Retread rogues: The president appoints a troika of Latin American cold warriors with questionable human rights records. Plus: Did Bush ride bad overseas ballots to victory in Florida?

Published July 16, 2001 11:39PM (EDT)

Bush league: Retread rogues

As a foreign policy novice, President Bush has clearly tried to choose people with substantial international affairs experience for sensitive posts in his administration.

But what kind of experience? A trio of Bush picks is raising red flags among human rights groups, thanks to their work during the Reagan administration's battle against Central American communists in the 1980s.

Late last week, Bush officially sent to the Senate the nomination of Cuban-American Otto Reich to serve as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the top Latin American diplomatic post. Reich previously served in the Reagan State Department in the Office of Public Diplomacy. In that post, Reich was charged with maintaining public interest in and support for America's fight with communist forces in Central America. But Democrats in Congress at the time said that Reich used his office to cover up human rights abuses, including politically motivated murders, perpetrated by America's Central American allies. No charges were ever filed against Reich.

Bush's nomination of John Negroponte to serve as American ambassador to the United Nations, meanwhile, was well received by many Republicans and Clinton administration veterans. Negroponte has already served under four presidents, in positions as exciting and controversial as assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environment and scientific affairs, a post he held under Reagan.

But it's his years of service as ambassador to Honduras, from 1981 to 1985, that has human rights groups worried. American funding for the anti-communist government there increased by a factor of 20 during Negroponte's tenure, but he repeatedly discounted reports of government-sponsored death squads. Though the Honduran government itself later acknowledged responsibility for the extrajudicial executions of approximately 200 government critics, Negroponte has never backed away from his denials that such incidents occurred on his watch.

The Senate will be able to take a crack at the records of both Reich and Negroponte, but Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams needed only the president's approval to win a post of senior director of the National Security Council's Office for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations. As Reagan's assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, Abrams was criticized for ignoring human rights charges against anti-communist forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and he eventually pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors associated with less-than-truthful congressional testimony about the Iran-Contra affair. But he never served any jail time; the first President Bush pardoned Abrams on his final Christmas Eve in the White House.

Critics are whispering that the latest President Bush's affection for Reagan-era commie-busters has less to do with foreign affairs and more to do with Florida politics. These choices, particularly the Reich pick, have reportedly gladdened the hearts of leaders within the Cuban exile community, a crucial Republican voting bloc in that state.

-- Alicia Montgomery

Daily line

"This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on."
-- White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, reacting to a New York Times report that Bush relied on invalid overseas ballots to secure his win in Florida

Bush buzz

The president just can't get away from questions about the Florida election. After ending last week on a high note, Bush may be brought back to earth with the New York Times' report Sunday that Republicans pressed Florida election officials to accept faulty overseas ballots on his behalf. According to the article, the state counted 680 ballots that lacked witness signatures or were incorrectly postmarked. At the time, Bush's forces won the P.R. battle with former Vice President Al Gore by depicting Democratic efforts to reject bad overseas ballots as unpatriotic.

Another Republican victory threatens to bite back at Bush. No one said that the ballots were incorrectly counted in last week's House vote on campaign finance reform, but Democrats and GOP advocates of the Shays-Meehan reform bill are grousing about parliamentary dirty tricks by Republican leaders.

The bad blood prompted by the momentary sinking of the bill -- which Bush would have been loath to veto -- could endanger the president's agenda in the House, his last legislative refuge since the Democrats took over the Senate in June. (The GOP's slim edge in the House makes every Republican vote crucial in passing Bush-sanctioned bills.) Members allied with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., are sounding less than eager to play ball with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in light of the bill's ugly demise. They have pledged to force the House leadership to grant them a floor debate on the issue, even if it means blocking votes on some items on the president's wish list.

The assault on Shays-Meehan is another thorn in the crown of Bush nemesis Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., campaign finance reform's most visible advocate. The Arizona lawmaker, who hit the stump for dozens of Republican House candidates in the last election, is getting another day in the sun thanks to the Shays-Meehan battle, and could earn the loyalty of newly discontented GOP moderates.

It's enough to make a president want to get out of town. Bush will get that chance later this week, when he is scheduled to leave on the second European trip of his presidency. He'll begin with a visit to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Bush's last trip was plagued by thousands of demonstrators, protesting everything from America's death penalty record to the administration's business-friendly environmental policies. The president may not be confronted with the banners and uncovered butts of those demonstrators on this journey, but he'll still have to defend his policies, particularly his hostility to the Kyoto treaty on global warming.

He'll also have to answer for his determination to go forward with plans for a missile defense system. While the Pentagon heralds a rare successful test of the system, officials in Russia complain that Bush is provoking a new arms race. America's European allies have expressed the same worry.

While his boss tries to smooth feathers in Europe, Vice President Cheney and the Cabinet will try to breathe new life into Bush's comatose energy policy. Public interest in the president's proposals -- which was never very high -- is slipping now that gas prices have fallen from early summer peaks.

And don't miss racial profiling at the White House. An incident in which the Secret Service wrongly ejected an Arab-American man from a White House event has complicated Bush's relationship with the Arab-American community.

To help stabilize U.S. relations with Arab nations, the president's dad called Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last month, telling him that President Bush's "heart is in the right place" on Middle East policy. The crown prince has been openly critical of Bush for what the Saudis consider White House partiality to the Israelis.

Monday schedule: The president participates in a Congressional Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. Vice President Cheney travels to Pennsylvania to promote the administration's energy policy.

-- A.M.

This day in Bush history

July 16, 1998: Gov. George W. Bush announced that an arbitration panel would decide how much Texas attorneys would get paid for negotiating a $15.3 billion settlement with the tobacco industry to cover the state's expenses for treating sick smokers. The governor balked at the $2.3 billion that the lawyers had requested, and the dispute was delaying payment of the settlement. Bush said that sending the fight to federal arbitrators would end the roadblock without letting lawyers pocket an unreasonable amount of money. "The agreement is a good step toward protecting the interest of Texas taxpayers," he said.

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Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert , Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

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By Salon Staff

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