Shrubs Man In Madrid

Illustration by Bob AulIt isn't every day that a multimillionaire Republican fund-raiser whose property-management company is under investigation for habitually swindling thousands of poor and largely immigrant tenants gets nominated for a big ambassadorship. But that's exactly what happened on April 25 to local real-estate tycoon George Argyros, as heralded by the following White House press release:

"George Argyros is a leader in his community who has been active in numerous civic, cultural and philanthropic organizations."

This ovation comes from—if we believe the release—President George W. Bush himself.

And Bush didn't stop there, adding that the megadeveloper and alleged tenant swindler's "experience in trade policy and foreign affairs, as well as his interest in education and the arts, will make him an excellent ambassador to Spain and Andorra."

This nomination of Argyros is, for reasons that transcend his current legal troubles, a travesty. Spain is a nation of 40 million people that has become—since the death of its loathsome dictator Francisco Franco in 1975—a modern democracy. It is also a member of NATO and thus one of America's closest allies. Nevertheless, there are complex issues between the U.S. and Spain, issues that could use the deft hand of a career diplomat, not the harsh, bumbling hubris of a political appointee.

For instance, the U.S. is currently providing counterterrorist "technical assistance" to Spanish government forces. Since 1959, Spain has been dealing with the minority Basque separatist movement spearheaded by the terrorist group ETA. Six years ago, the ETA even tried to kill current Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who was then an opposition party leader. Regardless of Spain's counterterrorist activities, the ETA has survived. What Spain might do next—and how involved we will become in their struggle—remains to be seen.

At the same time, the 1989 Agreement on Defense Cooperation is under review. Extending the agreement would allow the U.S. Navy to maintain its logistics base at Rota, located near Cadiz on Spain's Atlantic coast. That base supplies the submarines and carrier battle groups of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, based in the Mediterranean.

In March of this year, more than a thousand Spanish civilians working at the Rota base demonstrated for wage hikes. That's in addition to the annual April demonstrations of a few thousand Spaniards protesting the presence of U.S. military forces on Spanish soil. On top of all that, the Spanish government is trying to get an agreement for all Sixth Fleet ships to use only Spanish-run shipyards for maintenance.

In addition, Spain is at odds with the U.S. over the death penalty, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and the American embargo against Cuba. None of these issues threatens an outright split with Spain, but if they are allowed to fester, they could strain relations unnecessarily. As the current administration is hell-bent on killing Americans, Kyoto and Castro as quickly as possible, it's likely these disagreements will only get worse.

There's ample reason for such pessimism. Of the past 23 ambassadors to Spain, going back to 1933, 18 of them were either career foreign-service officers or men who had been ambassadors to other nations before going to Spain. Five had seen combat in World War I. One, Horacio Rivero, who was appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, was the first Latino to be a full admiral in the U.S. Navy.

Observing this pattern, one State Department official familiar with the Argyros nomination said, "The White House doesn't normally choose such lightweights for Madrid."

In fact, just three of those 23 former ambassadors had absolutely no diplomatic experience when appointed. The first was Claude G. Bowers, an Indiana newspaper publisher and celebrated liberal orator appointed in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt. That was the only inexperienced man sent to Madrid until President George Bush the Elder appointed investment banker Joseph Zappala in 1989. Senate Democrats delighted in pointing out that Zappala, who couldn't speak Spanish, claimed that the Italian he did know was close enough. Bush followed up this appointment with Miami newspaper publisher Richard G. Capen in 1992. Capen went on to a role on the board of directors for Freedom Communications, parent company of The Orange County Register.

Joining those three is Argyros, our new ambassador-designate to Madrid. Not only does Argyros lack the standard foreign-policy credentials that marked most ambassadors to Spain in the 20th century, but he is also infected with Zappala's inability to speak Spanish.

The Argyros "experience" White House officials are passing off as foreign-policy credentials is laughable. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan appointed Argyros to a two-year term on the U.S. Trade Representative's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. That committee, largely made up of corporate executives, ostensibly provides advice on trade negotiations. In reality, it's a group of business types who get together and decide how trade policy can best help out their business brethren. It is most certainly not a diplomatic position.

Three years later, in 1991, Bush the Elder named Argyros part of a six-member delegation to Athens. The delegation was to represent Bush at the Grecian celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of democracy.

And that's it, as far as Argyros' foreign-policy experience goes. Is it any wonder critics have pointed to the $50 million Argyros brought into the George W. Bush campaign coffers during the 2000 election as the key reason behind the appointment?


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