Biden’s pick for envoy to Greece panned by former diplomats

FILE PHOTO: Police secure the entrance to the U.S. embassy in Athens
FILE PHOTO: Police secure the entrance to the U.S. embassy in Athens, Greece October 5, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

October 11, 2021

By Arshad Mohammed

(Reuters) – Former U.S. diplomats criticized the choice of hotel developer George Tsunis for U.S. ambassador to Greece, saying his lack of preparation when he was nominated for U.S. ambassador to Norway in 2014 showed he was unfit to represent the United States abroad.

The U.S. practice of naming political donors with little or no diplomatic experience as ambassadors has been scorned by foreign officials for decades, and former U.S. diplomats said Tsunis’ ignorance about Norway when he testified before a Senate committee in 2014 suggested he did not deserve a second chance.

A Biden administration official said Tsunis was well-qualified to lead the embassy in Greece, stressing his fluency in Greek and involvement in Greek American organizations.

Tsunis, who has donated to many Democrats but also gives to Republicans, withdrew from consideration for Norway after being criticized by Norwegian Americans and ridiculed on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” and on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

“Some have called his 2014 confirmation hearings the most embarrassing in American history,” said Chas Freeman, a retired career diplomat, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the chief U.S. interpreter when Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and the author of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on diplomacy.

In 2014, Tsunis referred to Norway as having a president when it does not and suggested its Progress Party was among “fringe elements” that “spew their hatred” and was criticized by Norway’s government when it was part of the governing coalition.

Tsunis, a Greek American, founded Chartwell Hotels LLC and chairs the Battery Park City Authority, which manages a 92-acre planned development on Manhattan’s lower west side.

“He’s fluent in Greek and is on the board of several Hellenic organizations. There’s no question that he makes a very good fit,” the Biden administration official said on condition of anonymity, adding that Greek was Tsunis’ first language.

The official also said the president and Tsunis have known one another for two decades, first met when Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and have had extensive conversations about U.S. relations with the region.

Reached by telephone, Tsunis said he was “honored and humbled” to be nominated.

Bob Sherman, a political appointee who was ambassador to Portugal in the Obama administration and got to know Tsunis when they did State Department training for ambassadorial nominees, spoke highly of him.

“He has a first class mind. He has terrific analytical skills and he has a diplomat’s disposition,” said Sherman.

Asked about Tsunis’ 2014 hearing, Sherman replied: “He had bad day and he had a bad day on a very public stage. But this isn’t about Norway. This is about something that is deeply rooted in him, that he knows inside and out, and that’s the country of Greece, the U.S. relationship with Greece.”

If confirmed, Tsunis would be the first non-career appointee to serve as ambassador to Greece in nearly 30 years. Seven of the last eight ambassadors were career foreign service officers, while one was a civil servant.

“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,” Freeman told Reuters, saying Greek policy affects Turkey, the European Union, the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and Israel, and among other issues.

“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,” he added.

Richard Boucher, a retired career diplomat who served as a U.S. assistant secretary of state, ambassador to Cyprus, consul general in Hong Kong and the longest-serving State Department spokesman, focused on Tsunis’ lack of preparation in 2014.

“The issue is not career versus political. It’s competent versus not competent,” Boucher told Reuters.

“Not doing your homework is unforgivable and disrespectful to the U.S. Senate. Representing the United States of America is too important for on-the-job training,” he added.

Former U.S. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, who opposed Tsunis’ choice to lead the U.S. embassy in Oslo after an outcry by Norwegian Americans, was sardonic when asked about his latest nomination.

“Well, I would suspect he knows more about Greece than he did about Norway,” he said.

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis in Washington and by Andrea Shalal in Wilmington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Dan Grebler)