Oslo’s popular mayor, Fabian Stang, said Sunday he thinks it’s about time the US sends a “professional” career diplomat to Norway as its new ambassador. Stang is not impressed with US President Barack Obama’s choice of a Greek-American contributor to his re-election campaign, and intends to let him know.
“It’s not very often that I think about writing a letter to the American president,” Stang told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on its nationwide nightly newscast on Sunday. “I know that he has a lot of other things to think about than the American ambassador to Norway.”
Stang had nonetheless decided, nearly six months after Obama’s wealthy campaign contributor George James Tsunis fumbled badly at his US Senate confirmation hearing, that Tsunis is not the right person for Obama to send to Oslo.
“He (Tsunis) is surely a fine man and has surely done an excellent for himself and for Obama’s election campaign,” Stang told NRK. “But given what we saw from his hearing (before the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committe in January), he doesn’t seem very interested in Norway.”
Tsunis’ hearing began well when he read from a prepared text, but under questioning from tough opposition senators including John McCain, whom Tsunis once had supported before defecting to the Obama campaign, Tsunis referred to Norway’s political leader as a “president” instead of prime minister and, most glaringly, dismissed members of Norway’s conservative Progress Party as “fringe elements” who “spew their hatred.” Tsunis was apparently unaware that the Progress Party won 16.3 percent of the vote at Norway’s last national election and now shares government power with the Conservative Party. Party members demanded an apology, and US Embassy officials in Oslo had to resort to damage control.
Tsunis hastily apologized for his blunders but the damage was done, and his senate confirmation has been stalled ever since. As Norwegian-American organizations also lobby hard to get Obama to withdraw Tsunis’ nomination, the US Embassy in Oslo remains without an ambassador. It’s been more than a year since Obama’s last ambassador Barry White, also a major Democratic campaign fundraiser for the Obama election campaign in 2008, was called home in order for Obama to reward another political supporter with a prestigious ambassador’s post.
It’s unclear why Stang, who represents the Conservative Party, waited nearly six months to interrupt his summer holidays on Sunday to suddenly tell NRK that he was unhappy with the prospect of Tsunis as the new US ambassador to Norway. Some political commentators in Norway criticized Stang’s initiative Sunday evening, saying it won’t strengthen Norwegian-American relations and that foreign relations should be left to the state government, not a city mayor. “You can just imagine what Norwegians would think if the Americans tried to influence who Norway should send as ambassador to the US,” Eirik Løkke, an adviser with the political think tank Civita, told NRK. “I think it’s unwise of Stang to get involved in this.”
Stang is far from alone, however, in his criticism of Obama’s choice and thinks the US President should finally send an envoy who’s a professional diplomat instead of a political crony.
“The comments made by the man chosen to come to Oslo makes us ask whether the US is sending a professional ambassador,” Stang told NRK. “I think it will be very sad for Norwegian-American relations if the Norwegian people are made to feel like second-class citizens by getting an unprofessional ambassador. So I’m evaluating whether to politely ask whether we don’t deserve a professional ambassador.”
Both US senators from Minnesota, home of the largest concentration of Norwegian-Americans, have already come out against Tsunis’ nomination. Several other senators have also criticized the choice and it remains highly unclear whether Tsunis will receive the 51 votes he needs to be confirmed with the slightest of majorities in the US Senate. If he fails, it will be a major embarrassment, not least for Obama.
Speculation has flown that Tsunis will withdraw himself, and spare Obama the embarrassment of a potential defeat. Tsunis earlier has admitted he was embarrassed himself over his misstatements at his hearing, and would try hard to make up for it when, or if, he finally arrives in Oslo.
Norway’s government officials have mostly stayed out of the fray, at least publicly, but Stang said he’d informed his party fellow Børge Brende, Norway’s foreign minister from the Conservative Party, that he planned to write to Obama. Brende, who was traveling constantly last week literally from one end of the world to another as he flew from meetings in South Africa to hosting France’s foreign minister on Svalbard, had no direct comment but the foreign ministry released a statement saying that “we look forward to the US appointing its next ambassador to Norway. The choice of ambassador is up to the US. Apart from that, it’s not natural for Brende to comment on Stang’s remarks.”