Norwegian-Americans lead protests against ambassador’s nomination

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Opposition is growing to US President Barack Obama’s nomination of George James Tsunis as the next US ambassador to Norway. Some leaders of the large Norwegian-American population in the US are now calling Tsunis “damaged goods,” and a petition is circulating that also calls for the US Senate to reject his nomination if Obama fails to withdraw it.

Tsunis, a wealthy businessman from New York who raised campaign funds for Obama, set off howls of protest and ridicule on both sides of the Atlantic after he stumbled badly under questioning at his US Senate confirmation hearing last month. Tsunis was being grilled by US Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama for the presidency in 2008 and had Tsunis’ support at the time.

Tsunis’ blunders, including his reference to Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) as a “fringe element” that can “spew their hatred” when in fact it’s a member of the country’s new conservative government coalition, surprised both the left and right in Norway and sparked demands for an apology from Tsunis. Others claimed that Tsunis displayed ignorance about the country to which he was being sent as US envoy, while some defenders think he simply misspoke.

Nomination under severe pressure
He eventually indicated that he regretted his remarks and Tsunis’ nomination was forwarded to the full US Senate for confirmation, but only after an unusual roll-call vote and under dissent. There it sits, and now the pressure is growing on Obama either to withdraw it, or for senators themselves to reject it, which is something that almost never happens. Tsunis’ nomination is known as a “political appointment,” commonly made by US presidents who wish to reward major campaign supporters with prestigious ambassadorial posts in friendly countries. Most if not all of the ambassadors sent to Norway over the years have been political appointments, not career diplomats.

Among the most vocal opponents of Tsunis’ nomination to emerge recently is T Michael Davis, a Minnesota lawyer described as a longtime member of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce and a former chairman of the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce in Minnesota, home of tens of thousands of Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants. In a commentary in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Davis argued that Obama’s “selection for ambassador to Norway cannot stand.” His commentary, published earlier this month, was also signed by former presidents of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce and the large Norwegian-American organization Sons of Norway International, along with Bruce Gjovig, chairman of the Nordic Initiative at the University of North Dakota.

‘Irreparably damaged goods’
Davis and his backers called Tsunis “irreparably damaged goods … who will not be respected within the Norwegian government, let alone among ordinary Norwegians.” He wrote that Tsunis’ lack of judgment and background about Norway, along with the fallout his remarks have caused, “is so egregious that Minnesota’s and the nation’s Nordic communities, led by Norwegian-Americans here (in Minnesota), are doing what they rarely do: asking for help.” They’ve asked Minnesota’s two US senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken from Obama’s Democratic Party, and their colleagues “for bipartisan solidarity over and above political loyalties.”

Davis argued that if Tsunis is confirmed as ambassador to Norway, he “would become little more than expensive window-dressing for however long he would remain in Oslo, leaving him hindered in the roles of diplomacy that really matter.” Davis warned that since Norway is “an important member of NATO, a top oil producer and reliable trading partner, the appointment, especially for Norwegian-Americans, would have grave, destructive and long-lasting consequences.”

Intense lobbying against Tsunis
Others have followed up on Davis’ published objections (external link) on behalf of the Norwegian-American community, with the website MinnPost calling Minnesota “a natural place” to raise the movement against Tsunis, since it has the largest Norwegian-American population in the US. Many Scandinavian-Americans also tend to side with the Republicans on political matters, but Davis stresses the campaign against Obama’s choice is a bipartisan effort.

“We want the American citizens to have a qualified ambassador in Oslo, and we want the government in Oslo to be dealing with a qualified ambassador,” Davis told MinnPost on Friday (external link). “This is just basic common sense.” MinnPost reported that in addition to writing their commentary in the Star-Tribune, Davis and several other leading Norwegian-Americans have appealed directly to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough along with Minnesota’s two Democratic senators, Franken and Klobuchar, who can vote on Tsunis’ confirmation. Members of the so-called Norway Caucus in the US House of Representatives have also been approached, and say they share the concerns about Tsunis’ nomination.

A petition directed at US Senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican, is also circulating on the website change.org (external link). It’s been signed by opponents to the nomination in both the US and Norway.

‘Lost credibility’
Gjovig, of the University of North Dakota, said he’s also lobbied his state’s top politicians in Washington as have Nordic community leaders in the states of Wisconsin and Iowa. Tsunis, Gjovig told MinnPost, has “lost credibility with the people of Norway right from the get-go with his comments during his hearing,” Gjovig said. “You don’t get that credibility back very easily.”

Senator Al Franken. meanwhile, admitted he has “very serious concerns about whether he (Tsunis) is up for the job.” Klobuchar has also said she has “significant concerns” about the nomination and that she would be speaking with members of the Norwegian-American community to discuss them “in the coming weeks.”

That indicates the nomination itself may be stalled in the Senate. It remained unclear when the nomination may come up for a vote. A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Oslo said on Monday that embassy officials had nothing new to add on the confirmation process and that “we don’t know” when a vote might take place. Tsunis himself has stated that he’s barred from commenting on his nomination while its evaluation is underway.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund