Ambassador Timken: Neither Coup nor Catastrophe

Atlantic Review recently asked for my opinion of the performance of William Timken, Jr. as U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Thanks for asking; here’s my take.

First, let me say I have nothing against Ambassador Timken; I’m sure he’s a decent human being who’s doing his best. His appointment, however, was a minor slap in the face to Germany.

Historically, U.S. Presidents name two kinds of Ambassadors. For inconsequential-but-pleasant countries like Costa Rica or Luxembourg, the nominations go to the President’s political allies or to financial supporters. All Presidents do this, regardless of party; recall the controversy a few years ago when President Clinton nominated an openly gay man (and extremely wealthy Democratic donor) to be Ambassador to Luxembourg.

When it comes to important countries — close allies of the U.S., or nations located in strategic areas — ambassadorships almost invariably go to career diplomats or important political figures. Even if the President doesn’t pick a diplomat,  he’ll usually pick someone who knows the language and has extensive regional ties, or someone who’s got plenty of political clout. Until 2005, Germany was, of course, considered one of these "big-time" countries. Both Democratic and Republican Presidents nominated U.S. Ambassadors who had extensive public-service or diplomatic pedigrees before they were named Ambassadors. People like Robert Kimitt, Vernon Walters, Richard Holbrooke, and Dan Coats.

Timken has neither a public-service nor a diplomatic background. He doesn’t speak German, and doesn’t have any notable ties to Germany (although he is an honorary citizen of Colmar, France). His ancestors came from Germany, but over 50 million other Americans can say the same thing. However, Timken had other impressive qualifications:

Timken and his immediate family made $568,239 in federal political contributions during the 2000, 2002 and 2004 election cycles. Of that total, $12,000 went directly to the Bush campaigns and another $100,000 went to the first Bush inaugural committee. Separately, Timken’s company directed $250,000 to the president’s second inaugural committee. Timken also served as finance co-chair of the president’s re-election effort in Ohio and was listed as a Bush Ranger for the 2004 campaign, a title given to those who raised more than $200,000 for the president.

Thus, Bush officially demoted Germany to the rank of nations who were entitled to "no more" than a wealthy political donor as their U.S. Ambassador. Germany noticed.

However, it’s not all dark and gloomy. Some German diplomats say — tongue no doubt planted firmly in cheek — that Timken’s appointment is good for Germany’s image. Being an Ambassador in Bonn, Germany’s capital until 1999, was so boring only policy wonks could stand it. Timken’s appointment shows that Germany’s new capital, Berlin, is exciting enough for wealthy "hobby diplomats." Here, the center-right political magazine Cicero argues (G) that Timken’s appointment is actually a good sign, since there’s no question that close White House confidante "Tim" has Bush’s ear.

Does this all really matter? Probably not. I’m sure the career foreign-service staff has done what bureaucrats always do when a non-specialist is appointed to lead them; they’ve gone into "Yes, Prime Minister" mode. They’ll drill Timken on a few important sound-bites, keep him away from occasions during which a big misstep might make headlines, and encourage him to concentrate on the things he knows best, like business. There’s zero chance of him changing German attitudes toward the United States anyway, even if he could speak German. Those attitudes are driven by dislike of Bush, and by American foreign policy. Neither of those two factors are going to change much in the next two and a half years.

There are, of course, hundreds of career U.S. diplomats stationed in Germany who speak fluent German. I can’t read minds, so I don’t know exactly why we haven’t seen them defending U.S. policies. However, from conversations I’ve had with a few of them, I would guess it’s probably because many disagree with those policies and would not be able to make a credible case for them. (Not that they’ve told me this in so many words, of course — I don’t want to get anyone in trouble here.) As one career foreign service officer wrote (anonymously, and perhaps self-servingly) in 2004, "Not since Vietnam…has the U.S. diplomatic establishment viewed the future with such a degree of alarm." This reticence is hardly surprising, since even among neo-conservatives, the number of people who still agree with policy decisions such as the invasion of Iraq can seemingly be counted on one hand. It’s the policies, not the packaging. As George W. might say himself, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

So let Ambassador Timken do what he does best — forge business ties, say nice things about Germany, and project the image of America as the can-do land of unlimited opportunity. In two-and-a-half years, there’ll be a chance to actually begin rebuilding America’s reputation. Unless, that is, Americans elect John McCain.

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