Placing blame on Helms obscures dirty details

Although some of the actors have changed, we've seen this movie before. Brian Atwood, the administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID), and one of our country's most talented foreign affairs professionals, was nominated by President Clinton to be ambassador to Brazil, a country with the world's eighth-largest economy. We have not had an ambassador there for one year.

Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, objected because Mr. Atwood had prevented the senator from having AID absorbed by the Department of State. Mr. Helms sat on the nomination; Atwood finally withdrew on May 18.

The United States has been denied another skilled professional in a key post. This is hardly the first time Helms has blocked a nomination. William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, was blocked from being ambassador to Mexico because he represented the moderate side of the Republican Party.

At this moment, 22 Clinton ambassadorial nominees, including Richard Holbrooke to be ambassador to the United Nations, are being held up by Helms.

I myself had the experience. After 25 years working on Latin America, I was nominated to be ambassador to Panama by President Clinton in 1993. The committee voted 16 to 3 in my favor, but Helms single-handedly prevented the Senate from voting on my nomination. His reason was that I supported the Panama Canal Treaties in 1978 - together with 68 of his colleagues.

Does Helms have a right to vote against a nominee? Absolutely.

The Constitution gives the president power to nominate, and the Senate, the power to confirm or reject ambassadors. But a single senator should not have the right to prevent his colleagues from debating or voting on a nominee, though this is what Helms does routinely.

Are Helms's foreign policy views legitimate grounds for opposing a nominee? Absolutely.

He has strong views - he supported apartheid and military regimes in Latin America; he opposed the UN, foreign aid, the international development banks, human rights policy against authoritarian governments, the North American Free Trade Agreement and freer trade in general, and international covenants on human rights, among other things.

Given Helms's philosophy, an interesting question is why he has opposed so few of Clinton's nominees.

That may be because many of the administration's political appointees for ambassador have been big campaign contributors. The Senate is complicit in the long-standing practice of letting people buy embassies by contributing to campaigns because senators also rely on contributions, in some cases from the same people.

The campaign-finance laws are a disgrace to our country and sending major financial contributors abroad as ambassadors doubles the embarrassment.

A rare case in which the Senate held up a campaign contributor was James Hormel, the heir to the meat-packing fortune, who contributed $200,000 to the Democratic Party in 1996. But Senate Republicans opposed him to be ambassador to Luxembourg not because of his contributions or his lack of foreign policy experience but because he is gay. The Senate wrongly denied Mr. Hormel a debate and a vote, and the president last week wrongly side-stepped the nomination process by appointing him for 18 monthsduring a congressional recess. Both tactics subvert the Constitution's intent.

What is most troubling is that no one in the White House or the Senate seems interested in the question: Who is the best person for each position to serve this great country?

Tragically, too few presidents have bothered to answer this question, and there have been too few memorable ambassadors.

Brian Atwood and Richard Holbrooke are capable of that kind of greatness, but they are exceptions to the rule, which is perhaps the reason they've had such a hard time. However, Mr. Holbrooke is needed desperately by our country in the UN Security Council to bring Russia and China into the process of peacemaking in the Balkans and elsewhere. His hearings were finally scheduled for June 17. Legitimate issues regarding conflict of interest and his previous record should be aired, but hopefully, a vote to confirm will occur soon after that.

Leaving aside these cases, this is a good time for the Senate and the president to establish a bipartisan commission to look into ways to improve the nomination process. It takes two to eight months for the president to decide on a potential nominee and for the bureaucracy to provide security and other clearances; it took one year for Holbrooke's nomination to reach the Senate. Then, it takes 8 to 10 months more for the average ambassadorial nominee to be confirmed by the Senate - four to five times longer than was the case before the 1990s.

The country pays a high price when its embassies are empty or filled with mediocrity. Clinton is not the first president to trade embassies for campaign contributions, but he should be the last. The entire process should be reduced to three months, and the criterion for selecting and judging the nominee should be whether the person is the best or one of the best to represent the US in that country.

It might be too late for Clinton to do that, but it's not too late for the country.

*Robert A. Pastor, professor of political science at Emory University, was director of the Latin American and democracy programs at the Carter Center, in Atlanta, from 1985 to 1998.

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