State Department Special Envoys Are Resurrected Under Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefs reporters earlier this week. Pompeo has appointed five special envoys since he was sworn in. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefs reporters earlier this week. Pompeo has appointed five special envoys since he was sworn in. Cliff Owen/AP

Under the Obama administration’s State Department, “special envoys multiplied like rabbits,” wrote an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, which played a key role in the Trump administration’s plans to reorganize government.

These non-Senate confirmed leaders on such portfolios as climate change “get their own staffs and their own budgets” and often overlap with existing bureaus, complained Heritage commentator James Jay Carafano last year. “So they get to play ambassador whether they’re making any demonstrable progress toward advancing America’s interests or not.”

Last October, Rex Tillerson informed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he was eliminating nine special envoys, while folding 26 others back into State’s formal bureaus, as part of his ill-fated reorganization.

Flash forward to the current department under Mike Pompeo. Since he was sworn in on May 2, the former CIA director and House member has appointed no fewer than five special envoys:

  • Steve Biegun, a former Ford Motor Co. vice president, is the special envoy for the North Korea nuclear talks;
  • James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, is special representative for Syria Engagement;
  • Brian Hook, the former head of the State Department’s policy planning office, is special representative for the Iran action group;
  • Zalmay Khalilzad, once U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, is the special envoy for the Afghan peace process; and,
  • Robert O’Brien, former co-chairman of State’s Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, is special envoy for hostage affairs.

Most of those are in high-profile areas that are key priorities for President Trump’s foreign policy.

The justification, a State Department spokesman told Government Executive on Friday, is Pompeo’s frequently voiced desire to “get his team on the field as soon as possible,” as acting State spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at an Aug. 23 briefing announcing the North Korea appointment.

The roster on the State website shows 16 special envoy slots, with nine vacancies, among them special representative for the human rights of LGBTI persons, one for environment and water resources, and one for the Sudan and South Sudan.

During his confirmation hearings in May, Pompeo told Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., that he would consider a special envoy for the refugee crisis in the two Sudans, but added, “We may need to rethink our approach.”

David Hale, the Trump-appointed undersecretary for political affairs who was one of Obama’s special envoys, told the Wall Street Journal last month that he values such envoys. “Think about the massive scope of these problems. They go well beyond the scope of any one assistant secretary or one geographic bureau,” he said. “We want the sharpest possible focus on these top challenges.”

The organizations for retired diplomats have long opposed overuse of special envoys. “Envoys from outside State may lack the institutional knowledge that would allow them to coordinate with key policy players; some may be well-versed in dealing with other Washington players, but working within the department is key as well,” said a 2014 paper by the American Foreign Service Association.  “Short-term perspective may create blinders.  An absence of background, as well as the longer-term perspective of how action in one area can affect others down the road, can lead an envoy to function in isolation.”

Former Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the Academy of Diplomacy, had also applauded Tillerson’s cutbacks. “We were primarily concerned with the large number of envoys for broad subjects and the fact that many of them duplicated functions performed in the regular bureaus,” he told Government Executive. “However, we were not opposed to all envoys and recognized that there was a place for some in dealing with some kinds of crises.”

Nancy McEldowney, who retired in June 2017 as director of the Arlington, Va.-based Foreign Service Institute and is now at Georgetown University, had a different view. “I think it is a matter of degree and a matter of execution,” she told Government Executive. Having helped run State’s regional bureau for Europe, she said, “I know from personal experience it is extremely helpful to have a senior official who is dedicated to a very sensitive or high-profile issue who can engage in a sustained and systematic manner in the negotiations formal and informal.”

The issue, she added, is whether that “senior official remains tightly integrated with the rest of the policy and process of our diplomacy for that region or country. It’s not tenable to have an individual who believes they are a lone agent, who believes in working independently from the rest of the system and is responsible only to the secretary or president. A lone ranger will do more harm than good.”

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