Uff da! Obama's misguided pick for Norway

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2014 - 6:10 PM

Our ally deserves better than clueless diplomatic nominee Tsunis.

Expecting President Obama’s nominee for the post of U.S. ambassador to Norway to profess a love of lutefisk during a Senate confirmation would have been setting the bar too high.

But expecting the nominee to avoid insulting one of the Scandinavian nation’s largest political parties? Or to speak coherently about expanding trade between the United States and this valuable, energy-rich northern European ally?

That wasn’t asking too much. Yet the nominee, New York hotel magnate George Tsunis, couldn’t even manage that when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year as part of his confirmation proceedings. His mumbling and fumbling were embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch.

Did the guy even bother to read Norway’s Wikipedia page before appearing before the congressional panel? It wasn’t clear. The hearing was such a fiasco that you didn’t have be a Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent to have this reaction: Uff da!

Despite this, Tsunis is still on track to be the nation’s emissary to Norway, with only a looming Senate floor vote between him and the move to Oslo, which may mark the first time he’ll set foot in the fjord-filled country.

He shouldn’t get the job. Obama needs to recognize that Tsunis’ disastrous performance damaged the nominee’s credibility beyond repair and withdraw the nomination.

If Obama won’t tell Tsunis, a big-time political donation bundler, that he can’t have this post, then Tsunis needs to step up and withdraw from consideration. The video of his committee hearing went viral, and Tsunis deserved the national mockery that ensued. Acknowledging this fiasco and doing the right thing would help Tsunis rebuild his personal reputation.

On paper, he looks like a dynamic leader. He’s the chief executive officer and founder of Chartwell Hotels, which “owns, develops and manages Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states,’’ according to his corporate bio.

He has served previously as the New York City Council’s legislative attorney, is a member of the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Leadership Committee and has received high honors for his service within the Greek Orthodox Church.

Why this successful businessman didn’t bother to bone up on Norway before testifying before a congressional panel is a mystery. Although there’s a long tradition in both parties of rewarding big donors with prestigious ambassadorial posts, Tsunis’ nomination marks a new low and is a reminder of what a lousy practice this is. Tsunis should be savvy enough to know that the best thing for his country would be to make a gracious exit.

Given this state’s strong Scandinavian heritage, it’s understandable that Minnesotans are leading the charge against Tsunis’ confirmation. Shortly after the hearing, a Star Tribune commentary by T. Michael Davis, a member of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce-Minnesota, slammed the nominee.

Davis was understandably appalled by Tsunis’ characterization of Norway’s third-largest political party as a “fringe element” that “spews hatred.’’ The Progress Party, the Fremskrittspartiet, is in reality part of the nation’s governing coalition. One of its members is Norway’s finance minister.

Davis also pointed out just how high-profile the mistakes were. Norway’s press took full note of Tsunis’ floundering. There also has been a high-profile demand from policymakers for an apology from Obama. Tsunis “will not be respected within the Norwegian government, let alone by ordinary Norwegians,’’ Davis wrote. The commentary was also signed by Ivar Sorensen, John M. Lund and Bruce Gjovig — three other Midwest champions of Norwegian ties and heritage.

Minnesota’s Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken admirably have stepped up and said they will oppose the nomination when it comes up for a floor vote. Republican Sen. John McCain also has said he’ll oppose Tsunis. It was under McCain’s questioning that Tsunis made his hearing flub about the Progress Party.

Thanks to decades of strong relations between the United States and Norway — not to mention an abundance of names like Lund and Sorensen — it’s unlikely that a Tsunis confirmation would irrevocably damage the two nations’ ties. But there’s no need to send someone to Norway who’s become a diplomatic blunder before even becoming a diplomat.

Tsunis shouldn’t be confirmed, and Obama would do well to start his search for a new nominee among the knowledgeable, lutefisk-loving ranks of Minnesotans who could serve ably and honorably.

  • Franken’s take

    “Mr. Tsunis’ credibility has been so damaged that it’s become clear that he cannot serve as an effective ambassador to Norway, and his confirmation could harm our relationship with a country that Minnesotans care deeply about. That’s why I oppose his nomination.”

    Minnesota SEN. AL FRANKEN

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