In his first week in office, President Barack Obama made a consequential choice. By appointing three special envoys to tackle three important problems, he established his foreign-policy priorities.
George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, was assigned to restart Arab-Israeli peace talks. Former ambassador Richard Holbrooke was put in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And former ambassador Dennis Ross, a Middle East expert, was selected to oversee the administration’s effort to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear-weapons capability. These were the right issues to focus on, and the people selected were all competent, experienced and respected.
The decision to appoint envoys was a signal that the president would concentrate decision-making power over international affairs in the White House. By contrast, President George H.W. Bush used a more traditional model. On the three biggest international challenges of his presidency -- managing the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989, building the coalition that reversed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and initiating the 1991 Middle East peace talks between Arabs and Israelis -- he delegated power to his secretary of state, James Baker.
This recent history is relevant because all of Obama’s presidential envoys are now gone. Mitchell resigned in May; Holbrooke died unexpectedly last winter; and Ross moved to the White House in the spring of 2009, when it became evident that the outreach to Iran wouldn’t result in high-level diplomatic engagement.
Obama’s failure to appoint replacements is seen abroad as an indication of declining interest in these priorities. For example, the belief that the president isn’t committed to restarting the peace process was one of the reasons the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to a national reconciliation deal with Hamas.
We have no special attachment to the concept of a special envoy, and in one case, at least, the administration is showing it may be able to do without. With respect to Afghanistan, Holbrooke’s portfolio was carefully divided among several officials, and the new top team of military officers and diplomats that is heading to Kabul is well-qualified to manage the administration’s policy of winding down U.S. involvement in that country. Whether it is possible to achieve a lasting settlement involving the Afghan government, the hydra-headed Taliban movement and Pakistan, is an open question. But the White House is devoting appropriate resources and energy to this issue.
In the case of Iran and the Arab-Israeli negotiations, however, the absence of consistent, high-level attention entails real risk. No president’s foreign-policy team can focus on more than a few issues at a time. And under the Obama system, decision-making requires daily input or approval from the White House. Right now, in addition to managing talks on the debt crisis, the president is juggling the Arab Spring, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the war in Libya, as well as the next high-profile presidential visit or summit meeting. It’s no wonder there’s no strategy to deal with the possibility that a crisis could occur this fall if the United Nations recognizes a Palestinian state.
Or look at Iran. The situation is worse than when the Obama administration took office. Tehran is moving toward a nuclear-weapons capability, and Iranian leaders interested in exploring a diplomatic solution are being pushed aside. Despite the economic sanctions that were imposed last year, there is no sign of any change in the regime’s determination to enrich uranium for the purposes of building a weapon. And Russia and China have made clear that no more economic sanctions will be possible in the UN Security Council. Sanctions may hurt Iran -- they have affected financial transactions and transportation costs for international trade -- but they clearly aren’t going to stop Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons. So how will the president make good on his pledge to prevent the Iranian government from crossing that threshold?
There are no easy responses to the Iranian nuclear challenge or possible UN recognition of a Palestinian state. But an already dangerous world would be safer if these two issues were getting high-level attention. Right now, they aren’t. Obama should either empower Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take charge or he should choose new presidential envoys. Further delay is not an adequate answer.
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