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Obama Moves Quickly to Name Mideast, Afghan Envoys

January 22, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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President Barack Obama has named two diplomatic heavyweights to be special envoys to the Middle East and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Analysts discuss what the moves say about Mr. Obama's emerging foreign policy.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, the new Obama brand of special envoy diplomacy. Two were announced and introduced today at the State Department, Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, George Mitchell for the Middle East. Both spoke of their assignments. Mitchell mentioned his past experience as chair of the Northern Ireland peace talks.

GEORGE MITCHELL, Middle East diplomatic envoy: The secretary mentioned Northern Ireland. There, recently longtime enemies came together to form a power-sharing government to bring to an end the ancient conflict known as the Troubles. This was almost 800 years after Britain began its domination of Ireland.

Just recently, I spoke in Jerusalem, and I mentioned the 800 years. And afterward, an elderly gentleman came up to me, and he said, “Did you say 800 years?” I said, “Yes, 800.” He repeated the number again. I repeated it again. He said, “Ah, such a recent argument. No wonder you settled it.”

I believe deeply that with committed, persevering and patient diplomacy, it can happen in the Middle East.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Pakistan and Afghanistan diplomatic envoy: You’ve asked me to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan, two very distinct countries with extraordinarily different histories, and yet intertwined by geography, ethnicity, and the current drama.

This is a very difficult assignment, as we all know. Nobody can say the war in Afghanistan has gone well, and yet, as we speak here today, American men and women and their coalition partners are fighting a very difficult struggle against a ruthless and determined enemy without any scruples at all, an enemy that is willing to behead women who dare to teach in a school to young girls, an enemy that has done some of the most odious things on Earth.

And across the border lurks the greater enemy still, the people who committed the atrocities of September 11, 2001.

If our resources are mobilized and coordinated and pulled together, we can quadruple, quintuple, multiply by tenfold the effectiveness of our efforts there.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

Obama shapes a 'Cabinet of rivals'

James Dobbins
Former State Department Official
It's more of this sort of cabinet of rivals, bringing in very prestigious, very powerful people, and trying to meld them into a coherent team.

MARGARET WARNER: Never before has an administration named at the outset two such high-profile special envoys with such hefty resumes: George Mitchell, who, as we mentioned, met success in Ireland a decade ago; and Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia in 1995.

For an assessment of all this, we turn to James Dobbins, a veteran State Department official who was special envoy four times to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia in the Clinton administration, and he held a similar post dealing with Afghanistan in the early Bush years. He now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation.

And Philip Zelikow, who served as counselor to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice until 2006, he's now a professor of history at the University of Virginia.

Welcome to you both.

Usually presidents bring in really high-profile special envoys at about the sixth inning when the game is going really badly. Here you have the Obama administration kicking it off, kicking off all of their diplomacy by sending them to these -- arguably the two hottest spots in the world.

Jim Dobbins, what message does this say? What does this say about how you think the Obama administration plans to conduct foreign policy?

JAMES DOBBINS, Rand Corporation: Well, I think, first of all, that we are at least in the sixth inning both with respect to the Middle East and Afghanistan and, in both cases, things are going badly. And so I think the Obama...

MARGARET WARNER: So that much is the same?

JAMES DOBBINS: Right. And so I think the Obama administration is wise to recognize that the trends are negative and they're moving quickly, even more negatively, and they need to move quickly.

And I think it's also characteristic, just as President Obama was prepared to bring in to his administration people who competed with him for the presidency, it now looks like Secretary Clinton is prepared to bring into her team people who were potential alternative secretaries of state.

So it's more of this sort of cabinet of rivals, bringing in very prestigious, very powerful people, and trying to meld them into a coherent team.

An example of 'robust diplomacy'?

Philip Zelikow
Former State Department Official
It sends a message that says, we've got some big problems, we're going to put some really high-profile, important people on those problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Phil Zelikow, Secretary Clinton said today she saw this as an example of the robust diplomacy, was her word, was her phrase, with which President Obama plans to pursue diplomacy. Do you see it that way? Do you think it sends that message?

PHILIP ZELIKOW, University of Virginia: I think it sends a message that says, we've got some big problems, we're going to put some really high-profile, important people on those problems, but it doesn't tell you much about what they're going to do and whether they're going to have the authority to actually move the policy in Washington that's going to be needed to actually accomplish our goals in either of these places.

Let me just say, as a side light, the most interesting thing that happened on the Middle East today was not the announcement on Mitchell. It was President Obama's statement that we're going to support a big donor's conference to get aid into the Gaza Strip, to provide humanitarian aid, and that aid is going to go straight through the Palestinian Authority, which has no authority in Gaza.

So is George Mitchell going to talk to Hamas? Is someone going to take some steps to put the Palestinian Authority back in power in Gaza? That's the policy we've embarked on right away.

So then you ask, what's the relevance of George Mitchell's appointment to that question? And the answer is, we don't know. It's not about the person; it's about what you're going to do and what the policy's going to be.

Another observation I'd make is that, by saying at the outset that George Mitchell is going to handle Arab-Israeli peace process, you're saying inferentially that Hillary Clinton isn't going to handle Arab-Israeli peace herself, because obviously you're not bringing in George Mitchell so that he can be her second banana.

So that means that he's going to have the day-to-day responsibility for running this problem in coming months and not the secretary of state.

MARGARET WARNER: That's an interesting point, Jim Dobbins, two such high-profile major figures. Does it diminish the authority or the involvement of the secretary of state?

JAMES DOBBINS: I mean, it could, depending on how it evolved. But I think Hillary Clinton is a pretty powerful, tough person, and I think she can deal with that.

And I think Mitchell will play the second banana, to the extent that the secretary of state wants to become personally engaged, has time to become personally engaged. When she gets on the plane and goes to meet people, he's going to be sitting beside her, and she's going to be talking most of the time. And the same thing for Dick Holbrooke.

MARGARET WARNER: But how does it usually work? I mean, does the special envoy report to the secretary of state? Dick Holbrooke said today he was going to report to the secretary of state, but also Vice President Biden and President Obama. How does it usually work?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, the formula toward the end of the Clinton administration was -- the title was senior adviser to the president and secretary of state. As a practical matter, the people who had that title -- myself, among several others -- sat in the State Department, worked in the State Department, were paid by the State Department, and reported to the secretary of state, but they did report to the National Security Council and the president, as well, and had access to them, but the primary reporting channel was to the secretary of state.

And this is not very different from any ambassador in the country who is the president's personal representative in Country X, but takes his instructions from the secretary of state.

Potential pitfalls of the plan

James Dobbins
Former State Department Official
We don't have troops in Gaza or in Israel, so we're not party to that conflict. We're a mediator. We're party to the conflict in Afghanistan. We're on one side. And Dick Holbrooke isn't going to negotiate with the Taliban.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Phil Zelikow, what are the potential pitfalls? What about, for instance, the relationship between the special envoy -- let's take the Dick Holbrooke example with Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and the person who's usually supposed to be the top State Department official, the assistant secretary for the region?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Sure. Well, you have a situation now in the State Department, under the recent secretary, Secretary Rice, her number-two was a career diplomat. Her number-three was a career diplomat. Five of the six regional bureaus were headed by career diplomats.

Well, now that's all changed. All the undersecretary level, with one exception, and probably almost all the regional bureaus are going to be run by new political appointees, creating layers from the career diplomats.

Maybe that's a good thing. It's certainly a commentary on what the new administration thinks of the policy leadership abilities of the diplomatic corps.

But here's the point I'd make about Dick Holbrooke and Afghanistan-Pakistan, which is -- I mean, Holbrooke is very capable. He's very experienced. But this is not a problem of going out there and knocking heads together Dayton-style. This is a problem of changing strategy and then lining up the people and the money to put behind a new strategy.

So this is a situation where we've just had a strategy review for the last three or four months, and today the administration announced they're going to start a new one. That's OK; it's got to be their strategy.

But they'd better get it ready quick if they want to put soldiers, civilians, and money behind a new strategy in time for the new campaign season that starts in about three months.

And it's not clear that Dick Holbrooke is going to actually have line management authority over the people and the money that have to be lined up behind a new strategy.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that does raise an interesting point, Jim Dobbins, that the titles for these two appointments is different. George Mitchell appears -- he's a special envoy for Middle East peace. And it seems a pretty classic negotiator-mediator role.

Dick Holbrooke's been called a special representative, and Secretary Clinton was kind of vague about what that would mean, but she referred to something that Phil Zelikow just did. It sounded as if she was talking about coordinating with the Defense Department and the NSC and all the different agencies. What do you see as the significance?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think there is a distinction. We don't have troops in Gaza or in Israel, so we're not party to that conflict. We're a mediator.

We're party to the conflict in Afghanistan. We're on one side. And Dick Holbrooke isn't going to negotiate with the Taliban. He's going to work with the government of Afghanistan, government of Pakistan, and with all of the assets there -- the military, the civilian assets -- to try to get them to converge toward a policy outcome.

What Holbrooke is doing in Afghanistan is more like what Holbrooke did after Dayton to make sure that Dayton got implemented and then what successive special envoys did after Holbrooke left the administration than what he did in Dayton.

What are the chances for success?

Philip Zelikow
Former State Department Official
The Afghanistan-Pakistan problem in particular, but also to some extent the Arab-Israeli thing, too, is actually about changing policy and moving a whole coalition of people and resources behind a new policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me close by asking both of you this. If we look back at special envoys -- and no offense meant to anyone who's been a special envoy here -- but arguably the two most successful were George Mitchell, with Ireland, and Dick Holbrooke, with Bosnia, in terms of two raging conflicts.

What was the secret of their success, the ingredient, Phil Zelikow? And can they be replicated in these situations?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: These situations are deeply different. The Dayton episode, per se, and Northern Ireland was really about getting people together and working a negotiation.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan problem in particular, but also to some extent the Arab-Israeli thing, too, is actually about changing policy and moving a whole coalition of people and resources behind a new policy. In other words, it's a big line management job, how I move large organizations and create new capacities to do new things.

That's not kind of a spot-on negotiation job, like either Dayton or Northern Ireland. You may need to change your government's policies.

Now, Holbrooke is very capable, and he may understand this, but it's a very different kind of model than the model of just getting too good envoys out there together to do some diplomacy.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way?

JAMES DOBBINS: I agree they're very different. I'm reasonably sure, knowing Dick Holbrooke, that he's going to take control of whatever instruments he needs to achieve the objectives that he's been set and that diplomacy and mediation is going to be only one of many instruments that he will have control over.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, George Mitchell?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, Mitchell is a mediator. The secret to success in Northern Ireland was Bill Clinton was heavily involved, as well. And if Obama is similarly involved, maybe there's some prospect in the Middle East.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. James Dobbins and Philip Zelikow, thank you both.