Thursday, February 4, 2010

Senator Fiengold asks some real questions …

ambassadorial nominee blinks and trips

February 2 was a big day at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Committee had to hear from some eleven nominees for State Department and ambassadorial positions. Given the last eight years of difficulties at the US Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago (see That Did Not Work Out Very Well, Did It?), I wanted to hear what the President’s nominee, Beatrice Welters had to say during her nomination hearing.

You can view the recorded hearing here, as well as the prepared statement she submitted for the record.  The entire hearing with Ms. Welters, Ambassador Donald Booth (nominee for Ethiopia) and Bisa Williams (nominee for Niger) was 55:40 minutes long.  The Q&A that follows is actually more interesting because you get to see how quickly the nominees think on their feet, but it’s far too short.  At most the nominees get asked 3-4 questions, or less than 20 minutes of public grilling or love feast depending on who’s doing the asking. Cheat sheet below:

Ms. Welters delivered her prepared statement at 21:54. Her brief Q&A started after 36:57 with Senator Isaakson inquiring about Hugo Chavez’s influence in Trinidad and Tobago. She replied that the Prime Minister there “has handled that relationship very strategically and has handled it very well.”  The Senator had a follow-up question on progress of the (anti) narco trafficking efforts where most of our aid money goes. She responded that “Trinidad and Tobago has been working with the State Department, as well as DEA, FBI and the Southern Command on narcotics reduction and so they’ve been working very well.”

If you really want to know how “very well,” you might want to check out what the OIG says in 2009 about law enforcement and counternarcotics programs at the Embassy in Port-of-Spain:
“The Embassy’s progress in achieving counternarcotics goals is, at best, incremental. Officers have developed positive and cordial working relationships with host-country government officials charged with combating drugs. At an institutional level, however, the Trinidad Government exhibits a limited capacity to take on drug trafficking and traffickers with the kind of drive and efficiency that would lead to meaningful progress.”
It also says that “During his 2001-2009 tenure, the departed Ambassador involved himself intensely with counternarcotics issues, not always to the advantage of other mission priorities. […] The mission strongly believes, and the OIG team concurs, that the Trinidad Government must make statutory changes to improve its ability to fight drug trafficking. If Trinidad’s parliament enacted a wiretapping law and a law regularizing the status of an elite anticrime unit, among others, government officials charged with counternarcotics responsibilities would be better able to make real progress.”

This specific subject was the OIG’s Recommendation 2: Embassy Port of Spain should consolidate and act on its plans to press the Government of Trinidad and Tobago for legislative changes needed to improve counternarcotics efforts.”

At 40:52 Senator Inofe asked about advanced planning given the location of Trinidad and Tobago. Ms. Welters responded that her first item is to go over the emergency plan.

Five minutes before the hearing concluded, Senator Feingold asked a couple of questions. At 51:56 into the hearing he asked if she could summarize her qualifications to be ambassador. Ms Welters replied that she is a strong manager; that she built programs and organizations that are sustainable. She also said that her major focus would be on youth and whether her programs here can work there (service projects, summer camp programs).

With Trinidad and Tobago sitting on extensive oil and natural gas reserves, Senator Fiengold also talked about the “resource curse.” He wanted to know what are some of the best practices used by the government of Trinidad and Tobago to eskew the pitfalls of some other natural resource rich nations and in what way could the island be a model and exhibit more leadership regionally or globally in this area.

I’m sorry to say that the nominee looked lost in the forest then. She eventually answered that Trinidad and Tobago is looking at diversifying its products “so that they will not fall prey to others.” She also added that Trinidad and Tobago is worried that their partnership agreement that allow them trade preferences on petroleum products is about to expire. If that expires then “trade will be um reduced between America and um other nations in the region…um …so…” The Senator started thanking the nominees then asked, “did you want to say something?”  Ms. Welters replied “no.” Senator Fiengold then concluded the hearing.  

If this were a test, Ms. Welters would get a point for that softball question on the emergency plan but flunk the rest of the exam.

Unlike AFSA, I am not asking that this President bring his political ambassadorships down to 10%; I recognize the near-impossibility of that number.  But even amateur diplomats ought to have a solid grasp of what they’re getting themselves into.  I don't think that's unfair or too much to ask.  After all, by nominating this particular individual as his top representative in Trinidad and Tobago, the President has indicated that this is the best person for the job, better than professional diplomats, in fact.  I'd like to see that this is so.  Most particularly for this US post that has had a dysfunctional history in the last decade under another political appointee.       


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