Sebastian Scheiner/AP
U.S. Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, left, meets with Israel's President Shimon Peres
on Wednesday, January 28.

Obama Looks to Envoys to Implement Foreign Policy

January 30, 2009 04:15 PM
by Christopher Coats
Marking a change of pace from the Bush administration, President Barack Obama’s State Department has signaled the wide and sweeping use of special envoys to address a host of international issues.

The Role of the Special Envoy

Acting in conjunction with the newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration has announced a number of new special envoys to manage U.S. efforts in Western and Southern Asia, as well as efforts to curb global warming.

Over the last eight years, the Bush administration made seldom use of special envoys, instead relying mostly on the diplomatic efforts of Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, which left both with packed calendars.

However, as the new administration takes shape, it has become clear that Obama and the Clinton-led State Department will make frequent use of the 207-year-old position.

First used by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 when he sent future-president James Monroe to Paris to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, special envoys have long been used by governments to help facilitate discussions and diplomatic actions.

Selected for their experience, availability and most often clout in a region or on a particular topic, special envoys are short-term quasi-ambassadors that have been used for an array of diplomatic efforts over the last two centuries, to varying degrees of success.

Frequently drawn from political veterans and Washington insiders, such as Jesse Jackson’s stint as President Clinton’s envoy to support democracy in Africa in 1997, and James Baker on more than one occasion, special envoys do not always make a lasting impression.

However, as President Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East in the early 1980s, Donald Rumsfeld was photographed shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—an image that proved to be a political liability when he later served as secretary of defense under George W. Bush.

Subject to the demands of the president and secretary of state, though not subject to Congressional approval, special envoys’ roles remain malleable and ever changing, although some aspects of the official position remain common.

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Background: The special envoy in modern history

According to Creative Associates International, a development NGO, a special envoy is often charged with traveling ahead to a region on behalf of an administration to help facilitate discussions that may lead to official negotiations, though ultimately taking part in said negotiations is not out of the question.

Although they are designated as being ranked just beneath an ambassador, their special status often allows them to travel and hold discussions in areas unavailable to official diplomats.

After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Clinton used special envoys to communicate with representatives of the newly formed states that had not yet been recognized by the United States, and were therefore out of reach of ambassadors.

Intended to be third party figures that offer a bipartisan approach to problem-solving, special envoys have been used to broker peace deals as well as raise money for international aid efforts.

Although recruited by the United Nations and not the United States, former president Clinton was appointed as a special envoy following the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of 2004 to raise money for the dozen countries affected by the storm.

Opinion & Analysis: Liabilities and pitfalls

Although a favored avenue of administrations from Nixon to Clinton, the special envoy has not always been free of political liabilities.

According to the Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, during administrations that made wide use of special envoys, appointed diplomats and ambassadors often found themselves frustrated by the power and influence wielded by those who held the position.

Finding that foreign governments and leaders preferred to communicate with representatives they believed to have the ear of the president, official diplomats felt their roles had been diminished.

Further, although they most often complete their duties without pay, financial issues have caused political headaches, as envoys are officially representatives of the U.S. government.

In the mid-1990s, while acting as special envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke was found to have violated regulations by contacting embassy officials to help further a Korean banking project linked to his private work.

He was made to pay a $5,000 fine.

So far, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have announced the appointments of Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, George Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East and Todd Stern as special envoy on global warming.

There have been reports that Dennis Ross may soon be appointed as envoy to Iran, but there is no confirmation of that report.

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