U.S. ambassador to Brazil called back to oversee the Foreign Service

U.S. ambassador to Brazil called back to oversee the Foreign Service

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is temporarily bringing back U.S. ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon to serve as acting undersecretary of state for political affairs while the State Department awaits the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nominee for the post, Wendy Sherman.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed to The Cable that Shannon will begin work next week as the temporary successor to Bill Burns, who was promoted to replace Jim Steinberg as deputy secretary of state. Shannon, a well-respected career member of the Foreign Service, served as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs from 2005 to 2009 and was the National Security Council senior director for the same region from 2003 to 2005.

Shannon will lead an office that has oversight of the State Department’s regional bureaus and has responsibility for the day-to-day management of regional and bilateral issues. In a way, Shannon’s return to Foggy Bottom temporarily solves two problems for Clinton, as he also will be able to keep an eye on the western hemisphere bureau, which remains leaderless since the May departure of Arturo Valenzuela.

Nuland emphasized that the State Department intends to return Shannon to Brazil as soon as Sherman is confirmed. She said that Shannon will return “for what we hope will be only a few weeks … until the Senate acts on the president’s nomination of Wendy Sherman.”

“This stop-gap measure will help the secretary and department officials manage business until the confirmation of Ambassador Sherman. We have every expectation that the Senate will act quickly on Ambassador Sherman’s nomination as soon as possible after Labor Day,” Nuland told The Cable.

But Sherman’s nomination still faces resistance by some GOP senators. They have three main concerns. One is due to Sherman’s time as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright‘s counselor and North Korea policy coordinator. Some in the Senate GOP caucus are upset that the Obama administration has begun meeting bilaterally with the North Koreans and might use this nomination, along with the nomination of Sung Kim to be ambassador to Seoul, to make their point.

Second, senators are poised to demand that Sherman disclose her private client list as a vice president at the consulting firm of Albright-Stonebridge. There’s suspicion, but as of yet no evidence, that Sherman worked on behalf of Chinese state-owned firms. Senators will demand full disclosure.

Lastly, senators will criticize Sherman for being president of the Fannie Mae Foundation from 1996 to 1997. Fannie Mae practices, mostly outside the Foundation, contributed to the financial meltdown, although those abuses occurred largely after she left.

State Department officials feel they have a strong candidate in Sherman and are prepared to fight for her confirmation. It’s too early to see exactly how strong the GOP opposition to her confirmation will be, but there is more than one Republican senator opposed to her confirmation.

No Senate holds have been placed on the nomination yet — that can only happen after Sherman is approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sherman has yet to receive a hearing before the committee, which will only occur after Congress returns from vacation in September.

Meanwhile, Shannon will keep her chair warm. Another Latin America hand at State, Brian Naranjo, has been managing the staff of the office of undersecretary for political affairs office in Burns’ and Shannon’s absence. He will continue on in his job as the acting executive assistant to the undersecretary, placing him as Shannon’s right hand man and head of the office staff.

It’s not that unusual for an acting undersecretary to be put in place when there’s a prolonged vacancy. During former President George W. Bush‘s administration, Assistant Secretary Chris Burnham served as acting undersecretary for management under then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Assistant Secretary John Rood worked as acting undersecretary for arms control for about 18 months from 2007 to 2009.

State is hoping that Shannon won’t have to serve in his acting capacity that long. He will keep his diplomatic credentials in Brazil. Todd Chapman, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Brazil, will mind the store as chargé d’affaires during Shannon’s absence.