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President Obama used to say he wanted more career diplomats to serve as ambassadors overseas. But the State Department's professional association says that so far, he's named a higher percentage of political appointees than his predecessors. That means plum assignments for political donors. And several of his appointees have had embarrassing moments at their confirmation hearings.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Former Ambassador Ronald Neumann doesn't have anything against political appointees.

RONALD NEUMANN: My father was a political appointee.

KELEMEN: But unlike some of the donors getting jobs overseas now in the Obama administration, Neumann says his father was a professor of international relations who had traveled and written extensively about the Middle East, before serving as ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

NEUMANN: He was an enormously competent appointee who served four presidents, three embassies and two parties, which is kind of unusual. But the...

KELEMEN: So he didn't come up through the Foreign Service, as you did.

NEUMANN: No. No. And we used to joke that we came into the Foreign Service together - he at the top and I at the bottom.

KELEMEN: So Neumann, who, like his father served as ambassador to Afghanistan, tries to take an even handed approach. He says all ambassadors - whether political nominees or career diplomats - need to be held up to scrutiny.

NEUMANN: There's a law which both parties ignore about ambassadors needing to be qualified - the Foreign Service Act of 1980. And people still get through even if they're manifestly not qualified.

KELEMEN: There have been some tough confirmation hearings lately, though. The Obama administration's choice to be ambassador to Hungary, soap opera producer Colleen Bell, had a tough time explaining what U.S. interests are in Budapest. It was a question from Senator John McCain of Arizona, who also sounded perplexed when the nominee to become the ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis, called a party in that country's ruling coalition a fringe element.

GEORGE TSUNIS: Norway has been very quick to denounce them. We're going to continue to work with Norway to make sure...

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The government has denounced them? The coalition government - they're part of the coalition of the government.

TSUNIS: I would say that - you know what - I stand corrected.

KELEMEN: McCain has tweeted articles are about his exchange, saying: You can't make this up. He ended his questions with a note of irony.

MCCAIN: I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.

KELEMEN: The professional association for career diplomats keeps records on how many ambassador postings go to political appointees.

BOB SILVERMAN: After one year in the second term of the Obama administration, there are record numbers of political appointees. That's a matter of record.

KELEMEN: The president of the American Foreign Service Association, Bob Silverman, says more than half of the nominees so far in this second term are political. Recent presidents have given about a third of the postings to political appointees. At times, it's a good idea to have someone with the president's ear out in key countries around the world. But Silverman says most major powers don't do things that way.

SILVERMAN: They send U.S. career professional diplomats as ambassadors. And you might ask why they do so. And it's quite clear that those countries know that career professionals are the people most likely to further their country's interests in the United States. It's a simple matter of sending the right people to the right jobs.

KELEMEN: The American Foreign Service Association is so worried about the trends in Washington these days, that it's drawing up a list of qualifications that it believes any ambassador should have to represent America abroad. And it hopes congress and the White House will take note.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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