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Reich Re-surfaces Again - This time at the NSC
Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

This analysis was prepared by Larry Birns, director of COHA, and David Isacovici
and Thomas Gorman, research

The "What to do with Otto Reich Problem" Temporarily Solved,
but the Solution Most Likely will come to Haunt the Administration

Turf battle between the State Department and National Security Council over Latin America policy is in the offing now that Reich has been installed in the NSC

Noriega is woefully ill-equipped to replace Reich, who was woefully unprepared to have been given his former State Department position in the first place

By buying into the Helms-Reich-Noriega ideological template, the Administration proves that it is incapable of making first-class appointments to staff its key Latin America posts

The Iran-Contra Alumni Association Riding High

Reich Itching to get his hands on Chávez

On January 9, word came from the White House that President Bush had named Otto J. Reich, who formerly had held a recess appointment allowing him to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs only through last November, to be his "Presidential Special Envoy" for Latin America. Reich will be based at the National Security Council (NSC), where he will officially report to NSC head Condoleezza Rice. Reich assumes his new post only after declining two other positions because he considered them a step down (according to the Washington Post): that of U.S. Human Rights representative to the U.N. in Geneva, and Senior Director for Democracy and Human Rights at the National Security Council, a post that had just been vacated by Eliot Abrams, his kindred right-wing ideologue and fellow Iran-Contra chum. Abrams also had served as an Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs until he pleaded guilty to committing perjury by giving false testimony before the U.S. Congress. Also, now on the Bush team is discredited Admiral John Poindexter, who confessed to perjury charges over the Iran-Contra scandal.

Slipping Through the Back Door

Reich's new job does not require Senate confirmation, which was a key consideration behind his appointment in the first place. This was because it was all but certain that he would have found it impossible to obtain a favorable Senate vote to resume heading the inter-American bureau, even though the upper-house is now controlled by the Republicans. In fact it had been questionable whether Reich could even have obtained a confirmation hearing in the first place, until the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), pledged to the administration that he would extend it the courtesy and at least consider Reich. But the administration was well aware of the strong anti-Reich tide on the hill, including Lugar's opposition. There is almost as much of a chill among Republicans as Democrats over Reich being given such a senior post, because of his questionable conduct during the Iran-Contra epoch, and his tarnished record of masterminding false allegations against Cuba for which there was no evidence or were patently contrived. These allegations include charges that Cuba was restarting its bio-weaponry programs and had not cooperated with Washington's anti-terrorism initiatives. The source of Reich's aberrant behavior is his obsessive hatred of Fidel Castro; it seems Reich will always view Latin American issues through a Havana prism. It is this distortion in perspective and his legendary untrustworthiness that has rendered Reich dysfunctional as an administrator and policymaker.

At the NSC, Reich's responsibilities would include coordination of "long-term policy initiatives" and strategizing for the advancement of U.S. goals in the hemisphere. These obligations ostensibly would include "fostering and strengthening democratic institutions, promoting and defending human rights, advancing free trade and economic development and poverty alleviation." The custom-tailored position created for Reich – due to the abiding problems he faced with the Senate – in reality represents an homage to the influence of Miami's powerful right-wing Cuban-exile leadership. These politically well-connected individuals were adamant that Reich – who otherwise was perceived as a liability by political Washington – as well as the Miami-Cuban community would be insulted by his being given a position beneath his station. This battle was being waged at a time when the administration was under great pressure for paying too little attention to Latin America, and that its hemispheric policy was seen as being in disarray and operating in a vacuum.

Reich's Abrasive Personality a Factor

Last November, when his recess State Department appointment had come to an end, Reich had been moved out of his position as assistant secretary to the somewhat nebulous post of "Special Envoy" for Latin America, a position whose responsibility was so vague that not even the State Department chief press officer could explain it. His earlier position at the State Department came as a last gasp White House recess appointment, since the administration was unable to force his nomination through the then Democrat-controlled Senate or even have it scheduled to be considered. At the time, the then chairman of the Senate Western Hemisphere Affairs Sub-Committee, Senator Christopher Dodd (D- CT), urged President Bush to reconsider his decision to appoint Reich, describing the nominee as an "individual who does not have the support of the United States Senate."

The factors which led to Reich's original downfall were mainly his ideological extremism and his character flaws including a very abrasive personality, having a hard time adhering to the truth, a propensity for hysteria, self-preservation and skirting the boundary of illegality, as was the case when he was the director of the Office of Public Diplomacy during the Reagan presidency. In addition, he is well known for possessing a deeply embedded persecution complex that, at various stages of his embattled career, repeatedly had him whining at his opponents as he called upon the right-wing media, like the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, or syndicated journalists like Robert Novak, to salvage his political neck. He also repeatedly mobilized Miami-Cuban hard-line politicians, such as Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Illeana Ros-Lehtinien, to intercede on his behalf with the White House.

These tendencies are as present today as they have been throughout his career and it is a near certainty that in very short order they again will come to plague the Bush administration. However, the White House's ability to finally craft a slot for Reich will allow it to salvage, at least for the moment, the backing of Miami's hard-line Cubans, who have viewed the State Department's seeming indifference to Reich's political fate as a personal affront to all Cuban-Americans.

Likelihood of Inter-Agency Strife

In practice, the new position at the National Security Council could either be a consummate example of feather-bedding, a sinecure for Reich, whose creative comforts are never far from his thinking. If not, his presence at the NSC could be even more threatening to sound principles of regional policymaking than was the case when he was at the State Department. By reporting to NSC director Rice, theoretically he should be working mainly on long term desiderata for regional policy making, as well as general guidelines for new initiatives. Given the traditional ground-rules guiding the NSC's functions, Reich is not suppose to be as much operational as research and planning-oriented in his new post. Additionally, he will have to coordinate his work with John F. Maisto, a moderate career Foreign Service officer who, before coming to the NSC, had served (as had Reich), as ambassador to Venezuela, where he developed a reputation for being a centrist. Maisto will be assuming the post of senior director of Western Hemisphere Affairs on January 22.

Because of the incendiary nature of Reich's personality, his long history of skulduggery and a penchant for intrigue, those who are familiar with his career fear that in his new position, he will inevitably chafe at his relatively low-profile NSC duties and begin to recall the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earned yearly from being a weapons salesman for Lockheed-Martin and lobbying for the venomously anti-Castro Bacardi company, formerly based in Cuba.

Sooner than later, Reich can be counted on to begin initiating a barrage of phone calls to fellow Cuban exile operatives, as well as to the press, while putting pressure on the weak-willed and fellow ideologue Roger Noriega, who will be succeeding him at his old State Department position. This scenario inevitability will lead to tensions between the State and NSC, since Reich will think nothing of poaching on both Maisto's and Noriega's decision-making prerogatives. This in turn could lead to jurisdictional confrontations between the two foreign policy-related bodies, which have had a strife-ridden history and have waged monumental turf wars for much of the period since the founding of the NSC after World War II.

Roger Noriega – More Headaches in the Office

The person who will be replacing Reich as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs is Roger F. Noriega, whose background suggests that in both style and content he comes alarmingly close to being a warmed-over Reich, but with less exposure, skills and heft, and an equal predilection for invention and anti-Castro zealotry as well as being a Cold Warrior looking for a cause. Since August 2001, Noriega has occupied the post of Permanent U.S. Representative to the Organization of American States, where he half-heartedly read all of the statements drafted by the State Department speech writers. Prior to that, he was a staff member for Latin American issues for the recently retired Sen. Jesse Helms ( R – NC), when that archly right-wing Senator served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, during a period when he held an iron grip over U.S.-Latin American policy.

Noriega should be regarded as a grossly inappropriate candidate for the position for which he is being nominated. He should, and quite possibly could, have as much difficulty as Reich had in getting himself confirmed by the Senate. Given Helms' tendencies towards the end of his career to hand off day-to-day responsibility for policy-making to different members of his staff, there is every indication that Noriega was complicit in authoring many of the most extremist and off-the-wall actions affecting U.S. – Latin American policy that were initiated by Helms at the time. These included the freezing of some ambassadorial appointments that were personally opposed by Helms during the Clinton presidency, while lending support to the Clinton Administration's policy of economic asphyxiation towards Haiti. It is still unclear however, if Noriega can win quick Senate approval, since many see his extremist points of view relating, for example, to Haiti and Cuba, as all but indistinguishable from Reich's. A number of senators from both political parties are known to believe that Noriega's background is that of a wheedler and that he lacks the vision, the class, the experience, the intelligence and the administrative capacity to run a large diplomatic operation like the Bureau of Inter-American affairs. The fact that he was nominated for such an elevated position is a clear indication of the poverty of imagination of the State Department's Latin American policy under Secretary Powell, and how open it is to political manipulation.

Despite being in control of the Senate, some Republicans, including the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard G. Lugar (R – IN), already have expressed their unhappiness over the Noriega nomination. Lugar, a moderate, has said that as chairman, he will look for a tone of independence and bipartisanship, and that he is willing to prod the administration, or even differ from it, on important issues. He is already close to, and is likely to continue to be an ally of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who himself, on occasion, has clashed with the tendency of some senior officials in the Bush administration to use hardball tactics and the militarization of policy, instead of relying on diplomacy, in a misguided effort to advance non-authentic U.S. interests. But there is little evidence that Powell is prepared to focus long enough on Latin American policy-making in order to challenge the farming out of hemispheric policy to outrageously inappropriate right-wing ideologues like Reich and now Noriega. Certainly, this type of approach can be better described as a squalid rather than as a principled approach to sound regional policymaking.

Venezuela on its Mind

It comes as no surprise that the president's reorganization of his senior Latin America team coincides with the administration's decision to become involved in the political conflict engulfing Venezuela, along with such top-priority regional issues as immigration and democratization.

The middle-class-led general strike against the Chávez presidency, which now includes the walk-out of over 30 thousand workers from the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, has virtually paralyzed the country's production and export of petroleum. Since the U.S. normally imports 1.5 million barrels a day of Venezuelan crude (15 percent of its oil imports), a prolongation of the general strike in that country would be detrimental to the U.S. economy, especially at a time when war with Iraq seems on the horizon. The Bush administration, after weeks of welcomed inaction (given its normal interventionist tendencies), now feels that it has to play catch-up ball by any means possible in order to reach a quick resolution to the increasingly dangerous civic strife engulfing Venezuela. Most likely, this will involve coordinated action with Brazil and other regional nations as well as the OAS, to try to quickly resolve Venezuela's longstanding general strike, which has wrought catastrophic economic damage. It also means that Washington, along with OPEC, will attempt to stave off a dramatic increase in the price of oil, which could have a negative impact on the Bush administration's politically all-important economic recovery prospects.

A Bitter Heritage

Washington can ill-afford losing any time by wrangling with its Latin American sister nations – many of which, unlike the U.S., are pro-Chávez – as would certainly be the case if Reich were in a position to insert himself, as a former ambassador to Venezuela, into the diplomatic play surrounding the outcome of the current confrontation in Caracas. There is no question that, despite the subterfuge he retroactively engaged in, Reich ostensibly distanced himself and covered his foot prints from last April's coup, which briefly toppled Chávez from the presidency. Reich took a direct, personal and supervisory interest and quietly backed the coup through financing from the National Endowment for Democracy, the White House's semi-covert funding source for black box operations. If he again becomes operational in affecting U.S. security interests in the region, he could prove disastrous to regional stability and to prospects for an early peace in Venezuela.

Elsewhere in the hemisphere, Washington is trying to boost its leverage as co-host for the upcoming FTAA talks. In order to gain bargaining power, the Bush administration has set out to court regional countries by outlining bilateral and multilateral trade terms aimed at integrating their economies with that of the U.S. As 2005 (the proposed inauguration date of the FTAA) approaches, U.S. trade officials are working at an accelerated pace to meet that deadline with their priorities in order. To achieve its goals, however, Washington will have to work carefully not to offend Latin American countries, mainly Brazil, which, due to its increased stature, will be assuming Mexico's former position as the region's interlocutor with the U.S. This change is a result of former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Casteńeda discrediting the Fox administration by transforming Mexico's traditionally independent foreign policy into being the Bush administration's bag man for its Reich-driven anti-Havana policy.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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