Obama Picks Crony As U.K. Ambassador

The Obama administration may well end cronyism, as promised. It may well usher in a long-called for change in the way America's senior representatives in foreign countries are chosen. But it hasn't yet.

According to Britain's newspapers, Mr. Obama has picked former Citigroup vice-president and Democratic uber-fundraiser Louis Susman as the next Ambassador to the United Kingdom. (Susman, then a member of the St. Louis Cardinals executive board, is seen below in a 1985 file photo holding up the National League Championship trophy.)

(AP Photo )

Susman is a lawyer and investment banker by trade who has no real diplomatic experience. He is, instead, a member of the elite inner circle of Chicago power-brokers who helped propel Mr. Obama into office. He's been nicknamed the Vacuum Cleaner for his ability to suck up donations for Democratic politicians.

Now, is that so bad? The ambassadorship to the U.K. has long-been one of those plum political appointments that carries a grand title (United States Ambassador to the Royal Court of St. James), an incredibly posh lifestyle, but very little political responsibility.

George W. Bush first placed a Texas billionaire and then a California billionaire in Winfield House — the ambassador's official residence in the heart of central London, located adjacent to the picturesque Regent's Park. Neither of them had real diplomatic credentials, either.

But this time, the Brits are a bit miffed. The naming of another ambassador who, in the words of The Guardian, is a political appointee likely "more interested in country walks than Iraq or nuclear non-proliferation," may well be viewed by many in Britain's halls of power as a snub.

If it wasn't for Mr. Obama's campaign promises to end cronyism, and published calls from retired life-long diplomats for the new President to start a trend of choosing actual diplomats as ambassadors, then the choice of Susman may have been largely overlooked.

In an April 8 article, the Washington Post's Al Kamen warned that, despite having indicated a will to limit the number "vanity" or "cash-only" ambassadors, the buzz was that the Obama administration was looking to keep the practice going. According to the article, about 30 percent of the 160 or so envoy positions are usually political picks, while the rest go to career diplomats.

However, the latest chapter in the much trumpeted "special relationship" between the U.S. and the U.K. has been given a rocky start, with an awkward first meeting of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Mr. Obama in Washington following a leaked remark by a British diplomat describing the American leader as "aloof".

The bust of Winston Churchill was removed from pride of place in the White House, and several small token gifts from the American administration to Britain's leaders have been deemed… well, a bit too small.

Washington will inevitably tout Susman as the perfect American to purvey our country's interests in Britain, and London's elite will inevitably deny (on the record, at least) even the slightest feelings of resentment over his appointment.

Meanwhile, as a very good satirical article on Anorak.com put it, "Soon Susman will be living in a big house by London's Regent's Park, learning all about diplomacy as he counts the geese…"

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.