Clinton goes where special envoys stumble - Pakistan, Middle East

Hillary Clinton is traveling to two places this week – Pakistan and the Middle East – where high-profile special envoys named by Obama have had trouble making progress.

K.M. Chaudary/AP
Students protest against the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Lahore, Pakistan, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009. Clinton is on a three-day state visit to Pakistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is visiting two places this week – Pakistan and the Middle East – where high-profile special envoys named by President Obama have run into brick walls.

But it's far from certain that Secretary Clinton will be able to make any more headway than the two big guns dispatched by Mr. Obama right out of the blocks of his presidency – Richard Holbrooke for the Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio, and George Mitchell for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nonetheless, Clinton's trip is shining a light on the performances of two of America's best-known go-to diplomats, as well as on Obama's broad use of special envoys and so-called czars.

For many diplomats and diplomatic experts, Clinton's trip is above all a reminder that, when it comes to foreign policy, the secretary of State is in charge – a seemingly obvious notion that was cast into doubt in some circles when Messrs. Holbrooke and Mitchell were named in January.

Clinton's trip also underscores the limits of the special envoy, especially in the eyes of the leaders whom US officials work with in each region.

"This administration has identified two regions of the world that require 24/7 attention, and for that Secretary Clinton has the assistance of two extraordinarily capable diplomats," says Karl Inderfurth, director of the Graduate Program in International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

"But at the end of the day it's her responsibility, and that's what this trip acknowledges," he adds. "It's if she weren't visiting these regions that the message would be wrong and questions about the administration's handling of these critical issues would come up."

Still, the questions have come up. When the United States recently ran into an intense public outcry in Pakistan over the terms of a hefty new aid package, it was Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts who visited the country and smoothed the ruffled feathers of Pakistani leaders. And it was Senator Kerry, not Holbrooke, who spent hours in Kabul convincing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff in the disputed August presidential election.

In the Middle East, Mitchell is widely viewed as having labored valiantly, but he was unable to deliver an agreement from Israelis and Palestinians to restart peace talks, which Obama had fervently hoped to announce during his first presidential visit to the United Nations in September.

Explanations for these setbacks vary. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was simply not at a point where any amount of pressure – no matter from whom – was going to lead to a breakthrough, some regional experts say.

Holbrooke has increasingly been cast in the role of "bad cop" in Afghanistan, as the administration's relations with Mr. Karzai have soured, say others, including some State Department officials.

Holbrooke addressed the challenges involved in his portfolio at a State Department briefing with reporters last week, insisting that his relations with Karzai are "fine, they're correct, they're appropriate." Although he acknowledges tensions with Karzai, especially following the August election, his characterization of the relations as "correct" suggests that he sees such tensions as part of the territory. In any case, Holbrooke returns to Kabul next week for another of what are regular visits.

When Clinton visits Israel and the Palestinian territories starting Saturday, Mitchell will be at her side, acknowledging who's the boss.

Clinton's visit suggests a truth of diplomacy: that even under a president who has opted to use the special-envoy approach – something that other presidents have played down – the leaders that the US is dealing with still want the attention of the top diplomatic dogs.

"The parties would always want the highest possible representative of the administration. They'd prefer the president," says Mr. Inderfurth, a former assistant US secretary for South Asian affairs. "But they also know that, short of the president, Secretary Clinton is the head of US foreign policy."


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