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At the DC Watering Hole: Senate Continues to Hold Tom Shannon's Nomination to be the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil

October 15, 2009

by Liz Harper

For months, the Senate has unnecessarily held up President Obama’s appointments for the U.S. ambassador to Brazil and the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. These actions have prevented the administration from assembling its Latin America team and have held hemispheric policy hostage to a few, lone voices.

We are stuck in gear. But if some conservative Republicans get their way, we risk being thrown into reverse, back to the Cold War. This time instead of communism, it’s through the prism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

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A more conspicuous and tangible evidence of the Cold War revival has been the recent campaign by some conservative Republicans against the nomination of Tom Shannon as ambassador to Brazil. This is the same Tom Shannon who was appointed and served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush.

The closed-door briefings and talking points that circulated in Congress are narrow and hollow criticisms of the United States’ Latin America policy over the last four years and are specifically tailored against Shannon. 

Because the talking points are dangerous without context, I want to share them in full as they arrived to me. A major part of their context is this underlying partisan intent:

“In Honduras, Shannon remained silent as Manuel Zelaya attempted to subvert democratic institutions and the Honduran Constitution.  But as the Congress and Supreme Court worked to remove Zelaya legally from office, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa and Shannon worked diligently to dissuade the Honduran Congress and protect Zelaya (3 July Washington Post, columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner).”

“In Venezuela, Mr. Shannon constantly promoted narcotics cooperation with Chávez despite evidence—and objections from other U.S. agencies—that the Venezuelan government itself was facilitating narcotics trafficking.  Mr. Shannon also denied support to Venezuela's civil society and sat by as Chavez dismantled the country's democratic institutions.  Today, the Mayor of Caracas still cannot get into his office to perform his duties.  In all this, Mr. Shannon’s rationale for shunning Venezuela's civil society has been that the U.S. and Venezuela have a strategic relationship based primarily on energy.”

“In Nicaragua, Mr. Shannon advocated the continuation of U.S. aid to the Sandinista government despite evidence of overwhelming fraud in the 2008 mayoral race in Managua.  Something even President Obama has expressed opposition to.  Meanwhile, Mr. Shannon has sought to cut support to Nicaragua's civil society, in order not to 'antagonize' President Ortega.”

“In Bolivia, when President Morales expelled the U.S. Ambassador and DEA from the country, Mr. Shannon was against waiving trade preferences and U.S. aid.  Instead, he advocated that the Bush Administration sign a document by President Morales, which was essentially a 'mea culpa.' The U.S.  State Department's Legal Advisor at the time overruled him and the U.S. didn’t sign the document.”

“In Ecuador, Mr. Shannon has sought to accommodate and improve relations with President Correa despite his dismantling of democratic institutions and evidence that President Correa has connection to FARC.”

This represents a salvo from certain conservative Republicans. Since leaving the administration, a number of the more conservative elements seem to have busied themselves doing revisionist post-mortems on Bush’s second term and then attacking the Obama administration regarding Latin America, interrogation techniques, Iraq, and other matters.

“It’s ridiculous that there’s this active campaign against a Bush appointee by Republicans,” said a senior Republican Senate staffer in reaction to the talking points.

All is fair in love and war, so the saying goes.

But, the talking points are equally short-sighted and shallow in their attacks on the policy of the last four years as in their effort to kill Shannon's nomination. Because these points come after his confirmation hearing, Shannon is not even given the forum he deserves to respond and present his position.

Shannon recognized recent worrisome activities in the Andean region, as noted in the talking points. This brand of populism combined with anti-American vitriol was in part a nationalist reaction to the United States’ “confrontational” approaches in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua since 2001. This trend also magnifies that the region’s institutions are struggling to keep up with economic growth and the spike in political expression and participation.  So, what in the meantime, do we do?

Shannon would argue—I’d imagine—that strategic patience and pragmatic partnerships trump the immediate desire to (over)react to antidemocratic developments in the Andes and some Central American countries. 

He’d probably also stress the importance of working multilaterally and through multinational organizations, like the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Development Bank. While countries like Honduras and Venezuela, for example, work out their internal issues, the U.S. has to play through its partners and regional bodies to support the democratic process and ensure that systems and the rule of law are respected.  That approach ultimately advances U.S. interests in the region.

According to another career foreign service officer, Jeff Davidow: “Shannon is the most competent and serious thinking assistant secretary for Latin America that we have had in years. He has demonstrated a capability to recognize new realities in the region and play the U.S. cards in such a way as to maximize our influence.”

On Venezuela, the talking points note: “Mr. Shannon’s rationale for shunning Venezuela's civil society has been that the U.S. and Venezuela have a strategic relationship based primarily on energy.” Since when is it a bad thing to have relationships based on strategic interests? We must engage with some countries and their leaders to the degree that it promotes our own interests in the region, and advances our ultimate goals of developing friendly, pro-trade, democratic countries.

On the other side, I see how holding up Shannon’s nomination is one of the Republicans’ few tools to express displeasure with the White House, especially with the Democrats also controlling Congress. But this is entirely the wrong fight.

If the military and a group of civilians can remove a president—and run out the clock until the next presidential election—then they will have undermined the democratic process and the rule of law. The implications are enough to make the entire world shudder.

As per the Shannon doctrine, the U.S. should work multilaterally through the OAS and with other democratic countries, like Brazil (where we don’t have a permanent ambassador), to arrive at an agreement that reflects the true democratic aspirations of our hemisphere.

Too much is at stake to hold up these important nominations. Time to shift gears and move forward.

*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: aqinfo@as-coa.org

Tags: George W. Bush, Hugo Chavez, U.S. Congress, Tom Shannon, U.S.-Latin America policy

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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