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More Talk at the DC Water Cooler: Obama’s Latest Nominations

June 11, 2009

by Liz Harper

President Barack Obama is zipping along with nominations and appointments related to all things Latin America. I am not going to share a laundry list of every post coming from the administration, but here are some highlights and what people are saying. 

First, Arturo Valenzuela. As I wrote here months ago, he was nominated as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in May. Valenzeula, a Chilean-American, served at the State Department and the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and was an adviser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.  

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If confirmed by the Senate, he’ll be leaving his current job as director of the Center for Latin American Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His expertise is democratization, security issues, and of course, Chile. And, he really knows how to deal with the media. That’s important.

Based on an informal poll, Valenzuela is a centrist, moderate on Latin America, without an ideological agenda. “He’s a solid Western Hemisphere hand who brings years of experience and keen insights to the job,” said Stephen Johnson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere.

The current assistant secretary and career foreign service officer extraordinaire, Tom Shannon, has been awarded an ambassador post to Brazil. Shannon is a good choice for Brazil. As one source told me, he is “moderate, professional (read: apolitical) and experienced.” And as we are all aware, this is a growing and important relationship, making Shannon the right person to be leading our efforts with Brasilia.

María Otero, head of ACCION International and a former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) staffer, is tapped as the next under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, replacing Paula Dobriansky.

Another key post goes to Vilma Martinez, nominated as ambassador to Argentina. She’s a lawyer and head of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). Martinez is an “icon of the civil rights community,” says MALDEF board member Kevin Johnson.

The most controversial appointment is Carlos Pascual, the vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution who was asked to take on the mega-job of ambassador to Mexico. In his 23 years at the State Department, National Security Council and USAID, Pascual most recently served as State’s coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization.

His nomination sparked controversy for two reasons: “failed states” and Cuba.

Pascual is a specialist on conflict management, so in March when he was first rumored to be going to Mexico, people wondered: Does this mean that Mexico is that failed state that the U.S. military warned about?  Why else send someone with his experience there? That did not sit too well with the Mexican government.

But, Pascual is gracefully professional.  And very smart.

Second point of controversy: Cuba.

Yes, Pascual is Cuban-American. And, yes, Pascual had worked on the Brookings Institution study on Cuba. Their report concluded that U.S. policy toward Cuba has so far failed and that the Obama administration needs to overhaul its policy and has “ample authority” to do so. Of course, their findings generated a lot of talk when it came out in April.  

But, no, Pascual's nomination is not about Cuba, and still, word is that certain Cuban-American senators are itching to question Pascual about his Cuba views at his confirmation hearing—even though this nomination ostensibly has nothing to do with Cuba.

Despite the controversy over the Brookings Cuba study, it didn’t prevent more Brookings folks from going to the Obama administration.

Vicki Huddleston, another seasoned foreign service officer turned Brookings senior fellow, who worked with Pascual on the Cuba study, is leaving Brookings to become deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. Unlike Pascual’s job, her position does not require a Senate hearing. 

Pascual and Huddleston—both consummate professionals—should be credited for taking a bold, pragmatic stand on Cuba, and putting themselves out there unlike some other DC think tanks. Especially since working on Cuba can be a “real career killer,” as one specialist put it.  

Joining Huddleston at the Pentagon is Frank Mora, professor of national security strategy at the National War College, who was appointed deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere. Mora is known for his work on international security, particularly counternarcotics in Latin America. He is also one of the foremost authorities on Latin America security issues, said a source who knows Mora and the position well. 

Some are asking, ah, what is the Obama administration up to with yet another Cuba specialist?!  But this isn’t directly about Cuba. Yes, Mora was on a Cuba working group, but many people involved in Latin American affairs will find themselves researching Cuba, or winding up on a Cuba panel at some point in their careers.

Staying with Defense, Admiral James Stravidis, commander of U.S. Southern Command, was confirmed yesterday to head NATO. He will replace him is Lieutenant General Douglas Fraser, who would become the first Air Force general to head SouthCom

“Admiral Stavridis is an inspired choice for NATO/EUCOM, leaving SouthCom a much different command than he found it, more attuned to coordinating with other agencies in government.  Lt. Gen. Fraser will bring his knowledge of the Pacific and East Asia, which is a rising influence in Western Hemisphere Affairs,” Johnson summarized.

So, what can be learned from all of these names in the mix?  Do they signify anything about the administration’s policy agenda? Nope, nada.

According to one Latin American hand, “it doesn’t say anything about policy direction.” Peter DeShazo, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Americas Program and a former career foreign service officer notes: “The president’s appointments in the area of Western Hemisphere affairs thus far indicate a preference for past government and diplomatic experience and area expertise. These choices point to a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to policymaking in the region.”

While Pascual and Huddleston may have rocked the boat on Cuba policy, there are other administration appointees with more status quo views. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing that the administration is stocking up on Cuba specialists—word around town is that Obama is quite keen to make more changes in Cuba policy, but is not yet certain how to approach that hornet's nest.

So, what jobs are left? Permanent directors for several “problem children” agencies: USAID (Latin American and Caribbean region); Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs and Border Protection; and the Justice Department’s (DOJ) Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

I’m hearing whispers there could be a major restructuring of USAID and these DHS and DOJ agencies. Stay tuned.

Tags: Obama, US, Valenzuela

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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