Diplomat to an Ever-Changing Region

By Al Kamen
Thursday, February 26, 2009

Is it a team of rivals or a three-ring circus? That was the question yesterday as State Department spokesman Robert Wood gamely tried to unravel the mystery of what countries new special adviser Dennis Ross is going to advise on.

Monday night's announcement said that Ross, who was earlier said to be in line to be special envoy to Iran, was going to be handling the "Gulf and Southwest Asia," a new region designed apparently so as not to use the word Iran. This caused all manner of confusion Tuesday among reporters. Wood promised he'd define it for them.

So Ross, we were told, was asked to come up with a list of countries on his turf. But his list quite logically included Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to various Persian Gulf countries. The list was run by Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy for those two trouble spots , who promptly scratched them off Ross's list. Then the Near East Affairs Bureau looked at Ross's list and noticed it included a number of countries in that bureau's bailiwick. Those folks tried, too late, to get them taken off the list. So the list, which Wood read from the podium, includes a chunk of Near East turf. "From our standpoint," Wood said, "the countries that make up areas of the Gulf and Southwest Asia include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, and those are the countries." Iran's in there.

Meanwhile, Ross may not be a "special envoy," but he's certainly being treated like one. He's been given an office, right next door to Holbrooke's, on Envoy Avenue. (This was formerly known as the George W. Bush Hall of Diplomatic Glory.) That office had been given last month to special envoy George J. Mitchell, who's in charge of arranging peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Signs identifying the office as Mitchell's have been removed, but it's unclear where he went.

So if you're wondering where Southwest Asia really is, it's in the hallway just between Ross's and Holbrooke's offices.


Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, roundly cuffed about by human rights groups for kowtowing to the repressive Chicoms during her recent Asia trip, has picked Michael Posner, president of New York-based Human Rights First, to be assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, Bloomberg News reports.


Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag yesterday talked about how the administration was determined to let taxpayers know how the stimulus money was being spent.

"We are asking the taxpayers for their help in getting the economy out of this recession," he told reporters, "and in exchange they deserve accountability and transparence."

Orszag said the administration's monitors have set up a Web site, Recovery.gov, "which I'm told is receiving 3,000 hits a second, which I think underscores the interest in the accountability and transparency surrounding this endeavor."

That's some serious interest. That's 10.8 million hits an hour, or an exceptionally fine 259 million hits a day.

If they started selling ads, we could wipe out that deficit pretty quick.


Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) talked with reporters before President Obama's speech Tuesday night, highlighting the main themes.

"Now, the other message that he's going to deliver tonight is that we must work together," Reid said. "Now, has the president's efforts, reaching out to the Republicans, given us any short-term benefit? Some would argue, maybe, no. But, long-term, it's been terrific. And tonight you will see more of that."

The short term ain't as long as it used to be? Or the long term has arrived faster than usual?


Sounds like dueling events today in the Senate. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is scheduled to host a hearing this afternoon titled "Engaging With Muslim Communities Around the World." The idea, we were told, is to improve understanding and relations with Muslim communities Meanwhile, on a somewhat different note, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is hosting a film screening at the Capitol today for far-right Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, who says Islam inspires terrorism. The film juxtaposes verses from the Koran and images of violence by Muslims.


The president is said to have tapped two Hispanic officials for sub-Cabinet positions in his administration, and the White House is expected to announce their nominations if they clear the vetting process.

Thomas A. Saenz, counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), is likely to head the civil rights division at the Justice Department, sources confirmed. The potential appointment was first reported by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, John D. Trasviña is believed to be Obama's pick for assistant secretary of fair housing, sources said. Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, served at Justice in the Clinton administration.


Shin Inouye, now White House director of specialty media, was incorrectly identified in yesterday's column. He was constituency communications coordinator for the Obama campaign.

With Philip Rucker

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