Motley out, Abrams in: Latin door continues to revolve at State

The State Department's top Latin America post has become something of a revolving door for its occupants -- a difficult post that seems to spark controversy. In any event, few occupants stay long.

Langhorne A. Motley, the current assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, who resigned April 30 after less than two years on the job, is a case in point. He actually served a bit longer than most in the past 20 years.

Mr. Motley, who earlier had been United States ambassador to Brazil, apparently lost the confidence of Secretary of State George P. Shultz over Central American issues. While there was originally a sense of trust between the two, it apparently had evaporated in recent weeks.

Motley seems also to have run afoul of national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane on the same issues.

Moreover, those close to Motley suggest that as he came to know Central America and understand its problems, he began to question simplistic answers to the region's problems.

He is understood further to have argued vigorously that the Reagan administration should pay greater attention to Central America's staggering social problems and their consequences on the area's 21 million people than Washington has tended to in its growing confrontation with Marxism in the region.

Motley came to recognize, associates say, that there are two key influences in the region -- the social structures that for centuries had kept the region in backwardness and the outright meddling of Cuba and the Soviet Union. US policy, he is said to have argued, should be based on simultaneously addressing each of those situations.

There was, in the Motley view, ``something of a need for a two-track approach to the problems of Central America,'' said one close to Motley, ``although he would probably not use that phrase.'' He earnestly pushed the concept within the the State Department and within the administration -- and this apparently led to his loss of Mr. Shultz's confidence and to Mr. McFarlane's antagonism.

Ironically, the similar effort by Thomas O. Enders, Motley's predecessor, led to his resignation two years ago.

Motley's successor is Elliott Abrams, currently the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, whose less-strident approach on human rights is more in keeping with the Reagan administration attitude on the subject, and he has clearly won recognition in the White House.

Mr. Abrams, who must be confirmed by the Senate, is unlikely to stir any controversy over his handling of the Latin America post. He is not, however, a Latin America specialist. As a consequence, there is some grumbling among Latin Americanists in the department over his selection. Motley had at least been ambassador to Brazil before his appointment.

The post of assistant secretary for Latin American issues has clearly become a difficult one, partly because of the growing importance of the region in US policy. Latin America has always had a somewhat special relationship in US foreign policy, but it has not always occupied a place of major importance.

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