Send the Envoy: Obama’s Diplomatic Posse

March 12, 2009

On his second full day in office, President Barack Obama made a symbolic commute from the White House to the State Department to emphasize the centrality of diplomacy to his administration’s international approach. While there, he watched as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced the new special envoy for Middle East peace, former Senator George Mitchell, and the new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke. A few days later, Todd Stern, a longtime adviser to President Bill Clinton, was appointed special envoy for climate change. Then, in late February, the academic and former diplomat Stephen Bosworth was appointed special representative for North Korea policy, and it was announced that career official Sung Kim would remain special envoy to the six-party talks. Meanwhile, Dennis Ross — once mentioned as a possible special envoy for Iran — has been given quasi-envoy status as special adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia, and Daniel Fried has been named special envoy for the closure of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

As I described in an article in Foreign Affairs in 2005, personal envoys are a recurring feature of U.S. foreign policy — but Obama is resorting to them unusually early and often. The contrast is especially striking with the Bush administration, which had a prejudice against envoys that reflected President George W. Bush’s general lack of interest in diplomacy and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s fondness for administrative tidiness. Shortly after taking office, Powell abolished 23 envoy positions, including that of special Middle East coordinator — Ross’s old spot — whose functions were moved back into the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. At the time, the State Department spokesman assured observers that the officials who “have toiled away in the vineyards and devoted time and energy to [the peace process] will be working on the issue in the regional bureau, so that the expertise is not being abolished or lost in any way.” Few who tasted the new vintage, however, felt that it was an improvement on the old.

For this reason, Obama’s envoy enthusiasm is refreshing. In particular, the Mitchell and Holbrooke appointments will build up America’s diplomatic muscle and strengthen Obama’s hand. They were, as I wrote, two of President Clinton’s “most effective surrogates”: Mitchell persuaded the hard men of Northern Ireland to sign the Good Friday Agreement; Holbrooke stared down Slobodan Milosevic and, through sheer force of will, struck the Dayton Accords. Their personal stature, when combined with the gravitas lent to them by their appointments, will enable them to speak authoritatively to foreign interlocutors. They may also be able to bring some coherence to Washington’s response to transnational problems such as Arab-Israeli relations and the resurgence of the Taliban. And as with all successful special envoys, they are both well suited to the missions they have been given: Mitchell has the patience of Job; Holbrooke has the belligerence of Samson.

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