IF you think the Clinton confusion over Zoe Baird was a mess, you haven't seen anything yet. Take a glance at the mucked-up selection of the top administration official for Latin America and the new political syndrome that, just for fun, we might call "diversity scam."
One might think that choosing the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs would be simple. Get one of our best Latin Americanists and put him or her in charge of our policies with the hemisphere. Choose someone who isn't in love with Fidel Castro or the Haitian military, and someone who has at least a vague idea that Spanish is a Romance language.
Well, my amigos, nothing is simple in our ethnic lobby-infested Washington of today. But, first, check your incredulity as you read this one:
When the Clinton transition team's search for the State Department's top Latin Americanist began last fall, black Clinton intimates Vernon Jordan and Ron Brown immediately came up with one name: Mario Baeza, a 42-year-old black "Cuban-American" and deal-maker extraordinaire.
The accomplished Mr. Baeza is unquestionably brilliant. At the prestigious Manhattan law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton, he oversees highest-stake Wall Street takeovers (his fees range between $300 and $400 an hour). He is a talented music composer and a leader in the NAACP.
There is only one problem: He has almost no experience in Latin America. Moreover, from the Cuban-American political standpoint, he was born in New Jersey, and only returned to Cuba when he was 4. And the undeniable fact is that he is far more impassioned about black American affairs than Latin American ones (at Cornell, his senior thesis was on using the origins of Greek philosophy to show that the Egyptians were black).
Some might make the old "nobody's perfect" excuse.
Enter the conservative, mostly white Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami. They were miffed at Mr. Baeza because he isn't really Cuban. He has never even written anything about Cuban problems, much less taken any interest in them.
But to the ethnically correct "diversity-ueber-Alles" Clinton transition team, Mr. Baeza was a precious "twofer" -- African-American and Cuban-American. (One can hear them sighing pitifully, "If only he were a female, if only he . . ."). And so Mr. Baeza, who badly wants the job, came very close to being appointed -- until the Cuban-American National Foundation really started lobbying against him.
Unfortunately, the foundation's lobbying has about as much finesse as Serb paramilitary shooting off artillery against Sarajevo. The foundation began lobbying and threatening everybody in Congress and in the administration on behalf of Sally Shelton-Colby -- but, by then, everybody was so fed up with the foundation's brass-knuckle style that people who would have supported Ms. Shelton-Colby no longer would do so.
And here, in true Shakespearean folly, we have an irony. Sally Shelton-Colby is a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive woman, gutsy and independent-minded, a former ambassador to Barbados and one of the best and largely non-partisan Latin Americanists around. She would be the perfect assistant secretary!
And, whereas the Clinton administration is for political reasons digging up some third-class women for top jobs, here you really do have a woman who would be the best person for the job -- but it looks now as though she will never make it.
Why? Because of exactly all those great and egalitarian "diversity" programs that the ideologically correct part of the Clinton administration supports to bring minority groups and women into the administration.
Where does the choice stand now? It's hard to say with so many deadlines for decisions having been missed. But nothing would change the basic moral of the story.
Smart Sally seems out. Clever but constituency-less Mario is now attracting the anti-foundation Cuban-American population in Miami. "No-Rock-el-Bote" Ambassador Alexander Watson, who is respected as second in the U.S. mission at the United Nations, may at this very moment have turned out to be the compromise candidate.
Meanwhile, there is one principle that seems to have fallen by the wayside. This is the quaint and unquestionably outdated idea that specialized Cuban-American or African-American policies may not be exactly what we need in Latin America.
Fifty years from now diligent students of diplomacy-by-television will shake their heads in wonderment as they hear: "That winter ** of 1993 there were still a few troglodytic Americans who thought there should be an intelligent and comprehensive American policy toward Latin America -- just imagine!"
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.