Helms derailing key Clinton appointments abroad
By ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
Herald Staff Writer
At a crucial time for Latin America, the Clinton administration is having
trouble carrying out the most basic foreign policy task: appointing ambassadors.
On Tuesday, the administration's nominee for ambassador to Brazil, J.
Atwood, withdrew his name, saying that Sen. Jesse Helms, the powerful
Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was likely to
continue blocking it for the foreseeable future.
In a carefully phrased response, Clinton said he accepted Atwood's decision
``with reluctance and regret.''
Critics stepped up charges that Helms -- a 77-year-old conservative
Carolina -- is paralyzing U.S. policy by systematically blocking foreign policy
``This definitely damages our foreign policy,'' said Jennifer McCoy,
America expert with the Carter Center at Emory University. ``Very important
positions in very important countries are being left unfilled for significant amounts
of time, which gives us very little leverage in important situations.''
Several stalled or blocked
Among those whose nominations are stalled or were recently vetoed by
Richard Holbrooke, Clinton's choice for ambassador to the
whose nomination has been blocked by Helms' committee for about a year on
grounds of concern over his financial activities. The administration is standing by
Peter Romero, acting chief of the State Department's bureau
Hemisphere affairs, who has been serving in the job for a year, but has not been
confirmed because of Helms' complaints over the diplomat's alleged lack of zeal
in enforcing sanctions against Cuba. While Romero could continue serving
without Senate approval, he would not have the full weight of the job, officials say.
In a statement to The Herald last week, Secretary of State Madeleine
threw her full support behind Romero, citing among his various accomplishments
this year's U.S. victory in a United Nations vote to condemn Cuba's human rights
Carmen Aponte, who had been nominated by Clinton as ambassador
Dominican Republic, withdrew her nomination after Senate Foreign Relations
Committee staffers raised concerns about her relationship with a possible Cuban
Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican, who
nomination for ambassador to Mexico in 1997 because of resistance by the
Robert Pastor, a former senior White House advisor on Latin
the Carter administration, who was blocked by Helms earlier as Clinton's
ambassador to Panama.
Atwood, who has headed the U.S. Agency for International Development
for the past six years, said in a statement Tuesday that he was withdrawing his
nomination because the United States has already been without an ambassador
to Brazil for a year, and the impasse over his nomination ``would only delay
further appointment of an ambassador to this vitally important country.''
Foreign aid fallout
``It is clear to me that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Sen. Helms, will continue to block consideration of my nomination,'' Atwood said.
He said Helms opposed his confirmation because he spoke against the senator's
proposal to merge USAID with the State Department.
Several calls to the Helms committee by The Herald on Tuesday were not
answered. The Associated Press said neither Helms nor his spokesman would
comment on Atwood's statement.
Atwood's withdrawal comes at a time when Clinton administration officials
voicing nervousness about Latin America's future, following the latest financial and
political crises in Brazil, Paraguay, and Ecuador. In a speech this month, Albright
said that, in several countries in the region, ``we may even see instability and
turmoil leading to the return of authoritarian leaders.''
Significant voice is lost
Several diplomats and Latin American scholars say the collapse of Atwood's
nomination is particularly significant, not only because Brazil is the biggest
country in the region but also because Atwood is a political heavyweight in
Washington who would have had privileged access to the President and his top
``This deprives U.S. policy toward Latin America of a top-flight policymaker,
would bring great skills and influence throughout the senior levels of the
administration,'' said Richard Feinberg, a former Clinton national security
specialist on Latin America.
Other critics say Helms is abusing his powers to approve ambassadorial
nominees, using them as a negotiating tool to press for his policies.
``When appointments become politicized, it is difficult to conduct foreign
said McCoy, of the Carter Center.
``Any administration should have the right to appoint qualified people
positions, regardless of whether opponents disagree on ideological grounds. The
Senate's job should be to assess candidates for their [professional] qualifications
for the job.''
U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley tried to put the best face
situation Tuesday, telling reporters that ``Secretary Albright has an excellent
working relationship with Sen. Helms,'' and that thanks to this relationship ``they
are able to get a lot of important work done for this country.''
But, privately, U.S. officials could barely hide their frustration.
``We have no choice but to work with him, even if it makes us sad,''