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Noriega’s Nomination: A View from the Gallery

The Eagle’s Nest: Dispatches From the Americas

Noriega’s Nomination: A View from the Gallery

By: Grant M. Nulle

As millions of people around the world celebrated May Day, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pursuant to the its “advice and consent role” under Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, convened to consider the nomination of Roger Noriega to the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Unbeknownst to many of the spectators who were crammed in Room 419 of the Dirksen Senate Building, May 1 also marked the 105th anniversary of Commodore Dewey’s defeat of the Spanish Pacific Fleet at Manila Harbor. The 1898 battle is viewed as a one-sided encounter in the Spanish-American War, a conflict which helped the U.S. sweep away the last vestiges of European Colonialism in the Western Hemisphere and laid the foundations of Washington’s hegemony over the region in the twentieth century. Based on Noriega’s employment experience, professional relationships and ideological orientation, if he is approved by the Senate, Latin America may well experience a continuation of the heavy-handed U.S. policy toward the region partly made possible by Dewey’s bold gambit in the far-flung Philippines over a century ago.

Roger Who?

Just how did the Kansas native and scion of Mexican immigrants become poised to hold one of the U.S.’s top diplomatic posts? Judging from the record, Noriega’s appointment was as much predicated on political imperatives as personal merit. A staff member from 1997 to 2001 of the very body in which he testified before on May 1, Noriega fell under the tutelage of then-committee chairman, Jesse Helms. A consummate hardliner, Helms once responded to the killings of doctors and nurses by the contras in Nicaragua by saying, “Well—they’re just Communists—they deserve to die.”

Capitalising on his political patron’s clout and other meticulously cultivated relationships with influential government figures, Noriega was catapulted to the U.S. ambassadorial post at the OAS. An opportunity arose for further advancement in late 2002 after the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, a foreign policy appointment tantamount to a cabinet post in U.S. domestic politics, opened up. The job became vacant after the Senate twice spurned the nomination of Cuban-American Otto Reich, darling of the conservative exile community in Miami, on account of his polarizing personality and tainted background. A consummate hardliner, Reich has been linked in the past to violent, anti-Castro terrorists (in addition to peaceful dissidents) and, in the 1980’s, as head of the U.S. State Department Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America, he was alleged to have composed deliberately misleading pro-Contra commentaries on Nicaragua that graced the pages of some of the U.S.’s leading broadsheets. After the Senate refused to grant permanent status to Reich’s recess appointment as one of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s top deputies, Reich was transferred to the White House and given the specially-created post of “Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere.” While Noriega’s employment record and political profile scarcely differ from the ultra-conservative Reich, the former is less polarizing than the latter, which is conducive to bipartisan legislative endorsement.

Besides placating the Senate, the appointment of Noriega serves George W. Bush’s domestic agenda in other ways as well. The U.S. President can brandish the appointment of a Helms disciple as a sop to hard-line Cuban-American groups in Miami who were dejected by Senate’s dismissal of Reich. Since many political pundits have already placed the states of California and New York in the win column for any presidential candidate the Democratic Party fields in 2004, Florida’s 27 electoral votes become almost essential to the Bush camp.

Dirksen’s Denizens

Packed inside the Foreign Relations Committee chamber in the Dirksen Senate Building were several journalists, foreign diplomats and members of the U.S. Civil and Foreign Services. Most of the spectators were of Latin American heritage. Whereas the size of the audience was expected, given the gravity of the appointment, the composition, external appearance, and number of Senators present was indeed disheartening.

Throughout the hearing no more than 4 legislators were in attendance at any one time and only six of the nineteen members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee bothered to show up at all. Even more striking was that the Senators that did make an appearance were of European extraction and a plurality hailed from farm-belt states geographically distant from the U.S.’s southern border. Admittedly, the Midwest has experienced a surge in Latino immigration in the past decade and most, if not all, of the Senators present have made several visits to Latin America. Nonetheless, these mitigating factors far from obviate the absenteeism and homogeneity of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, especially when one considers that the appointment this venerable body was considering will oversee a vast region that is home to over 800 million people.

Is it Hot in Here?

At the hearing, those Senators that did attend were scathing in their commentary and incisive in their queries. In fact, the ordeal could be best described as a bipartisan forum for legislators to vent their frustrations at the Bush Administration.

Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), ridiculed the efficacy of Washington’s unilaterally imposed economic embargo against Cuba, while Norm Coleman (R-MN), mooted lifting the crippling sanctions on that island nation. Likewise, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) bemoaned the current nadir in U.S.-Latin American relations and railed against the “domestication” of Washington’s foreign policy toward the Western Hemisphere, a deliberate swipe at Bush’s politically-motivated appointment of Noriega. He also questioned Noriega’s fitness for the post, citing a dearth of management experience and organizational vision.

Noriega kept largely mum and was timid throughout the proceeding. When compelled to respond, he was both evasive and general in his reply, particularly when Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), asked about the length of U.S. troop commitments to Colombia. Despite the nominee’s sub par performance, Senator Dodd’s discernable qualms, and Chairman Richard Lugar’s (R-IN), frosty recommendation letter, Noriega’s appointment is expected to pass without a hitch.

Troubled Times Ahead

Overall, the U.S.’s decision to nominate a third-rate political appointment and hard-line ideologue smacks of a fixation with domestic politics. Indeed, one needs to look no further than the recommendation letter that George Bush’s brother and Florida Governor, Jeb, wrote on behalf of Noriega, which was submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Moreover, the nomination is indicative of Washington’s continued lack of due respect for its Western Hemispheric neighbours and bodes well for the escalation of U.S drug interdiction efforts in the Andes and the application of economic and diplomatic punishments against Latin American countries that dare to oppose U.S. foreign policy interests further afield. The hard-line tandem of Noreiga and Reich, a veritable payaso and matón, respectively, portend rocky times ahead for Washington’s relations with the rest of the Americas.


-This analysis was prepared by Grant M. Nulle, Scoop Columnist and Research Associate, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Washington, D.C. To contact Mr. Nulle email him at

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