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Washington has too many cooks in the kitchen

Special envoys, ambassadors and still more special envoys confuse relations abroad.

Special Envoy for Middle East George Mitchell
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stand together before holding direct peace talks at the State Department, Sept. 2, 2010. (Jason Reed/Getty Images)

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama named a host of special envoys to regions, organizations and trouble spots around the world.

Some were of the appointments were high-profile, like former Sen. George Mitchell, who is now special envoy to the Middle East. Others were practically invisible, like Rashad Hussain, now special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

But as tenuous Middle East peace talks begin in Washington, and as the situation in Afghanistan, the province of special envoy Richard Holbrooke, plummets from bad to worse, now is a good time to ask: Are these special envoys doing much good?

The evidence suggests that many are causing more problems than they are solving.

Holbrooke, a former senior State Department official, has a long, laudable history as a diplomat. But it’s hard to see what he has accomplished in the Afghan cauldron. The truth is, he is best known for getting in the way. Afghanistan already has two high-profile representatives of Washington, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander.

Holbrooke stops by now and then, demanding attention — and leaving Afghan officials totally confused about who really speaks for the president. Show me the benefit in that.

Mitchell performed yeoman’s work shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, moderating the indirect, so-called proximity talks since last May. But by all accounts, he made little if any progress. A problem this large, this old, requires the attention of the president, or at least the secretary of state. That’s what is underway now.

Stephen Bosworth, special envoy for North Korea, has presided over a second nuclear weapons test, the sinking of a South Korean warship and continued threats and bluster from Pyongyang. Mr. Bosworth, tell me what you have accomplished?

Part of the problem is that every one of these countries already has an American ambassador, or at least a charges d’affaires. Aren’t they supposed to be the ones who work with government leaders? Who, exactly, is speaking for Washington — the ambassador who lives there, or the special envoy who makes irregular visits? For the leader of any government, all of that is bound to be confusing.

All of these problems come together in Sudan, where special envoy Scott Gration is quite obviously making things worse. He’s the one who declared in July that the International Criminal Court’s genocide indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir “will make my mission more difficult.”

Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Gration, that the indictment of a man with the blood of 2.3 million people on his hands has inconvenienced you. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, rebuked Gration the next day.

“The United States stands firmly behind justice and accountability for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, in Darfur and elsewhere,” she said.

Gration is a villain in the eyes of many non-governmental organizations and others. On Sept. 1, the Sudan Tribune newspaper called him “disastrously incompetent.”

The genocide indictment upset him because he successfully pushed the idea that the best way to solve the manifold human-rights problems in Sudan is to work with Bashir and his government. He convinced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of this — against the adamant opposition of Rice, whose knowledge of Sudan far surpasses Gration’s or Clinton’s.