Special Envoys Give Career Diplomats Special Heartburn

Blair House is apparently party central, and thus not a good place for the incoming president and his family.
Blair House is apparently party central, and thus not a good place for the incoming president and his family. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
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By Al Kamen
Monday, December 15, 2008

The economic downturn has driven up unemployment for just about everyone. But not for a small group of "special" people. We're hearing plans are afoot at the State Department to have a string of "special envoys" appointed to handle top-priority trouble areas around the world.

In addition to a special envoy for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan -- former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke looks to be an obvious choice -- it appears we may have a special envoy focusing on Arab-Israeli matters -- perhaps someone such as retired diplomat Daniel C. Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel and Egypt and now at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

There's also talk that Christopher R. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will become special but keep plugging away on the North Korean nuke problem. And Dennis Ross, a close Obama adviser, longtime diplomat and President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East, could be a special envoy to Iran, with maybe a broader portfolio of the Middle East in general. (That is, if he doesn't take the post of undersecretary for political affairs or some other uber-position in Foggy Bottom or in the White House.) The undersecretary for political affairs is usually reserved for a career Foreign Service officer, and career people would like current undersecretary Bill Burns to stay on.

All these special people are causing a bit of agita among senior diplomatic types. Special envoys, ambassadors at large, personal representatives and the like are not a new phenomenon for the pinstriped set. But the other diplomats assigned to related duties know they have to make some adjustments to work with them.

It's easiest for career folks when the envoy is chosen more for star power or personal connections rather than for knowledge of the issues. It's a little trickier when, as in the examples mentioned above, the envoys know the subject matter. Nightmare of nightmares is when they think they know what they're doing.

So what do the assistant secretaries generally do when these interlopers pop in? "They clean up after the special envoys," one career diplomat quipped.

No Child Left Behind?

Too bad President Bush and first lady Laura Bush turned down President-elect Barack Obama's request to bunk across the street at Blair House before the usual Jan. 15 move-in date. The Obamas wanted to move early so their daughters could start school.

There were simply too many previously scheduled events and guests, the first lady's spokeswoman said. When asked who might be bumping the president-elect out, the spokeswoman noted that the 70,000-square-foot, 119-room manse "is frequently used by White House officials, the State Department and its Office of Protocol for various events."

So it sounds as if things will be jumping at Blair House after the new year. We, of course, have not been invited.

But if you have, please let us know what smashing parties and going-away flings we're missing. Please forward your invites to movingout@washpost.com.

Headline of the Week

This e-mail came in from "Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- ODNI in the News," about a speech that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell gave in Cambridge, Mass.

"December 10, 2008: DNI Highlights Critical Threats Facing the U.S.; Captivates Audience at Harvard's Kennedy School."


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