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The Nation

Bush Sidesteps Controversy Naming Top Diplomat

Instead of renominating Otto Reich as assistant secretary of State, the president makes him a special envoy and taps a similar conservative.

January 10, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The White House said Thursday it would not renominate Otto J. Reich to be top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, but disappointed foes of the controversial official by picking an ideological soul mate as his replacement.

The White House said Reich, whose nomination was blocked by Senate Democrats two years ago, would become "special envoy for Western Hemisphere initiatives" in the White House. The job does not require Senate confirmation.

Nominated to be the assistant secretary of State for Latin America was Roger F. Noriega, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and a former top aide to former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

The shuffle means that the administration will probably avoid another ugly battle in the Senate, while keeping Reich in government and placating his staunch supporters in the conservative Cuban American community.

Reich, an outspoken Cuban American, has advocated an uncompromising policy toward the Castro government, including a continuing embargo on travel and trade. Reich became a lightning rod because of allegations that he behaved unethically during his years as a diplomat in the Reagan administration, which he denies.

Noriega was selected over Anne Patterson, a respected career foreign service officer who had the backing of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, according to knowledgeable sources. She is now ambassador to Colombia and has held a series of posts in the region.

The selection was seen as an important measure of the influence of the Cuban American community in the Bush administration. The politically active group, which was important in winning Florida for the president in the 2000 election, complained that the administration was mistreating Reich when it moved him to a less influential envoy post last year after the expiration of his temporary appointment as assistant secretary.

This week, Cuban American groups and lawmakers were again exultant.

Dennis Hays of the Cuban American National Foundation said his group was very pleased. "The president's policy team is strengthened by this outcome," he said. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said Noriega would be "a wonderful addition to the State Department team" while Reich had gotten a job that was "just what he wants."

William Goodfellow, who organized a campaign against Reich in 2001, said he was "hugely disappointed that they picked someone who is so little different from Otto Reich. It's a disappointment for people who care about Latin America."

Goodfellow said that Noriega is not the "heavy hitter" that the job demands: "I'm astonished they would pick somebody with his resume."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Reich's chief opponent, said in a statement that he was "pleased that the President recognized that Reich ... was the wrong man for this critically important position." But he said it was disappointing that President Bush had chosen Noriega, since "there are a number of individuals with a great deal more stature."

Bush came into office declaring that the United States would pay far closer attention to the Western Hemisphere. Yet officials have acknowledged that Latin America has not been at the top of their concerns since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some experts said they hoped the selection of Noriega would mark the beginning of a more concerted approach to policy toward Latin America.

"A lot of people have been anxious to see the Bush administration develop a strategic vision for Latin America, and perhaps these two steps are needed to accomplish that goal," said Steve Johnson, a Latin American specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

As a Helms staff member, Noriega crossed swords with liberals and moderates, including during the Reich nomination.

But some Democratic lawmakers and aides said they had no trouble working with him and predicted that it would be difficult for any opponent to block his nomination.

"Clearly, he represents the hard right," said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.). "But I can work with Roger Noriega."

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