Will Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State Be Undermined by the Appointment of a Middle East Envoy? See What MESH Thinks…

Reverend Amy from Rabble Rouser Ruminations posted a piece yesterday (12/5/08) (cross-posted at No Quarter)  in which she expressed her concerns about the way things are going with regard to the nomination of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. I agree completely with her comment and it piqued my interest.  Here’s what Reverend Amy wrote:

Well, you know I am not all that crazy about Hillary Clinton being the Secretary of State for Barack Obama because I do not trust him. As it is, he is already complicating her job by appointing a special Middle East Envoy who will report directly to HIM as opposed to the Secretary of State, as well as by elevating the position of UN Ambassador, to which he appointed Dr. Susan Rice, to a Cabinet Level position, already makes Clinton’s job more difficult. Oh, and Dr. Rice’s position is particularly galling because she claimed Colin Powell proved Iraq had WMD.

According to the Haaretz article Reverend Amy links to, the name being floated by Israeli sources for the envoy slot is one Daniel Kurtzer, a former American Ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005)–a diplomat who worked under both Bill Clinton and George Bush.

Obama’s decision to appoint a special envoy reporting to him directly, rather than to the secretary of state, indicates that the president-elect attaches special importance to the regional peace process. Reportedly, several of Obama’s advisers recommended the appointment.

The special envoy job could infringe on the prestige of Hillary Clinton, who was appointed secretary of state on Monday. On the other hand, it could ease any apparent conflict because of Bill Clinton’s close ties with the Gulf States.

Kurtzer, 59, joined Obama’s primary and presidential campaigns as a senior member of the president-elect’s foreign advisers. He also helped prepare Obama’s visit to the region and was among the main writers of Obama’s address on the Middle East to AIPAC in June 2008, which was seen as one the candidate’s most important speeches on international affairs.

What’s really interesting is that back on November 20, the topic of whether or not a Middle East envoy should even be appointed was discussed at MESH–Middle East Strategy at Harvard.  According to the MESH site:

Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) is a project of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. The Olin Institute is part of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

MESH is a community of scholars and practitioners who are interested in the formulation of U.S. strategic options for the Middle East. Since 9/11 and the Iraq war, the Middle East has occupied a place of primacy in debates over U.S. global aims and strategies. MESH brings together some of the most original thinkers in academe, research centers, and government, in a web-based forum for exchanging and disseminating ideas.

In the post entitled  A Middle East Envoy? the results of a poll conducted among MESH members were reported.  On the list, but near the bottom,  was the name of Hillary Clinton.

From MESH Admin

Over the past week, MESHNet, the closed-forum companion to MESH, conducted a poll of MESHNet members, asking them who would make the best Middle East envoy of the Obama administration (if it is decided to appoint one). The structure of the poll emulated an earlier poll administered to a panel of Israeli experts, taking the same nine candidates and the same scoring system. MESHNet members (persons with a professional interest in the Middle East, 179 in number) were asked to rate the candidates, from “most suitable” for the job (a score of 5) to “least suitable” (a score of 1). Sixty-three MESHNet members responded to the poll question. Here are the results, comprised of the average score for each candidate:

Dennis Ross 3.350
Bill Clinton 2.904
Richard Holbrooke... 2.904
Colin Powell 2.747
Daniel Kurtzer 2.619
Condoleezza Rice 2.458
Bill Richardson 2.394
Hillary Clinton 2.336
James Baker 2.222

In parallel, MESH asked a number of its members to assess whether the appointment of a special envoy is advisable. Their nine responses appear below. (Respondents did not have prior knowledge of the poll results.)

I went through the comments to this latter question and found that there was a wide range of opinion on the subject. One of the experts noted that Bill Clinton did have a special envoy (Dennis Ross, who topped the poll) while Bush did not.  But the most interesting aspects of the discussion were some of the observations about how an envoy would “mesh” with the Secretary of State and the President…the concerns that were expressed by Reverend Amy. It’s clear that there are a lot of “ifs” about how Clinton’s role will actually play out, but here are a few possible scenarios/considerations to mull over from the following experts (I’ve highlighted sections that were of particular interest):

Mark N. Katz (Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He writes on Russian foreign policy, the international relations of the Middle East, and transnational revolutionary movements.)

“Because of the time commitment needed for seriously trying to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, neither the president nor the secretary of state should get immersed in the nitty-gritty negotiations that will be required. There is simply too much other important business for both of them that will not receive sufficient attention if either (or even more unfortunately, both) become overly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Nor is this a task that the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs should undertake either, as this would leave precious little time for him or her to deal with America’s many other important relationships in, as well as the other problems of, this region.

In short, for there to be any hope of an American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian settlement, it will have to be undertaken by someone whose sole task it is to try to achieve one. If this effort is successful, the president can—rightly—take the credit. But if it is unsuccessful, the blame can be assigned not so much to the president as to (yes, you guessed it) the Middle East envoy.”

Robert Satloff (Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a post he assumed in January 1993.)

“Candidate Obama promised he would appoint a special Middle East envoy. President Obama’s decision whether to fulfill that promise depends a) on the purpose of the appointment and b) on the personality of the envoy…the personality of a proposed envoy is important. The particular choice should be someone endowed with patience, persistence, and a willingness to pass the baton to someone else – perhaps the president, perhaps the secretary of state, perhaps another envoy – depending on circumstances. This is not the job for someone who believes that the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be achieved on his/her watch or someone who views this responsibility as the path to a Nobel Prize.”

Tamara Cofman Wittes (Tamara Cofman Wittes is Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, where she focuses on U.S. efforts to promote democracy and the Arab-Israeli peace process.)

” Obama stated repeatedly during the campaign his intention to devote early and focused attention to the Middle East peace process. Since the transition period is mostly about structure and personnel, observers are naturally focused on the question of whether to appoint a special envoy for the peace process. But to my mind the question is misplaced.

In a bureaucracy, structure is power—but appointing an envoy does not necessarily convey much power or many resources to a diplomatic effort on behalf of Arab-Israeli peace. A special envoy without many staff, or one who is not situated at a senior level within (or above) the State Department bureaucracy, will not have the authority or capacity to mobilize efforts across the department, and will therefore not have as much impact as an envoy with his/her own office and a reporting line direct to the president or the secretary of state. So structure matters, and appointing an envoy does not alone produce the required structure.”

Raymond Tanter (Raymond Tanter is adjunct professor of political science at Georgetown University and an adjunct scholar of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, researching U.S. policy options toward Iran. He is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan. From 1981 to 1982, Dr. Tanter served on the National Security Council staff and was personal representative of the secretary of defense to the 1983-1984 arms control talks held in Madrid, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Vienna. Currently, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.)

” Whether it is wise to appoint an envoy for the Middle East depends on the president-elect’s planned focus of attention, whether he intends to have a White House-driven or cabinet-driven administration, and whether he would like to encourage or suppress differences in recommendations to the White House within and from the State Department.

If the president-elect wishes to focus on the economy from the White House, he should have a strong secretary of state, which would argue against having an envoy for the Middle East. However, if the secretary of state were to be given a substantial part of the action on international economy, a Middle East envoy would be desirable. Likewise, if it looks as if policy-driving national security events from the region merit an overarching strategy developed within the White House, he may wish to have a less prominent secretary of state, a strong national security advisor, and an envoy who reports to the White House and State. And if the president-elect wishes to encourage a process of  ‘multiple advocacy’ at State, then an envoy with direct reporting to the White House and to the secretary of state would be warranted.”

So, we’ll have to watch to see if Hillary Clinton becomes what Tanter calls a “strong” Secretary of State or a “less prominent” head of the State Department. Stay tuned…