- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

George W. Bush has quite clearly signaled his intention of elevating the Western Hemisphere to the very front rank of U.S. foreign policy concerns. This is a long overdue and historic task that our government very much needs to carry out as it simultaneously enters a new century and a new era in its relationship with the remainder of the globe. Indeed, upgrading Washingtons geo-strategic priorities in this respect (from those that prevailed during the Cold War) is now an imperative, if we are to realize the great opportunities offered by the impending Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement and ward off a new constellation of politico-military threats.
To head this effort, President Bush has chosen Otto J. Reich as his nominee for the post of assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs. But the entire selection/investigation/confirmation process has been a slow one so far under this administration and is likely to be further complicated by the unexpected advent of Democratic Party control over the Senate. Moreover, some objections have been heard to Mr. Reichs candidacy during this period when he is unable to speak to the press in his own defense, principally on the grounds that, as a Cuban-American, he would pursue an unduly harsh, inflexible policy toward the Castro regime and over his stewardship of the State Departments Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD) during the mid-1980s.
Mr. Reich does, indeed, possess a firm view on the question of democracy in this hemisphere, including with respect to Fidel Castros now-lonely Marxist dictatorship in Havana. But such a posture should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has read the Republican platform in 2000 or heard George W. Bush address the issue during that years presidential campaign. And, thus, replacing Mr. Reich with someone else is most unlikely to change this administrations position on Cuba one iota.
The critiques with regard to his role at OPD during the height of the Central American conflict are on two levels. Firstly, Mr. Reich is accused by a band of largely left-wing activists of specific transgressions which have been exhaustively investigated many times and which he should have no trouble rebutting during the hearing process. More generally, he is painted by this same small group as an overbearing, right-wing relic of the Cold War. This ludicrous parody of a very prudent individual with impressive diplomatic skills will be impossible to sustain once the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have an opportunity to meet him in person. Indeed, such characterization tells more about lack of ideological evolution on the part of the accusers than the accused.
But what these whispering and self-interested critics have so far refused to deal with are Mr. Reichs qualifications and his views on the full gamut of currently pressing issues facing the United States in Latin America today. In point of fact as an Army veteran, Washington representative of the Council of the Americas, head of Latin America AID (as well as the OPD), U.S. envoy to Venezuela, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and in running his own successful consulting business he has compiled an extraordinary track-record of accomplishment. And the foreign relations panel will find few candidates coming before it whose experience (plus fluency in Spanish of a native speaker) is as well-tailored to the post for which they have been selected.
Perhaps even more importantly, Mr. Reich has long been on the cutting edge of the much more attentive and positive approach toward the Western Hemisphere that Mr. Bush obviously intends to adopt (most recently by dint of his efforts in the policy development realm during the 2000 campaign). This will clearly be highlighted by pushing forward energetically to consummation of the FTAA, an unswerving commitment to democracy throughout the region and more effective initiatives toward confronting the ugly new-age dangers that are now threatening local societies as well as our own.
Mr. Bush obviously has the right to appoint qualified people who represent his views to the key posts in his administration. Those individuals deserve a fair hearing and a prompt vote. The country needs to move more quickly toward addressing the affairs of its neighbors at this crucial juncture in inter-American relations. And a tiny group of critics who mostly opposed NAFTA and would not provide effective help to Colombias democracy, even if this meant its collapse in the face of an unholy alliance of Marxist guerrilla criminals, drug-traffickers and brutal paramilitary elements cannot be allowed to constitute the determining role as an information source. If what they are saying leads to the defeat of Mr. Reichs nomination on its merits, that is part of our time-ensconced and generally effective process in which candidates are chosen by the executive branch and judged by the Senate in equitable proceedings. But character distortion based upon ethnic origin or ideological litmus tests over long-extinct controversies have no legitimate place in that system. And, if Mr. Reich passes the relevant tests of policy competence and personal qualifications for the job, he should be confirmed without further ado.

William Perry is a former staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and director of Latin American affairs at the National Security Council.

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