Diplomatic Envoys Off And Running

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They're off and running.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's high-profile diplomatic shock troops have now been named and are in place, flying hither and yon, chairing meetings and doing whatever else is necessary to start solving the biggest foreign policy headaches the Obama administration faces.

Ambassador Stephen Bosworth heads for meetings in Asia early next week with the North Korea portfolio passed to him by Ambassador Christopher Hill. Hill, slated to become ambassador to Iraq, has had two years of talking with the North Koreans under the so-called six-party framework but this week Clinton gave the job to Bosworth, a former ambassador to South Korea and currently the head of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Bosworth travels in the coming week to Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow for consultations on getting the process back on track now that the new administration in Washington is up and running. Pyongyang is not on the announced set of stops but Bosworth, speaking to reporters when he was named to the post, said "Obviously, we plan to engage with them." The question is whether it is on this trip. As a private citizen, Bosworth recently paid a visit to North Korea and he said it was his impression that the North Korean leadership was "inclined" to continue the dialogue with Washington. "They see the benefits to them of continued engagement."

Also named this week was Ambassador Dennis Ross who will head the effort to find ways to make new approaches to Iran. Ross, who formerly had the task of coordinating President Bill Clinton's Middle East peace process, is in a kind of geographical no man's land and a political mine field to boot. He's called a "Special Advisor" on "Gulf and Southwest Asia." That's right, the word "Iran" is not mentioned in his title although everyone knows it is President Barack Obama's policy and a new approach to Iran that Ross is working on.

After all manner of worrying about offending one party or another, the word "Gulf" was decided on. No, they couldn't call it the Persian Gulf, which would offend Arabs in the region, nor could it be called the Arabian Gulf because that would offend Iran. As for "Southwest Asia" the State Department's acting spokesman, Robert Wood, had to perform diplomatic gymnastics to tell reporters which countries were and were not included in that designation. Afghanistan, which shares a border with Iran and which is generally accepted to be in Southwest Asia had to be excluded because, as everyone inside the beltway knows, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has Afghanistan and Pakistan—"AF-PAK" in the new diplomatic lingo-- in his bailiwick.

As for Holbrooke, he's already been out to Pakistan and Afghanistan and this week he oversaw three days of meetings in Washington between U.S. officials and those from Kabul and Islamabad. After meetings, dinners and generally spending three days together, Secretary Clinton was brought in to praise all sides and announce these tri-lateral gatherings would be a regular feature going forward. Of course the input from both sides will be taken into account as the Obama administration works to complete a review of its policy for the region.

Should Ross and Holbrooke need to consult it probably won't be too difficult since they have office space next to each other. Now, who plays host and who has to leave his office to trudge down the hall, well, that's another question. Neutral ground would be the cafeteria which, fortunately, is nearby.

While Holbrooke was chairing meetings at the State Department, former Senator George Mitchell, the man now with the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio, was off on his second trip to the region since taking office less than a month before.

Mitchell has been meeting Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and other officials in the region and he will rendezvous with Secretary Clinton in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt for a regional conference on getting humanitarian aid into Gaza. That gathering is also expected to look at ways to move the peace process forward. So far the biggest stumbling block is that no one has figured out a way to deal with Hamas, which controls Gaza. The Egyptians are trying to bring the Palestinians together but Clinton is standing firm that the Obama administration's policy is no contact with Hamas or any Palestinian government which includes Hamas unless and until Hamas accepts Israel's right to exist, renounces terrorism and agrees to abide by previous agreements. Mitchell has only been on the job a month and it appears it'll take much more time to figure out away to bridge the existing gaps. Of course, it is the Middle East where, it seems, there is always more time.

If things are off to a fast start that is all to the good but no one is expecting a deal on anything anytime soon. These newly appointed envoys, experienced diplomats all, know better than most the road ahead is full of potholes, bumps, twists, turns and every other cliché in the handbook. If any of these envoys achieve success no one will care about bureaucratic turf wars, titles or the many hoops they had to jump through to get to the finish line.

And if, for some reason, Secretary Clinton thinks she doesn't have enough help she can always appoint still another special envoy for Darfur, as the actor George Clooney urged this week. Don't bet against it.
  • Charles Wolfson

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