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Legacy Content / ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

How To Succeed As A Special Envoy

Obama's Foreign Policy Point Men Have Many Pitfalls To Avoid In Dealing With The World's Trouble Spots

July 29, 2009

As President Obama moves to reboot American diplomatic relations and tackle crises from Afghanistan to the Congo, he has sought help from special envoys to quarterback conflicts the White House wants to prioritize.

Presidents have employed such envoys for decades. But their use expanded under President Clinton as the U.S. tackled more nation-building projects, and it continued through the George W. Bush administration. Obama -- who has shown a similar propensity for issue-oriented "czars" -- is stocking up on envoys at an even faster clip than his predecessors. He's already tapped envoys for the Middle East, Sudan, North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Eurasian energy and climate change, and he has plans to appoint an emissary for the Great Lakes region in East Africa as well.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has welcomed and even pushed for new envoys, arguing that they free her to focus on pursuing the country's overall foreign policy agenda.

 

"I think it would be diplomatic malpractice not to have people of stature and experience handling some of our most difficult problems on a day-to-day basis," she said on "Meet The Press" on Sunday. "... I could not possibly have given the attention that we need, in the in-depth way that is required, to all of this," she added.

But as the White House uses these ad hoc sheriffs to tackle the globe's most intractable conflicts, the job of special envoy remains ill-defined and rife with pitfalls: hostility from career foreign service officers, inconsistent support from the State Department, vague mandates and a brighter media spotlight. Given their importance to U.S. foreign policy today, how can an envoy parachute into Foggy Bottom and navigate both the State Department corridors and a raging conflict?

Several former special envoys spoke with NationalJournal.com to offer today's envoys some advice.

Walking On Egg Shells

Perhaps unsurprisingly, special envoys -- area experts or not -- aren't always welcomed with open arms by the State Department officials whose portfolios they are raiding. Envoys can go off the reservation policy-wise and step on career officers' toes. And, to complicate matters, many recent appointees are inexperienced in their designated regions or the foreign service -- sometimes both.

"It was not an entirely smooth relationship between me and the State Department," said former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., who served as Bush's envoy to Sudan from 2001 to 2004. Describing a meeting with African Affairs specialist Walter Kansteiner III, he said: "In fact, the assistant secretary of State told me on day one, 'I hate special envoys.'"

State Department officials "are people who have a profession and a history, and then somebody comes in telling everybody, 'I am not part of the State Department: I represent the president.'" Danforth said. "And it's going outside the normal channels and going over people's heads."

Bernard Aronson, who was assistant secretary of State for inter-American affairs in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, was similarly nonplussed by diplomats working outside the department. After a few years on the job, Aronson successfully lobbied against renewing the special envoy position for Central America, arguing that it confused foreign diplomats about where American policy emanated from. (He also takes a dim view of Obama's campaign promise to reinstate a special envoy for the Americas.)

"When you're the assistant secretary, you very rarely feel warm and fuzzy about someone coming in and taking one of the most compelling and challenging pieces of your turf," Aronson said.

Not every official views envoys as a threat. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson is reportedly happy with the work that Obama appointee Scott Gration is doing in Sudan and eager for Howard Wolpe to be appointed Great Lakes envoy, a post he held in the late 1990s.

When there is friction, former envoys said, the interdiction of the president is key. If you're seen as having the strong support of the White House and the secretary of State, "the career foreign service will turn cartwheels for you," said Mitchell Reiss, who served as special envoy for Northern Ireland from 2003 to 2007 and is now the vice provost for international studies at the College of William & Mary. "Without that support, you're bureaucratic road kill."

Now What?

Even with the White House's backing and a regal-sounding title, an envoy's job description is often ill-defined -- and malleable. When Bush 43 tapped James Dobbins to be special envoy to Afghanistan, the appointment had as much to do with keeping up diplomatic appearances -- the British had assigned their own envoy weeks earlier -- as generating new policy ideas, Dobbins wrote in his book After The Taliban.

Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made it clear to Dobbins that he wanted him in-country immediately, without first laying groundwork in Washington.

"I think Armitage saw me more in the role of the traditional envoy, whose main job is in the field, whereas I envisaged something closer to the post-Cold War model that had grown up in the Clinton administration where the envoy's role is just as heavily focused on getting everyone in Washington on the same page," Dobbins said.

A rookie envoy might have buckled, but Dobbins, who had already served tours of duty as special envoy in history in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and Somalia, balked and eventually played a key role in Washington and on the ground in crafting postwar policy in Afghanistan.

Little Support From State

One of the biggest hurdles for envoys lies not in far-flung foreign capitals but the leafy boulevards of Foggy Bottom.

"I think the first thing is, the State Department, as a general rule, doesn't know what to do with special envoys," said Andrew Natsios, who served as envoy to Sudan from October 2006 to December 2007. "I had a lot of friends and supporters of the work I was doing, but the systems were not set up to support a person from the outside who technically reported to the president and not the State Department."

Envoys have to contend with a lack of resources, as well. Their staffs are usually small, ranging from four or five aides and advisers up to a dozen. They fly commercial, like much of the State Department, which means that particularly in Africa they spend too much time waiting in airports for delayed or canceled flights. Navigating the bureaucracy in Foggy Bottom and embassies and consulates abroad can be tough for a State Department ingénue, and triaging these problems on the go often falls to envoys themselves.

Reiss was no newcomer to Foggy Bottom, having served as the director of policy planning earlier in the administration. Yet he still had trouble coordinating diplomatic efforts in Washington, the American embassies in London and Dublin and the American consulate in Belfast. His solution was a "quadrilateral" e-mail channel to share media reports and keep the far-flung group up to date. Reiss' fix is still in use today.

"The IT people at State set it up quickly, and it proved very valuable, especially as the pace of the peace process picked up in 2005, 2006 and 2007," he said.

Keep Friends In High Places

Envoys' power largely comes from the fact that they are emissaries of the president. Their words mean more than other American officials because they have -- in theory -- a special relationship and mandate from the chief executive. Danforth said his close communication with Bush "always" impressed the Sudanese: Their ambassador once flew to St. Louis to meet Danforth for lunch, rather than working through the normal bureaucratic channels, to get a straightforward answer on America's feelings towards Khartoum.

The flip side is that envoys can also put the White House in an awkward spot with a thoughtless comment.

"You need to understand what diplomacy is and how you conduct yourself and how much care you use in using words," Natsios said. "One word can make a huge difference."

Gration has already taken heat for his flippancy in Sudan. The retired general said in June that what remains in Darfur are merely the "remnants of genocide." That conflicted with statements by Obama and Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice that the atrocities are ongoing and forced the administration to reiterate its conviction that the genocide continues, in turn upsetting Khartoum.

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