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Opinion: Washington has too many cooks in the kitchen

Special envoys, ambassadors and still more special envoys confuse relations abroad

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama named a host of special envoys to regions, organizations and trouble spots around the world.

Some were of the appointments were high-profile, like former Sen. George Mitchell, who is now special envoy to the Middle East. Others were practically invisible, like Rashad Hussain, now special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

But as tenuous Middle East peace talks begin in Washington, and as the situation in Afghanistan, the province of special envoy Richard Holbrooke, plummets from bad to worse, now is a good time to ask: Are these special envoys doing much good?

The evidence suggests that many are causing more problems than they are solving.

Holbrooke, a former senior State Department official, has a long, laudable history as a diplomat. But it's hard to see what he has accomplished in the Afghan cauldron. The truth is, he is best known for getting in the way. Afghanistan already has two high-profile representatives of Washington, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander.

Holbrooke stops by now and then, demanding attention — and leaving Afghan officials totally confused about who really speaks for the president. Show me the benefit in that.

Mitchell performed yeoman's work shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, moderating the indirect, so-called proximity talks since last May. But by all accounts, he made little if any progress. A problem this large, this old, requires the attention of the president, or at least the secretary of state. That's what is underway now.

Stephen Bosworth, special envoy for North Korea, has presided over a second nuclear weapons test, the sinking of a South Korean warship and continued threats and bluster from Pyongyang. Mr. Bosworth, tell me what you have accomplished?

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Part of the problem is that every one of these countries already has an American ambassador, or at least a charges d'affaires. Aren't they supposed to be the ones who work with government leaders? Who, exactly, is speaking for Washington — the ambassador who lives there, or the special envoy who makes irregular visits? For the leader of any government, all of that is bound to be confusing.

All of these problems come together in Sudan, where special envoy Scott Gration is quite obviously making things worse. He's the one who declared in July that the International Criminal Court's genocide indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir "will make my mission more difficult."

Oh, I'm so sorry, Mr. Gration, that the indictment of a man with the blood of 2.3 million people on his hands has inconvenienced you. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, rebuked Gration the next day.

"The United States stands firmly behind justice and accountability for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, in Darfur and elsewhere," she said.

Gration is a villain in the eyes of many non-governmental organizations and others. On Sept. 1, the Sudan Tribune newspaper called him "disastrously incompetent."

The genocide indictment upset him because he successfully pushed the idea that the best way to solve the manifold human-rights problems in Sudan is to work with Bashir and his government. He convinced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of this — against the adamant opposition of Rice, whose knowledge of Sudan far surpasses Gration's or Clinton's.

Anyone aware of recent history should know that presidents and prime ministers have been trooping into Bashir's office since 2003, when the carnage in Darfur began, only to hear hollow promises issued through a Cheshire grin. Gration propounded the idea of meeting with Bashir's deputies. How far are these people going to go without gaining Bashir's approval? So what's the point?

Problems in Darfur are growing worse. Poor harvests and weakening security are leading to thousands of additional deaths due to violence and malnutrition in the camps where most Darfurians now live. But Gration is promoting the notion that Washington should focus most of its attention on the north-south elections set for January. Residents of southern Sudan are to vote on whether to seek independence, and already the government is trying to sabotage the election.

While Gration is directing American eyes toward that problem, serious as it is, the Sudanese government took the opportunity to put forward its own plan for Darfur, called "domestication" — sending the 2.5 million people who live in refugee camps, under the protection of U.N. forces, back home to their villages, where they are to be "protected" by the very Sudanese forces that have been slaughtering them for the last seven years. Gration is said to have endorsed that idea. After all, last year he said Darfur was experiencing only "the remnants of genocide," earning another rebuke from Washington.

By all accounts, Gration is not working out.

Last week the Obama administration announced its solution.

The State Department is sending another special envoy to Sudan, former Ambassador Princeton Lyman. He "joins a robust U.S. leadership team" in Sudan, the department said. "He will join Special Envoy Gration in Sudan for meetings this week."

Now who represents Washington in Khartoum?

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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Pete Souza/White House

President Obama holds a working dinner with, clockwise from left, President Hosni Mubarek of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and Tony Blair, the international Middle east envoy and former British Prime Minsiter, at the White House, Sept. 1.