Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Talk at the DC Water Cooler

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A popular DC parlor game these days is about who is getting what position in the Obama administration. There have been numerous articles about the administration’s foreign policy agenda and what related appointments suggest about the president’s priorities –Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, Iran, and Iraq.

Yet, among all this verbiage—Latin America is usually left out. Has this part of the world just fallen off the map with the administration?

With that void, many are picking up on the water cooler talk about possible appointments and as a way to deduce what direction Obama’s Latin American policies could take.

It’s already well known that Tom Shannon is asked to continue “for the time being” as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. What does “for the time being” mean? Shannon reportedly wondered the same thing. He’s expected to stay put at least until the Summit of the Americas in April.

Shannon, a career officer, is highly respected in the region and in Washington. But, as several pointed out, Shannon continuing in the position sends the signal that Obama wants to kick the can down the road (yes, until April)—but worse, also sends the signal that Obama is not truly committed to do something different (from Bush) in Latin America.

So, who’s in the running to replace Shannon as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs? And who could get a top post at the National Security Council (NSC)?

A caveat: all these rumblings may be sourced back to just a couple Hill staffers—and put forward by interested parties that want to see these people heading the Western Hemisphere bureau.

But, after a survey among many Latin Americanists and other gossipmongers/reporters—here are some top names in this parlor game:

Arturo Valenzuela, ostensibly the strongest candidate, is very close to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having worked in her husband’s administration and served as a key foreign policy adviser to Clinton throughout her presidential campaign. He’s gotten praise from a wide range of Latin Americanists, but with an oft-repeated remark—he’s really aggressively pursuing this job.

Julia Sweig, who was also very much involved in Clinton’s campaign, but her liberal views on Cuba and lack of government experience may reduce her chances;

Nelson Cunningham, managing partner at McLarty Associates;

Harriet Babbitt, former ambassador to the Organization of American States; and

Mark Schneider, now at the International Crisis Group and former assistant administrator for Latin America at USAID during the Clinton administration.

Another person to watch out for—and to never count out—is Bill Richardson.

Obviously, if he was brought back in, it would have to be for a post that wouldn’t require Senate confirmation…such as a special envoy position! We had numerous envoys under Clinton—are we in store for another round?

Last May, Obama said in Miami that he planned to create a special envoy for Latin America—but that possibility—or dread—has seemed to have died down for now.

But, there’s also a strong desire to promote from within the State Department ranks to boost the low morale at Foggy Bottom.

Anne Patterson, former ambassador to Colombia, who reportedly had wanted the job before, is a relatively new prominent name in the mix. And getting very strong reviews.

After all, the appointments of people can send a very clear message to the region—and can be very politically explosive.

In the Clinton administration, all assistant secretaries were career, not political. Things didn’t start to get political—and polarized—until the Bush administration’s appointments of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, as several Democratic former State Department officials told me.

Which is not to say that jockeying isn’t intense between the Clinton and Obama camps for all foreign policy positions. It is. A lot of push and pull. Some not very nice.

So far, it appears the Obama loyalists are setting up camp at the NSC, and Clinton loyalists are heading to State. As for the top contenders for the senior director of the Western Hemisphere:

Fulton Armstrong, currently working for Senator Chris Dodd, who has long and storied past experience at the NSC and Central Intelligence Agency working on Latin America (notably Cuba). He has a good relationship with General Jim Jones. Relationships are, of course, key here. Also key is that these positions do not require congressional confirmation.

Dan Restrepo, a very close adviser to Obama throughout the campaign, but lacks experience in the executive branch. So he’s recently rumored to possibly be considered for a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs position.

Several insiders speculated that Armstrong wants the job very much—but may not want to stay on permanently. Another suggested Armstrong would start out as the senior director, and Restrepo would take the second spot so he could be groomed to eventually succeed Armstrong.

So far—much to the chagrin to many—this is just chit chat among the chattering classes!

Stay tuned. It’s still quite early in the game.

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


Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.

Tags: Obama, US
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