New ambassador stumbles at the start

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As Norwegian media put it, the wealthy Greek-American businessman who’s been nominated to be the next US ambassador to Norway “tråkket i salaten” (trampled through the salad bowl) at his recent US Senate confirmation hearing. George J Tsunis’ confusion over Norway’s form of government and who’s actually in it was sparking reaction in Norway on Thursday.

George J Tsunis had a rough time during his US Senate confirmation hearing to be the US' next ambassador to Norway. PHOTO: US Senate

George J Tsunis had a rough time during his US Senate confirmation hearing to be the US’ next ambassador to Norway. PHOTO: US Senate

“The nomination (of Tsunis) is nothing less than an insult against Norway,” wrote one Norwegian taking part in online debate on document.no (external link, in Norwegian), the website that first brought news of Tsunis’ confirmation hearing. “This makes it clear that the US  kisses up to its enemies while it’s condescending towards its friends.”

“What are you sending us?” asked another Norwegian joining the debate on the website allgov.com (external link). “Highly embarrassing to watch the hearing. I must say the best part was John McCain’s final comment.” That’s when McCain, who had brought to light Tsunis’ lack of familiarity with Norway, ended the hearing of nominated ambassadors by sarcastically commenting that he had no further questions for the “incredibly highly qualified” nominees he’d just grilled.

It probably didn’t help Tsunis that McCain, a former presidential candidate for the Republican Party who lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama, was in a position to ask him questions at the hearing conducted by the senate’s foreign relations committee. (external link to newspaper Aftenposten, in Norwegian). Tsunis used to be a Republican and supported McCain’s bid but later switched sides, became a Democrat and financially supported Obama’s re-election bid. That sort of support is often rewarded with ambassador posts to countries that are solid US allies and not particularly controversial. Most all the US ambassadors sent to Norway are political appointments, not career diplomats.

Offensive blunders
Some commentators in Norway were noting that Tsunis’ lack of diplomatic experience and lack of familiarity with Norway were likely to blame for his embarrassing, even offensive blunders during his confirmation hearing. Asked to explain how an “anti-immigration” party like the Progress Party (Fremkrittspartiet, Frp) fared as it did during the last parliamentary elections, Tsunis responded that there are “fringe elements” that can “spew hatred,” but the Norwegians are quick to “denounce” them. That’s when McCain pounced, noting that the Progress Party won government power, not exactly a sign of denunciation.

RELATED STORY: Progress party seeks apology for ambassador’s flub

“I stand corrected,” Tsunis said, fumbling for a while before saying that he rather wanted to respond that Norway is “a very, very open society” and that an “overwhelming majority” of Norwegians are not anti-immigration. He had, however, already offended one of the members of Norway’s new conservative government coalition. Questions also were rising on Norwegian debate sites as to why even McCain chose to characterize the Progress Party as “anti-immigrant” when it’s often considered to be the Norwegian political party most closely resembling both the Republicans and Democrats in the US, along with being the most pro-American in Norway.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported that at another point, Tsunis mistakenly referred to a “president” in Norway, confusing Norway’s form of government as a republic instead of the constitutional monarchy that it is, with a prime minister as head of government. He admitted that he’s never visited Norway but stressed in his own opening testimony that he was “honored and humbled” to appear before the committee as Obama’s ambassador nominee. “I thank the President for his trust and confidence in me,” he said.

Prepared testimony full of praise for Norway
He also thanked his parents, who were immigrants themselves in the US, “seeking to build a better life for their family.” Tsunis claimed it was their sacrifices and principles of hard work that made it possible for him to attend college and law school, after which he worked in government, for a small law firm, eventually as a partner in a bigger one and then went into business, eventually founding Chartwell Hotels on the US’ East Coast. That has also taught him, he said, the importance of global business and trade.

“If I am confirmed, I will draw on this experience to make the best case for my country, cognizant that I will be working with a terrific American and Norwegian team at Embassy Oslo,” Tsunis said. He also claimed a “strong interest in foreign and economic affairs.”

Tsunis’ testimony included references to the US’ “strong bilateral ties with Norway, in large part because we share a commitment to promoting human rights, democracy, and freedom throughout the world.” He called Norway a “pro-active, global peace-builder and for a country of just 5 million people, its influence and reputation in the international community far surpasses its size.” He also called Norway “a generous contributor to international development and humanitarian relief efforts, a strong partner on environmental matters, a leader in the area of global climate change” and “a reliable ally.” If confirmed, he said  he will “work to preserve and expand this invaluable partnership with Norway.”

It was under the questioning that Tsunis stumbled, but he was still expected to be confirmed as ambassador. “You have to give him credit for being honest at some parts of the hearing,” wrote commentator John Hansen on allgov.com. “But the total impression was very poor. I do not understand why the US sends a ‘bullshit-talker’ to Norway.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund