Since it first received diplomatic recognition in 1972, every United States ambassador to the United Arab Emirates has been a career diplomat — until now.
After nearly an 18-month delay, on Tuesday the Senate confirmed Donald Trump’s nominee — wealthy businessman and GOP megadonor John Rakolta, Jr. — to be the nation’s chief representative in Abu Dhabi.
The confirmation came on a 63-30 vote, after almost no discussion on the Senate floor. A handful of Senate Democrats and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine joined with the Republican majority in support.
Though the construction company owner has had some business partnerships with an Abu Dhabi firm, Rakolta’s main qualification for the job would appear to be that he donated $250,000 to Trump’s 2017 inauguration and helped raise funds for his transition. He has promised to recuse himself from any decisions where he has any financial conflict of interest.
While it is not the first time that a president has rewarded a financial backer with an ambassadorial post, they typically are selected for less sensitive roles than the complicated Middle East.
Rick Olson, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to the UAE from 2008 to 2011, explained in a telephone interview that all of Rakolta’s predecessors “without exception have been career foreign service officers, most of whom have had extensive experience in the Arab world.” He observed that the bilateral relationship is especially vital due to the Emirates’ status as “perhaps our best partner in the Arab world.”
Another former diplomat, James Bruno, has long objected to politicians of both parties appointing “unqualified hacks” to key posts through the “ambassadorship-for-cash” system. In an email, he lambasted the selection of Rakolta, especially given the position.
“Washington has traditionally taken the volatile Middle East very seriously in its national security planning and diplomacy. And Middle East capitals have been off limits to unqualified campaign contributors as U.S. ambassadors. Unfortunately, nothing is off limits to the Trump administration,” he wrote. “He possesses zero foreign policy experience and therefore is abjectly unfit for this position. In a tinderbox region like the Middle East, America needs its best diplomats, not rank amateurs.”
The American Foreign Service Association has long pushed for a 10% cap on the number of noncareer diplomats selected for ambassadorships. “Reducing the percentage of high-level positions filled by political appointees will help ensure that the Foreign Service can operate above the partisan fray—and always in the national interest.”
And back when he was a candidate, Trump himself promised he would not make diplomatic selections based on donations.
“I want the great negotiators negotiating our deals, I don’t want these nice people that got there because they gave political contributions,” Trump said at an August 2015 event in Greenville, South Carolina.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, has been among the most vocal opponents of Rakolta’s confirmation. At his June confirmation hearing, Menendez blasted Rakolta’s selection and others as examples of “nominees that frankly call into question with the administration is conducting any due diligence before deciding who should be entrusted with the honor of serving the American people.”
When Menendez asked Rakolta later in the hearing about concerns that the UAE is employing American mercenaries to conduct assassinations in Yemen, the nominee responded that he was unfamiliar with the issue.
In addition to being a longtime Republican bundler and donor, Rakolta is uncle by marriage to Republican National Chair Ronna McDaniel.
Published with permission of The American Independent.