Peacemakers at War?

January 23, 2009 Region: Americas

Peacemakers at War?

Obama is taking a big gamble with so many special envoys. Their statecraft experience might improve our global standing—or their monumental egos could lead to a disastrous turf war.

So far, one of the Barack Obama's most impressive qualities has been his ability to get talented advisors to accept positions lower than their prior government position. On the economic front, former-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers is now the chair of the National Economic Council (NEC). Former NEC Chair Gene Sperling will be a counselor to incoming Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker will now head the new Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

In foreign policy, the situation is slightly different-Obama has convinced policymakers to accept positions lower than their prior expectations. This starts at the top. Hillary Clinton is now secretary of state, but I vaguely recall that around this time last year, she was seeking an even higher office. Susan Rice, Greg Craig and James Steinberg were all rumored to be the next National Security Advisor. Instead, Rice will be UN ambassador, Craig will be White House counsel, and Steinberg will be one of two deputy secretaries of state.

Last year, both Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell were tagged as potential secretaries of state in a Democratic administration. Instead, yesterday it was announced that both men would be special envoys-Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Mitchell for the Middle East. Thwarted ambition can drive high-powered individuals to even greater heights. These appointments clearly signal a commitment by the new administration of more aggressive investments in diplomacy. It also raises an awkward question-will it work?

There are reasons to be hopeful. Holbrooke and Mitchell have distinguished résumés, particularly in conflict-ridden societies. Holbrooke was a prime mover behind the Dayton Accords that ended the bloodshed in former Yugoslavia. Mitchell was a chief architect of the Good Friday Agreement that helped ease the Troubles in Northern Ireland and has prior experience on the Israel/Palestine question. Both regions are chock-full of intractable conflicts-they would seem perfect for obsessive-compulsive special envoys.

With luck, it might work. But it is worth recognizing the pitfalls of this strategy. As Politico's Ben Smith puts it, "Who's in Charge?" Special envoys tend to add further frictions to longstanding bureaucratic battles. They tend to bigfoot undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of state who would normally have the lead in their policy bailiwicks. There are rumors aplenty of fierce battles within Foggy Bottom between the special envoys and undersecretaries for coveted offices on the seventh floor (where Clinton will be). As Daniel Markey points out, foreign policy for south Asia has been a "toxic mix of turf battles." Holbrooke is simply another bureaucratic entrepreneur (one opposed by the Indians, by the way). The Obama administration is already having difficulties finding someone who would agree to serve as assistant secretary of state for south Asia. This is because, to put it gently, the transaction costs of dealing with Holbrooke can be high. Similarly, the relationship between Mitchell and Dennis Ross, who has been touted to be a "super-envoy" for the Middle East, remains unclear.

There is one, final, sobering thought. The person who will be directing this great game of diplomatic egos will be Hillary Clinton. Although she has many strengths, administration was never thought to be one of them. Her two biggest organizational responsibilities to date were her 1994 health care initiative and her 2008 presidential campaign. Backbiting, dysfunction and eventual failure marked both initiatives. One can only hope that these tropes do not migrate to Foggy Bottom.


Daniel W. Drezner, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.