Special Envoys Give Career Diplomats Special Heartburn

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."

Ah, yes. The men wept, the women swooned.

Loose Lips . . .

As the number of available seats in the Obama Cabinet shrinks, you might think the secretary wannabes would be downsizing their expectations -- or at least watching what they say. But that hasn't been the case.

Last week, we brought you the tale of Adolfo Carrion Jr., the Bronx borough president, who delivered a speech at Yale University during which he told the student audience that he "got the call" from ObamaLand telling him he had landed a plum job in the new administration. Carrion wouldn't say which agency he would run (he added, of course, that he's being considered for four), and he informed the audience that his comments were "off the record." They didn't stay off the record for long.

Then there's former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who confirmed to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last week that he's under consideration for secretary of transportation. "Yes, I am being vetted," Kirk told the paper. "I got into this interesting relationship with Senator Obama. I'm honored that my name would even be mentioned."

And let's not forget retired judge Nelson A. Diaz, who told the Philadelphia Inquirer this month that he had received a call from the transition team about a Washington job, including possibly as secretary of housing and urban development (but no chance now). Diaz told the transition officials, "If it's high enough, I might be interested in looking at it," according to the Inquirer.

That's So Tweet

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy, last seen twittering about her jaunt to the Blue Lagoon thermal spa in Iceland, responds to colleagues who came to her defense after we tweaked her about her tweets.

"Belated thx 4 all yr replies on diplo-twittering. Conclusion: 'Al Kamen doesn't get twittering.' "

Alas. And we'll refrain from comments about whether she "gets diplomacy."

With Philip Rucker

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