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Opinion | SCOT LEHIGH

Japan ambassadorship requires a seasoned diplomat

Caroline Kennedy

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy? Ambassador to Japan?

Neil Diamond may be ecstatic, but for those concerned with qualifications, the apt response isn’t “Sweet, Caroline,” but rather, sweet Jesus.

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Yes, I know, ambassadorships have long been rewards for important political supporters or big fundraisers. New England certainly has its share of lightly qualified politicos who have wound up as ambassadors, though often to countries the average person only thinks about when planning a warm-weather vacation.

I’ll even grant that the realm of the political plum ambassadorship has extended its reach to serious countries. President Obama made Chicago banker — and more importantly, prodigious Democratic fundraiser — Louis Susman his first ambassador to the United Kingdom. George W. Bush tapped billionaire family friend and big GOP donor William S. Farish III for the same job. Of him, The Economist wryly noted: “All ambassadors to the Court of St James are officially designated extraordinary, but William S. Farish . . . may be the most extraordinary of the lot: He is invisible.”

But though that has increasingly become the norm, it shouldn’t be. At the very least, ambassadorial postings to crucial countries should have seasoned diplomats in charge. Japan, a key trading partner and host to almost 50,000 US troops, is nothing if not a vitally important ally, and Kennedy is anything but a seasoned diplomat.

From our efforts to rein in the bellicose, brutal regime in North Korea to our complicated rivalry with an increasingly assertive China, which recently held joint naval exercises with Russia, Japan is central to our Asian policy. The region itself is rife with tinderbox territorial disputes, long-standing historical antagonisms, and economic tensions.

Is Kennedy really qualified to be one of the key players in our pivot toward Asia? There’s little in her personal history to make one think so.

Mind you, I don’t say that as a reflexive Kennedy critic might, but rather as someone who tries to take a clear-eyed look at individual members of the celebrity clan. That perspective made me an admirer of the legendary senator that Ted Kennedy became in later life; his broad reach, indefatigable efforts, and deal-making prowess were hugely important to this state.

Contrariwise, that same prism has rendered me a thorough-going skeptic about his bumptious nephew Joe Kennedy II and several of his siblings. That said, so far, I’m favorably inclined toward Joe Kennedy III, who, thankfully, seems to have fallen a considerable distance from the paternal tree.

Caroline Kennedy has been an intensely private person whose public proffer is a protective blandness, so it’s hard to know precisely what she’s about. Still, though she seems pleasant enough, she doesn’t appear remarkable for much beyond her enduring celebrity.

Her December 2008 interview with The New York Times — part of her awkward audition to be appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat — was cringe-inducing both for its vacuity and for the frequency with which Kennedy fell back on verbal tics like “you know.” (More than 140 times in one 30-minute sit-down.)

But, her devotees will no doubt protest, what about the books she has co-authored or edited or compiled? Critics were polite about her two co-authored efforts, the first on the Bill of Rights, the second on privacy. Her other efforts — which include a Christmas book, several anthologies of poetry, transcripts of seven Jacqueline Kennedy interviews, and “Profiles in Courage for our Time,” essays authored by others — have relied on either her parents’ iconic status or her own reflected celebrity for their marketing momentum.

That same family status is precisely why Kennedy’s endorsement was valuable to Barack Obama back in 2008; for a certain set of nostalgic Democrats, she is a link to a fondly remembered past.

And so it goes. If Kennedy is confirmed as ambassador to Japan, it won’t be because she has any real qualifications. She is neither a practiced diplomat nor someone deeply versed in Asian issues. Nor is she a highly regarded former politician who has shown considerable skills in other difficult roles.

She is, simply put, a dynastic scion who lent her celebrity to Obama’s cause during his long primary contest against Hillary Clinton and who is now reaping a reward.

Japan deserves better.

More to the point, so does this country.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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