Politics & Government

Top diplomat leaves void at State, opens door for Cuba, Venezuela hawks

State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, Jr., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 5, 2016, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on recent Iranian actions and implementation of the nuclear deal.
State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, Jr., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 5, 2016, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on recent Iranian actions and implementation of the nuclear deal. AP

The loss of the country’s top career diplomat is a heavy blow to the U.S. State Department, but Tom Shannon’s retirement also clears the way for hardliners in the Trump administration to take a much more aggressive posture on Venezuela and Cuba.

Shannon, the department’s third-ranking official as undersecretary for political affairs, announced Thursday his plans to retire after serving under six presidents during a 35-year career in the Foreign Service.

The announcement sent shock waves across Washington, where he was the highest ranking holdovers from the Obama administration. It also resonated throughout the hemisphere, where Shannon was known for his relentless push for stability — even if it meant telling a Haitian president he had to replace his best friend as prime minister.

The news comes on same day U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began a trip to Latin America. Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica on his first tour of the region since taking on the top diplomatic job for the Trump administration.

Shannon spent the majority of his career focused on Latin America. He built a wide team of loyalists and even won over some adversaries with his almost unconditional commitment to diplomacy.

Still, multiple U.S. source said Shannon’s retirement offers an opportunity to reassert pressure on regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.

“He has always been soft on Cuba and Venezuela,” the source said. “When I have talked to State Department people and asked, ‘Why aren’t you tougher on Cuba, on Venezuela?’ the answer I will always get was ‘Shannon.’ Now maybe this changes.”

“People are excited,” said another U.S. source familiar with the matter. “People welcome this announcement because they realize a change was needed. Because, from the Venezuela policy perspective, he’s connected to the previous administration’s failed approach.”

Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said Shannon’s retirement reveals a huge void in the department and raises questions about the relations between the U.S. and the region, outside of Venezuela.

“Shannon’s departure reminds us how unfortunate it is that after a whole year there is still no Assistant Secretary for Latin America,” said Abrams, now a Senior Fellow of Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “By the way, there is also no AS for Asia, Africa, it is a larger problem. Shannon’s departure reminds us of the personnel crisis.”

In practical terms, Abrams added, his exit has strengthened the hand of other agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, to negotiate NAFTA, or the Treasury Department. Without Shannon in the State Department, he said, more responsibility would fall on the National Security Council of the White House.

“There is always a struggle for influence among the agencies of government … but in that struggle, State is going to be much weaker now because it doesn’t have personnel in place,” Abrams said.

His retirement follows a series of high profile departures at the State Department, including the high profile resignations of US Ambassador John Feeley to Panama last month and Foreign Service officer Elizabeth Shackelford, who worked in Nairobi for the U.S. mission to Somalia.

State has been shedding diplomats rapidly; 60 percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats have left and new applications to join the Foreign Service have fallen by half, according to recent data from the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Shannon often butt heads with the White House over the past decade, particularly over Venezuela, pushing back against more aggressive sanctions out of concern they could close off diplomatic channels to Caracas. It was Shannon who lobbied against the Obama administration taking stronger measures against Venezuela and he did the same under President Donald Trump by holding up some of the strongest measures for months until he had to be overruled.

Even those who he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Shannon said he never made a decision based on politics. Mark Feierstein, a former special assistant to Obama and NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, said he had many conversations with Shannon, but couldn’t say whether he was a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.

“It’s a huge loss,” Feierstein said. “I didn’t always agree with Tom, but I always admired his integrity and his analytical skills and his knowledge. You don’t become the senior director of the NSC, an assistant secretary, an ambassador to Brazil without being an extraordinary and talented diplomat.”

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan were among many in Congress and Foggy Bottom who publicly thanked Shannon Thursday for his long service.

Spokesperson Heather Nauert said Shannon’s decision to retire was personal. During the press briefing, Nauert shared a note from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly who thanked Shannon for his service and called him his closest collaborator when Kelly served as commander of United States Southern Command.

“The nation owes him a great debt of gratitude,” Kelly wrote in the note as told by Nauert.

Secretary of State Tillerson credited Shannon with helping him adjust to his new job after he joined Trump’s Cabinet.

“Tom’s counsel has been well received over multiple administrations,” Tillerson said in a statement. “I particularly appreciate his depth of knowledge, the role he played during the transition — as Acting Secretary of State during my confirmation and later as Acting Deputy Secretary — and his contributions to our strategy process over the past year.”

In many ways, Shannon’s role was diminished under the Trump administration, said a hemisphere watcher, noting that Venezuela policy is being managed by the White House. Shannon’s approach of, “Let’s try to find a way to get along,” hasn’t worked said the source.

The source also noted that just when it appeared that Shannon had made some inroads with Venezuela, that country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, would say or do something to frustrate the effort.

Shannon was known for his height and calm demeanor amid chaos, said colleagues in Washington and across the hemisphere. He believed in email, but preferred to have a conversation than write something down. And he was not above taking a Metro go to meet a leader who didn’t want to been seen at the State Department.

“Working with Tom Shannon was one of the best experiences in my diplomatic career. He was highly knowledgeable, he had great policy sense and for most of us in the field, you really felt he had your back and he was the first place I went for help in Washington as did many Haitians,” said Janet Sanderson, a retired U.S. ambassador to Haiti, who came into the post just as Shannon became Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

In December 2014, Shannon arrived in Haiti in the midst of a crippling political crisis after then-President Michel Martelly failed to hold elections. The opposition, which had been holding almost daily violent protests, was demanding Martelly’s resignation. A presidential commission recommended the firing of the prime minister, along with a number of other measures to stave off total gridlock.

Before going to visit Martelly, Shannon dropped by to see former President René Préval. The question on the table was between Martelly finishing his term or he getting rid of Laurent Lamothe, his prime minister and friend.

During their encounter, someone asked about the nature of the relationship between Martelly and Lamothe. Preval, known for his often riddled analysis, said: “I think Martelly thinks they are friends.” Shannon thought about it for a minute and then replied, “Yeah, but sometimes a friend needs to know he has to do something for a friend.”

“Everyone knew in that moment that Lamothe was gone,” said a source familiar with the encounter.

Shannon then left for the palace for his meeting with Martelly. Soon after, Lamothe announced his resignation as prime minister.

Shannon also has extensive diplomatic experience in Africa and had led U.S. delegations to Russia, but he was known as Latin Americanists having served as ambassador to Brazil and assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. He also served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council and Deputy Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States.

“For Latin America foreign policy, Ambassador Shannon was a tall Yoda figure, universally admired and with extraordinary influence,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration and worked with Feeley at State. “On Latin America issues, everyone deferred to Tom.”