George James Tsunis, the wealthy New York businessman tapped to be the next US ambassador to Norway, has reportedly told Norway’s TV2 that he regrets remarks he made at his US Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month that showed him to be ignorant of the country where he was being sent.
TV2 visited the 46-year-old Tsunis at his home in New York. Even though he’s restricted from speaking to media during the confirmation process, TV2 reported that Tsunis said he’s sorry about his highly controversial statements under questioning.
His off-the-cuff remarks, made after Tsunis had read aloud from a prepared text that exalted Norway and its relations with the US, included references to a “president” in Norway, which instead is led by a prime minister. Tsunis sparked the most criticism, though, when he also referred to Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) as a “fringe element” that was “spewing its hatred” but had been “quickly denounced” by the government. The party is in fact arguably far more liberal than the US Democrats of which Tsunis is allied, it won 16.3 percent of the vote in the last election and is now part of Norway’s new government coalition led by the Conservatives.
Progress Party officials were furious over Tsunis’ comments, calling them inaccurate and offensive, and demanded an apology. Party leader Siv Jensen, who now serves as Norway’s finance minister, later told news bureau NTB that she took it for granted that an ambassador sent to Norway would have read up on the country and “thoroughly” examined Norwegian relations. “I think that anyone appointed as a new ambassador to Norway should have learned what kind of state and government we have,” Jensen said. “It would have been an advantage, for example, if he knew we have a monarchy, also which parties sit in the government.”
Progress Party leaders later did reportedly receive an apology from staff at the US Embassy in Oslo. Tsunis, meanwhile, has had to weather the media storm that erupted after his comments both in Norway, Sweden and the US. As one commenter on this website jokingly noted, “he could have at least watched ‘Lilyhammer’ on Netflix” to prepare for his senate hearing.
TV2 reported Thursday that Tsunis said he never meant to offend anyone, and that if his nomination as US Ambassador to Norway goes through, he will ask for a meeting with the Progress Party’s leadership as soon as possible, to mend fences and correct his remarks.
Tsunis is the latest in a long string of ambassadors sent to Norway who are appointed by US presidents after they’ve donated or helped raise large amounts of money for the presidents’ campaigns. The entire system of patronage has sparked new criticism within the US, from those who feel the US should be represented abroad by professional diplomats, not personal friends or supporters of politicians in office who may have little if any diplomatic experience or knowledge of foreign affairs. Others defend the system in “friendly” countries, noting that it ensures the president has someone in place in overseas posts who will support the administration and enthusiastically represent its views.
In Tsunis’ case, he’s said to have contributed more than USD 1 million to US President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Despite his blunders and the offense he caused during his US Senate confirmation hearing, he was still expected to be confirmed, as were a few other ambassador nominees who also ran into trouble under questioning from Republican senators in opposition.