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Do some ambassadors matter anymore?

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
American presidents rewarding top campaign fundraisers with plum ambassadorships has long been common practice for both Democrats and Republicans alike. But President Obama

, who has vowed to "change the ways of Washington," has not only continued this tradition of his predecessors, he has outpaced them.

So far, 57% of Obama's picks for ambassador positions -- 34 of 60 -- have been political appointees, or people not considered career Foreign Service, according to the American Foreign Service Association. Fourteen of those, or 23 percent, are bundlers. Bundlers are individuals who raise large amounts of money for a candidate by "bundling" together smaller contributions from others. For 2008, anyone who a raised more than $50,000 for candidate Obama are considered bundlers.

In the past 50 years, the average percentage for political appointees has been about 30 percent, according to AFSA. The practice increased under George W. Bush -- 36 percent of his picks were political. (Jimmy Carter appointed the least at 24 percent.) Because many of the political appointments are made early on in a presidency, Obama's percentages will likely decrease; as more ambassadors are named, more are likely to be career Foreign Service. 

At a January news conference, then-President-elect Obama did acknowledge that "there probably will be some" ambassadors chosen who were top donors. "It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven't come through the ranks of the civil service," he said. The White House is focused on the 30-percent target, but not necessarily reducing the number. Groups like AFSA have advocated for the average to be lowered to 10 percent.

Some foreign policy observers say that if Obama is not going to change the practice, then perhaps some of these posts should be eliminated all together. They argue the positions are outdated, a waste of money, and have long gone to political appointees who may have little prior knowledge of the region to which they are assigned. Others aren't convinced. They say removing these posts would reduce access to key leaders, be seen as a "slap in the face" to other countries, and, they stress, one never knows when -- or where -- a crisis could happen.

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