Holbrooke's Growing Orbit

President Obama shook hands with Hugo Chávez, and before you know it, Venezuela's Citgo is handing over an island.
President Obama shook hands with Hugo Chávez, and before you know it, Venezuela's Citgo is handing over an island. (By Mariamma Kambon -- Pool)
By Al Kamen
Monday, April 27, 2009

Lest anyone think all those new "special envoys" at the State Department come free, the department has submitted a supplemental budget request to the Hill for an extra $8.5 million to help pay for the 50 or so new staffers -- including about 20 aides, nearly a personal bureau all by itself -- needed to help Pakistan-Afghanistan uberenvoy Richard C. Holbrooke.

The "specials" will also have the regular Foreign Service people at their disposal as well as detailees from other agencies -- such as the Pentagon or the Justice Department -- to handle certain tasks, we were told. Envoy Dennis B. Ross -- assigned to a new region that includes Iran -- and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaker George J. Mitchell each may be assigned about eight staffers. Climate envoy Todd Stern has a smaller footprint, with up to half a dozen personal aides, and Sudan envoy Scott Gration has about four, as does Guantanamo Bay special envoy Daniel Fried.

Partly special Stephen W. Bosworth, who's still dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University while dealing with North Korea's nukes, and Eurasian energy envoy Richard L. Morningstar will be getting a couple of aides each -- again with other support available from inside and outside the department.

Why so many for Holbrooke? This reflects the very large and especially difficult and critical region, we were told. Holbrooke, author of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in the Balkans, is reported to have announced to a meeting of career Foreign Service folks in the South and Central Asia bureau that they were now working for him, something that stunned more than a few of them.

But that's a good thing. Means they'll be working for a hard-charging, high-powered diplomat with a proven record. Still, the joke immediately circulated when he got the job: "What do they say when Holbrooke arrives for a meeting?" Answer: "The Ego has landed."


It's getting to be that time of year when ambassadorial wannabes are waiting for the final handshake. For fat-cat contributors looking for vanity postings in Europe, the people to see at the White House -- and to check in with in general -- are the fundraising folks. That would be President Obama's deputy campaign finance chairman, David Jacobson (who's taken Canada), and his national finance director, Julianna Smoot. They'll check your qualifications -- such as when you started giving to Obama and whether you first supported somebody else -- especially Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- how much you gave, when you stopped giving and then how much you gave and bundled for Obama.

The biggest plums -- England, France, Italy etc. -- are long gone. There might be a few lesser, but still quite fine, European ones left.

Many of the real working embassies often reserved for non-career people -- places in Asia such as Japan, India, China, maybe Vietnam or Germany or perhaps Russia, or Brazil or South Africa -- are said to be the last to be nailed down. Names float up and then down for a number of these. For example, there was Rick Inderfurth and then Timothy J. Roemer for India, Wendy R. Sherman and then Jim Leach for China, and Joseph F. Nye and then Norman Y. Mineta for Japan. This phenomenon, we were told, is because Clinton has been pushing her own favorites and opposing Obama's picks. In some places the tussling occasionally has gotten most intense.

Curious. We had read somewhere that Obama won the primaries. No?


Obama came in for a fair amount of criticism for getting just a bit too chummy with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, even offering him a warm handshake, down at the recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad,.

But then we got this news release from Venezuela's oil company, Citgo, announcing -- on Earth Day, no less -- that the company was turning over an island it owns in the Delaware River near Philadelphia to the state of New Jersey to create "an ecological, cultural and historical preserve."

The 529-acre island has been used for refining and storage operations for decades until 2001. The Venezuelans noted that since then "real estate developers had exercised pressure" on local officials to allow development, but the hardy Venezuelans worked with local folks to make it an ecological preserve. "Thanks to the efforts of . . . Venezuela," we're told, there's been a "victory for Mother Nature."

That's just for a handshake. Imagine what we'd gotten for a full abrazo! Maybe Isla Margarita, just off the north coast? After all, that's only 360 square miles, great scuba diving etc.


Longtime communications strategist and lobbyist Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee chairman and more recently counselor to President George W. Bush in his last 18 months in the White House, is forming his own consulting company, appropriately named Ed Gillespie Strategies.

The new firm will do no lobbying but will advise clients on communications strategies, message development and something always needed in this town, reputation management.


Keeping up with recent White House picks . . . Obama last week tapped former California federal prosecutor Alejandro Mayorkas to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security. Career Foreign Service officer Robert O. Blake Jr., most recently ambassador to Sri Lanka, is to be assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, former journalist and Brookings Institution senior fellow Daniel Benjamin to be coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

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