Contra Costa Times
The Obama administration has tapped a career diplomat who grew up in Contra Costa County for one of its most important foreign service posts: ambassador to Mexico.
The White House has not formally nominated Earl Anthony "Tony" Wayne as the next ambassador, but the administration presented his name late last week to the Mexican foreign ministry, a source in the ministry confirmed. A vetting by the host country is routine protocol in diplomatic appointments.
The 60-year-old Wayne grew up in Concord in the 1950s and 1960s, graduated from UC Berkeley in 1972 and has worked for the State Department for decades. He now serves as deputy ambassador to Afghanistan and was ambassador to Argentina during the Bush administration.
His expected assignment to Mexico City comes at a critical time for relations between the United States and its southern neighbor, especially over the drug war that is ravaging the border states of northern Mexico.
The previous ambassador, Carlos Pascual, resigned in March after State Department cables released by the WikiLeaks group revealed Pascual's sharp criticism of the Mexican government. President Felipe Calderon was angered by Pascual's remarks that panned the performance of the Mexican armed forces in their years-long war on drug cartels.
The U.S. ambassadorship to Mexico is periodically marked by drama. President Ronald Reagan chose Hollywood celebrity John Gavin for the high-profile position.
Known for his supporting roles in "Spartacus," "Psycho" and "Imitation of Life," Gavin had no diplomatic experience but spoke fluent Spanish and held on to the job for five years.
President George H.W. Bush chose a seasoned cold warrior, John Negroponte, who helped usher in the North American Free Trade Agreement and later became a key figure in the post-9/11 war on terrorism. President Bill Clinton nominated a Republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, in an attempt at bipartisanship, but opposition from more conservative Republicans blocked the appointment after a protracted political battle. President George W. Bush chose a fellow Texas politician and personal friend who, while ambassador, married Mexico's richest woman.
Even before WikiLeaks revealed his internal communications, Pascual's longtime expertise in working with "failed states" caused consternation among some Mexican officials who do not consider themselves one. Similar scrutiny is expected for Wayne, who specialized in counterterrorism in Europe and has spent the last several years in war-torn Afghanistan.
Wayne has never worked in Mexico, but the high-ranking diplomat is considered a reliable choice by some close observers of U.S.-Mexico relations.
"It's positive that he appointed a career diplomat rather than a political partisan," said James Gerber, a professor at San Diego State University. "On the surface it looks like a very good choice."
Wayne's experience in counterterrorism and economic issues and his interest in promoting bicultural relationships make him a good fit for the Mexico role, Gerber said. What appears to be missing from his portfolio is experience with immigration issues, one of the most important topics of U.S.-Mexico relations, Gerber added.
"From the time we knew Pascual would be leaving, the betting would be it would be a career diplomat who is well-known on the Hill," said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.
He said that taking such a figure off the "front lines" in Afghanistan shows the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship but is also a sign that Wayne is regarded as someone who can be trusted for a sensitive assignment.
"You can't put somebody in that position with those kinds of high-stakes issues on the agenda that you don't have great confidence in," Olson said. "You might send him off to a backwater, but this is not a backwater. This is a top priority."
Once the Mexican government has a chance to review the choice of Wayne, and if it does not object, a formal nomination by President Barack Obama is likely to follow. The appointment then must get the approval of the U.S. Senate.
"The big hurdle in Washington always is, can you get your nominees through the Senate?" Olson said.
Local residents who remember Wayne before he left the Bay Area for graduate school and the foreign service are rooting for him, including a retired French teacher whose classes at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord helped set him on a path to an international career.
"He was very enthusiastic, full of life, always thinking of new ideas," said Catherine Messersmith, 88. "I do pray that he gets the position."