Guest Post by Patrick Doherty: Obama Should Recruit Richardson


Patrick Doherty directs the New America Foundation/U.S.-Cuba 21st Century Policy Initiative. This post originally appeared at The Havana Note.
Governor Bill Richardson is visiting Cuba on a trade mission for his state this week. In an AP story filed yesterday, Richardson announced that he would report on his trip to President Barack Obama, but that he was not on a mission and carried no message from Washington.
When Richardson reports, Obama should recruit. President Obama should offer this former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, former Secretary of Energy, and former member of Congress a role as the point person for the Obama administration’s Cuba policy. It is a perfect opportunity at a perfect time.
First, he’s got the chops. “Rogue-state” Richardson built his diplomatic reputation on negotiating with authoritarian regimes to secure U.S. interests. He successfully negotiated with Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Kim Jong-Il, and Omar al-Bashir. All of those countries exported nuclear weapons, invaded their neighbors and/or committed crimes against humanity. By contrast, the Castro government, now exporting doctors and nurses, nickel, tobacco, rum and tanned tourists, is tame.
He’s also got ‘street cred’ in DC. Mr. Richardson was the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Deputy Majority Whip. He is also a border-state governor, an agricultural state governor, and the only Hispanic state governor. All of these credentials are essential to being able to make the case within the administration, within Congress, and with the American people that the time to evolve our relations with Cuba is now.
The Governor is no liberal idealist, but has deep realist roots. He began his career in Washington working as a Congressional liaison for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Nixon Administration. After leaving office as Secretary of Energy and before becoming Governor, he joined his old boss at Kissinger McLarty Associates. He sat on the boards of Valero Energy and Diamond Offshore Drilling, giving him a keen understanding of the energy dynamics at play in today’s U.S.-Cuba relationship. With that experience, he’ll keep a keen eye on the broader U.S. interests at play in Cuba policy rather than those of a small minority of irreconcilable Cuban-Americans.
The Richardson choice would finesse significant bureaucratic deadlock. By picking Richardson and giving him autonomy over his team, President Obama would avoid the web of entanglements built into the State Department bureaucracy. Though career officials, the Cuba desk at State is watched like a hawk by Congressional Cuba Hawks opposed to any efforts to change the 50-year old policy. President Obama does not even have an assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs yet, as his nomination has yet to be voted on by the Senate. It is even doubtful that Secretary of State Clinton, who needs to remain close to Senator Menendez to keep her department’s funding intact, has any real interest in putting Cuba on her geopolitical to-do list. It’s high time that a president took a page out of Nixon’s playbook and did an end run around Foggy Bottom to finally get the Cuba relationship where it should be.
As Envoy, Richardson would be immediately backed by a broad array of domestic support. In Congress, without much effort or fanfare, 160 members in the House and 31 members in the Senate are already cosponsoring legislation to end the travel ban. Former Southern Command CINCs like General Barry McCaffrey and a broad array of groups including the Catholic Church, the American Farm Bureau, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, have come out in favor of changing the policy. Even a majority of Cuban Americans polled in Florida are also ready for a change. And for good reason: the policy failed, contact with everyday Americans and normal trade relations is more effective, and at least the ag sector really stands to benefit, with an estimated $1.2 billion in annual farm sales to Cuba coming from normalization. The world would back him too: last year it voted 185-3 to condemn the U.S. embargo.
The governor could even work part time. Obama’s envoy to the Six Party Talks with North Korea, Ambassador Bosworth, has kept his day job as dean of the Fletcher School (Richardson’s and this author’s alma mater). It might not even take that long. Raul Castro has indicated his willingness to talk, migration talks have already been productive and the Cuban government is signalling to everyone that political prisoners, Obama’s key precondition, are doable.
And the timing could not be better. President Obama’s honeymoon has been ended by the health care debate and climate change legislation is looking equally difficult. While his reversal of the worst excesses of the Bush administration were a relief, he has yet to deliver the kind of change that the rest of the world expected from candidate Obama. In Latin America, where immigration, energy, and trade issues have great impact on the lives of every day Americans, the neighbors are unanimous: end the embargo and then we’ll turn the page. Obama needs a win and Cuba can give it to him.
Richardson’s visit along with his clean bill of legal health, is a gift. The White House should accept it and make Bill Richardson him the presidential envoy to Cuba.
— Patrick Doherty


8 comments on “Guest Post by Patrick Doherty: Obama Should Recruit Richardson

  1. Lindie B says:

    Where’s the caption for this photo?
    “I’ve had my taxpayers’ dental plan working, how ’bout you, Mr. President?!”


  2. Mr.Murder says:

    Cuba normalization would be a boon to the refinery belt alonmg the Gulf Coast. Fuel futures would ease regionally, placing back pressure on the market for the purpose of creating new incentive for job growth in the southeast and gulf coast regions.


  3. nadine says:

    Richardson Probe ‘Was Killed in Washington’
    New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former high-ranking members of his administration won’t be criminally charged in a federal investigation into pay-to-play allegations.
    Thursday, August 27, 2009
    SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former high-ranking members of his administration won’t be criminally charged in a yearlong federal investigation into pay-to-play allegations involving one of the Democratic governor’s large political donors, someone familiar with the case said.
    The decision not to pursue indictments was made by top Justice Department officials, according to a person familiar with the investigation, who asked not to be identified because federal officials had not disclosed results of the probe.
    “It’s over. There’s nothing. It was killed in Washington,” the person told The Associated Press.
    A federal grand jury began an investigation in 2008 into a possible pay-to-play scheme in which lucrative work on state bond deals went to a Richardson donor. The federal probe derailed Richardson’s appointment as commerce secretary in President Barack Obama’s administration.
    Richardson withdrew his nomination in January, saying the investigation would have delayed his confirmation although he said expected to be cleared.
    Richardson and members of his staff traveled to Cuba this week for a trade mission. Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos didn’t immediately respond to e-mail messages seeking confirmation that no charges were expected from the federal investigation.
    A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Albuquerque said he had no information about the Justice Department’s decision and couldn’t comment.
    Federal investigators reviewed whether political contributions influenced the selection of California-based CDRs made up mostly of executive branch department administrators and gubernatorial appointees.


  4. David says:

    Bill Richardson’s track record for this kind of initiative is excellent. Let President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and everyone else involved work out their interrelationships, but get on with bringing US-Cuba policy into the world of sane, sound foreign policy, and do it now, not later.


  5. nadine says:

    Seven months ago Bill Richardson had to withdraw his nomination for Commerce Secretary because the feds were investigating him for pay-to-play. Now you want Obama to nominate him to run Cuba policy? Wouldn’t the same problem come up again, or are you simply recommending that Obama run the entire executive branch through newly invented offices instead of cabinet posts?


  6. JohnH says:

    Zathras has the weird mindset that if you negotiate–and that means giving up something–then you have totally surrendered. It’s the same mindset that keeps the US from negotiating with Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Hamas, and attempting to smooth relations with Russia, Venezuela and other Latin American democracies.
    Bullies don’t settle for less than the whole enchilada.
    It was a BIG problem under Bush, and it will get bigger since there are few nations on earth that will be content to give the US EVERYTHING it wants. Constantly placating a bully does not happy campers make…


  7. Paul Norheim says:

    how exactly would you explain your characterization of
    normalizing US-Cuban relations as “surrendering to Castro”? Do
    you think ending the embargo would strengthen communism,
    weaken American capitalism and send more dissidents in jail on
    the island, or what?


  8. Zathras says:

    I think President Obama might need a slightly better reason to thumb his nose at Congress, at his own Secretary of State, and at his Secretary of State’s department than the pressing need to recruit yet another celebrity special envoy.
    Czars, coordinators and special envoys have proliferated throughout Obama’s administration in the short period since his inauguration. Some of this may have been useful in the short run, as a way to get experienced people with outsized egos into positions of responsibility quickly without saddling them with administrative duties in which they have no interest or protocol ranks beneath their station. It’s no way to run a railroad over the long run, though; the system we have mandates Congressional oversight for a reason, and common sense suggests that treating existing Executive Branch agencies as problems to be bypassed is just purchasing relief for bureaucratic headaches today at the price of much larger policy headaches tomorrow.
    I understand this is not Doherty’s concern. He has a policy objective he considers to be of overriding importance, and therefore wants an envoy prepared to do anything — grovel, plead, surrender on every point at issue — to get it. In addition, his acute political sense tells him that a Democratic President battling difficulties in Congress because he won’t surrender to Republicans on health care obviously needs the boost that surrendering to Castro would provide.
    If I agreed with that reasoning, well, I’d probably agree also that Richardson is the guy for the job. As it is, I’d suggest Obama make a priority of filling out his foreign policy team in the regular way, and save any more special envoy appointments for some future crisis.


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