When President Obama took office eight months ago, he scoured the foreign-policy community in search of the brightest and best envoys to take personal control over such pressing challenges as the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the crisis in Darfur and the quest for peace in the Middle East.
Now, however, his appointments of nearly a score of special envoys and special ambassadors have created a confusing patchwork of policy fiefdoms inside the administration that lacks clearly defined lines of command and has the potential for miscommunication on a grand scale.
The president has created “an empire of envoys,” said Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1978 to 2003. “The structure here suggests to me there are a lot of chiefs and not many Indians.”
It is normal for a new administration to spend much of its first year sorting out the chains of command within its foreign-policy apparatus. It is a vast network involving the White House, State Department, the Pentagon, 16 intelligence agencies, parts of other Cabinet agencies and, to some extent, Congress.
Nevertheless, some old foreign-policy hands argue that by past standards, Mr. Obama has hired an unusual number of prominent special envoys, overlaid on top of the State Department bureaucracy and the national-security officials who traditionally manage the nation’s foreign relations.
The cast of envoys also complements what is already a high-powered foreign-policy and national-security advisory team under Mr. Obama, including National Security Council head Gen. James L. Jones; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; NSC strategic communications head Denis McDonough; senior political aide David Axelrod; and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before joining Mr. Obama on the ticket last year.
“The big difference here is the special envoys,” said Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense under former President Ronald Reagan and now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Mr. Korb said foreign governments often have had a tough time understanding the American system and he thinks the number of specially designated agents has made it even harder to figure out.
He is not alone.
While President George W. Bush also made ample use of envoys, naming 38 during his eight years in office, the Obama administration is setting an even brisker pace. The new administration already has named 19 envoys and special ambassadors in its first eight months.
Among the posts are a special representative to Muslim communities, a special envoy and deputy special envoy for climate change, a special envoy for Eurasian energy, a special representative for nuclear nonproliferation and one for “global partnerships.”
Three envoys are dedicated to North Korea: Special Representative for North Korea Policy Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth; Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks Ambassador Sung Kim; and Ambassador Philip Goldberg, coordinator for implementation of United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said that to a foreign government, the overall U.S. foreign-policy organizational chart “probably looks pretty curious.”
A concrete example of that confusion can be seen in the Obama team’s uncertain response to the long-running diplomatic headache in Sudan.
Special envoy Scott Gration, a retired Air Force general who forged close ties with Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign, has pushed strongly for more engagement and a softer line with Khartoum, even calling into question official U.S. policy that the Sudanese government’s campaign against the rebellious Darfur region still qualifies as “genocide.”
That has infuriated Western pro-Darfur activists and led to questions about the administration’s real policy. Others in the administration, including U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, are said to favor the existing hard line against Sudan.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was asked last month about Mr. Gration’s public comment that there was no evidence that the Sudanese government is still a “state sponsor of terrorism,” implying a major shift in long-standing U.S. policy. Mr. Kelly replied, “When I see the remarks, we’ll be happy to provide a comment on them.”
An expected announcement of the results of a sweeping internal review on Sudan policy by the administration has been delayed, and outside activists have gone public with their unhappiness both with Mr. Gration and with the Obama team.
“We believe that your conciliatory stance and reluctance to criticize [Khartoum] both excuses and emboldens the government, thereby facilitating its reign of terror and well-known strategy of ‘divide-and-rule,’” a group of Darfur activists, including actress Mia Farrow, wrote in an Aug. 16 open letter to Mr. Gration.
Mr. Obama announced his two most prominent envoys, Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, on his third day in office in January. Standing next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department, the president said the two appointments would “convey our seriousness of purpose” about the most urgent issues facing the country.
Mr. Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state in the Carter and Clinton administrations who brokered an agreement to end the Balkan War, was put in charge of solving the problem with the Taliban along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat and former Senate majority leader, was named the administration’s representative to peace efforts among Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states in the Middle East.
Of special appeal to the president, the envoys do not require Senate confirmation, which can be a lengthy, onerous and politicized process. Both men, and particularly Mr. Holbrooke, are forceful personalities known for being capable of making decisions unilaterally.
Mrs. Clinton said at the Jan. 22 announcement that the envoys would help the administration get off to a fast start, and she stressed the desire to see the work of the envoys mesh with the State Department’s strategic planning.
“We do not want, you know, people who are not integrated into what our policy and our planning, our strategic objectives and our goals are,” she said.
The State Department declined to comment on whether that vision is being fulfilled.
However, a senior member of the president’s foreign-policy inner circle dismissed talk that the envoys are sidelining any of the eight assistant secretaries of state.
“The assistant secretaries are vital to our overall effort,” the senior Obama official said, on condition of not being identified. “They are regular and important attendees here at National Security Council meetings and Oval Office meetings.”
The White House official said the assistant secretaries are “big players at state and pivotal presences in the interagency [process], not least because the secretary of state demands they have a seat at the table.”
Middle East shuffle
The most curious case of Mr. Obama’s envoy diplomacy may be Dennis Ross.
The lifelong diplomat and former envoy to Middle East peace talks under former President Bill Clinton perhaps has been the subject of the most controversy and intrigue within the administration. He was rumored originally to be the third major Middle East envoy who would handle the Iran portfolio. But then it was announced that he would be at the State Department as a special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, in part because it was thought his ties to American Jewish groups might hamper his effectiveness in dealing with Tehran.
In June, however, Mr. Ross was moved again to the National Security Council and named senior director for the Persian Gulf region. He is working on big-picture analyses of developments in Iran as well as the Middle East peace talks. However, Mr. Ross still has his title, and an office, at the State Department, a spokesman at Foggy Bottom said.
Elliott Abrams, a top foreign-policy official in the Bush administration, said it is unclear to him who is driving Middle East policy.
“If you take Israeli and Palestinian matters, for example, it’s clear that the president, [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel, [and] George Mitchell have played the lead roles,” Mr. Abrams said. “Now you have Dennis Ross added to the mix. What is his role? Does the State Department have any role whatsoever?”
Mrs. Clinton, of course, has her own strong views about how the administration’s foreign policy should be conducted.
But with much of the Middle East, as well as Russia, under the purview of special envoys, observers said the Far East, particularly China and India, is her biggest opportunity to set the lead on policy.
“It seems Secretary Clinton has made a strong pitch to run China policy and has staked out a lot of territory,” said Michael J. Green, a White House adviser on Asian policy in the Bush administration. In the Asian region overall, he said, “you have fewer envoys … and the ones you have are more junior.”
Yet Mr. Green added that some of the key issues within the U.S.-China relationship present problems for Mrs. Clinton in that they may be hard to manage fully within the State Department.
Questions involving trade and debt spill over into the territory of the Treasury Department; climate change has been taken over by special envoy Todd Stern; and on the question of whether to continue providing arms to Taiwan, the Pentagon will have a major say.
• Matthew Mosk and David R. Sands contributed to this report.