seem concerned at his lack of direct experience of Argentina. They are reserving their ire for Marco Rubio who, as an addendum to his criticisms of Mamet, slammed the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for leaning in an “anti-democratic direction”.Jorge Capitanich, Chief of Cabinet of Ministers, stated that “Argentina enjoys a full democracy” and also is “a paradigm of freedom of expression. Everyone expresses their opinion.” Meanwhile,Minister of Foreign Affairs Hector Timermandeclared that “these two senators have been widely critiqued for their extremist policies” in reference to Rubio and Menendez.
Which suggests the discussion regarding Mamet’s nomination needs to focus on what is important: the future of U.S.-Argentina relations.
And the clock is ticking, here. The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Argentina since July 2013, when Ambassador Vilma Martinez completed a four-year term. The interim head of the embassy is theDeputy Chief of Mission, Kevin Sullivan. While there is no reason to doubt Sullivan’s qualifications for his post, Washington sends the wrong message to Buenos Aires by waiting over half a year to appoint an ambassador. So the quicker they can get a body in that seat, the better — be it Mamet or no. But if Mamet is indeed confirmed as ambassador to Argentina, he must become proficient on two critically important U.S. policy stances vis-à-vis Argentina. First is the future of Argentina’s debt to international lenders. During the nomination hearingMamet stated thatif he becomes ambassador, he would pressure Buenos Aires to pay its debt with the Paris Club and private creditors (the infamousvulture funds) — a move that will not sit well the Kirchner government. The other issue to keep in mind in relation to Buenos Aires is the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas. Washington’s neutral (but pro-British) stance regarding the control of the islands has been critiqued by the Argentine government. Mamet will need to learn how to walk that delicate line if he’s going to be an effective emissary.
Whoever steps into Martinez’s shoes will face a monumental task: rebuilding U.S. ties with the Kirchner government. Sniping across the political aisles in the U.S. Congress is only going to hinder that.