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Herr Reich 

Should Otto make us laugh or cry?

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002
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If Otto Reich didn’t exist, the guys at Central Casting would invent him. Unless, of course, direct-mail fund-raising strategists at the Democratic National Committee beat them to it.

Otto Reich is what you‘d call a Worst-Case-Scenario Republican, a veritable right-wing bogeyman. Lay out his bio in a mass-mail appeal, and all Democrats from the Upper West Side to Lower Malibu who ever believed that the sky ominously sags anytime a Republican moves into the White House will obediently snap open their wallets and checkbooks.

Reich is a hard-line confrontational conservative, a loyal networker with Ollie North, a frontline player in the Reagan-era wars against Central America, a Republican diplomat accused of protecting bona fide terrorists, and a former lobbyist for Big Tobacco, for arms merchants and for the liquor industry. (And then there’s his rather unfortunate Teutonic name; of Austrian parentage, he was born in Cuba 56 years ago.)

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Reich is such an off-the-shelf villain that even that invertebrate species known as congressional Democrats vowed to block his appointment to head up the Latin American section of the State Department as soon as President Bush announced it last summer.

And for six months, the world was a safer place as Herr Reich was stalled out in Senate limbo.

That prophylactic purgatory came to an end last week when George W. Bush took advantage of Congress‘ winter break and made what’s known as a ”recess appointment,“ avoiding the need for Senate approval. Otto Reich now becomes assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs with a policy purview that stretches from Alaska to what used to be Argentina.

For your ”Why Do They Hate Us?“ file, consider Reich‘s record:

Back in the 1980s, the U.S. was spending hundreds of millions of dollars supporting a Death Squad Democracy in El Salvador as well as a covert and dirty ”contra“ war against neighboring Nicaragua. The resulting 120,000 or so deaths incurred in those conflicts was a mounting embarrassment for the Reaganites. Their remedy was to put Reich in charge of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy. Its task was to churn out propaganda to convince the American people that the terrorists on our payroll were, in fact, Freedom Fighters.

”The propaganda was synchronized with a broad a political-action campaign that involved the channeling of illegal support to the contras and the targeting of key members of Congress in sub rosa political campaigns,“ is how the Washington, D.C.--based Center for International Policy describes Reich‘s handiwork. The dark content of Reich’s propaganda machine was made public in the Iran-contra hearings of 1987. The Office of Public Diplomacy was found by the General Accounting Office to have ”engaged in prohibited covert propaganda activities,“ and it was closed.

But Reich escaped unscathed, and, for his loyal service in undermining the Constitution, the Gipper promoted him to U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. According to recently declassified files, Reich seems to have spent most of his tenure in Caracas helping convicted anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch succeed in getting into the U.S. Bosch had spent a decade in a Venezuelan slammer for masterminding the blowing up of a Cuban civilian airliner while in midair -- an act of international terror that took the lives of six dozen civilians.

After making that special contribution to history, Reich spent the ‘90s flacking for tobacco companies, helping Lockheed Martin sell fighter planes to South America, and repping for Bacardi rum as it tried to wrest lucrative brand names from the Cuban government.

Does Reich’s triumphal return to State mean a resumption of the bad old days of drawing lines and issuing ultimatums south of the border? Sorry to disappoint the direct-mail boys, but the answer is probably not.

Not even Reich‘s boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, can take him seriously. The always-dutiful Powell had to appear before the cameras giving lip service to Reich’s appointment while it was an open secret that he was fighting it inside the Oval Office. So no need yet to start unfurling your old ”U.S. Out of El Salvador!“ banners.

Reich‘s appointment responds to much more sordid -- and arguably worse -- motives than a flare-up of Yankee imperialism. ”Reich’s appointment has nothing to do with foreign policy and everything to do with domestic politics,“ says William Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy and point man in the failed effort to stop Reich‘s nomination. ”It’s George Bush‘s political payoff to Florida’s Cuban-Americans for supporting Jeb Bush‘s run for re-election as governor.“

Goodfellow is right on the money. Southern Florida’s sprawling Cuban-American community is a financial and electoral pump for the Republicans, and -- given that state‘s clearly demonstrated swing status -- the GOP will spare no political capital in keeping it primed. The organized Cuban-exile community views the chubby and ambling Reich as no less than a swashbuckling and slashing gladiator in its interminable joust with Castro. And Reich’s ascent to State will be richly rewarded with Cuban-American votes in the GOP column in this fall‘s gubernatorial election when the president’s little brother runs again.

The collateral damage here is significant. Reich is precisely the wrong man for this moment in Latin American relations. The slavishly pro-U.S. Latin American consensus of two decades ago is badly frayed, and Reich can be expected to do little more than tug on the loose threads. His Sandinista enemies in Nicaragua still get 40 percent of the vote and elect the mayor of the capital. In El Salvador, the former guerrillas that Reich fought are today the biggest party in the elected congress. The new Mexican foreign minister was a fierce leftist critic of the old Reagan-Reich policies. Chile‘s government is left of center. Venezuela seethes under an anti-U.S. populist regime and teeters on the brink of a military takeover. Colombia needs to be desperately yanked back from the abyss of an all-out civil war. Argentina’s mood remains volatile with its currency collapse after a decade of following U.S. monetary prescriptions. Brazil is only just recovering from a similar breakdown.

And not a single European country, not even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, nor a legion of farm-state Republicans any longer supports the American embargo on Cuba -- which Reich has vowed to tighten.

All of these issues will now go untended as the Bushies put the most wretched of political and electoral calculations ahead of the interests of hemispheric harmony. So cynical is this move that Bush knows very well that Reich, because he is a recess appointment, could be out of his job when Congress finishes its next session in 10 months. Another year will be lost in modernizing U.S. policy in the region -- but what the hell. Brother Jeb just might get re-elected.

A good friend of mine, bathed in the gothic sensibilities of the American South, told me back in the ‘80s that I was worrying too much. Any country so trivialized that millions of its inhabitants eat food with their fingers and spend their evenings cackling in front of The Simpsons, he said, could never achieve great evil, could never countenance, say, gold being pulled from their neighbors’ teeth. I suspect he‘s right, but I’m not always sure. So when I weigh the cheap political banality in which the Reich appointment is wrapped against the possible policy fallout, I honestly don‘t know if it’s better to laugh or to cry.

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