Whatever became of President Barack Obama’s vaunted foreign policy czars, who were to transform America’s international relations through soft power diplomacy? The answer is nothing good. One by one the czars have fallen by the wayside, leaving a trail of bureaucratic irritation and diplomatic failure behind them. The Administration now at least tacitly acknowledges that the whole operation was a mistake.
Last week’s resignation of Stephen Bosworth as special representative for North Korea marks a milestone in the czars’ decline and fall. In the words of Foreign Policy magazine’s blog, The Cable, Bosworth was “the last of the Obama administration’s original team of special envoys. All are now gone: their missions unfinished, replaced by lower-profile officials.”
Republicans, especially on Capitol Hill, will shed no tears for the czars’ demise. Obama’s appointment of the original team of special representatives was widely seen as a way of empowering hand-picked senior officials to instigate a “transformational” foreign policy without subjecting them to congressional confirmation. A major aim appeared to be to demonstrate Obama’s new focus on American humility and diplomatic engagement, in contrast to the supposedly “hard power” emphasis of the Administration of George W. Bush. Many in Washington also suspected that Obama, fresh from a bruising primary contest with presidential rival Hillary Clinton, was seeking to dilute her prestige and authority as his new Secretary of State.
The czar brigade’s leading lights were men like Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, George Mitchell for Israel and Palestine, Dennis Ross for Iran, Scott Gration for Sudan, and Bosworth for North Korea. Ross soon left his State Department post and was reassigned to the White House as a senior assistant for more general Middle East affairs—perhaps a wise move given the abject failure of Obama’s efforts to “engage” Iran. Holbrooke died suddenly in December 2010, without having engineered much progress in Washington’s “Afpak” policies and with a history of constantly falling afoul of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top U.S. military and diplomatic leaders. George Mitchell resigned in May 2011 after a long period in which he had been virtually invisible—through the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” and the formation of a supposed unity government by the Palestinians. Never really in charge of U.S. Middle East policy, Mitchell had no hope of getting anywhere, as Obama and Clinton either neglected the region or made their own spectacular policy mistakes.
It was not easy to understand how Obama thought that throwing three huge egos—Holbrooke, Ross, and Mitchell—into roughly the same, or at least adjacent, pots would somehow result in a harmonious outcome. As another Foreign Policy commentator put it, “the president’s decision to appoint so many czars was a classic rookie mistake that has not really worked out very well for anyone.”
Gration, according to The Cable, “presided over the birth of the nation of South Sudan before being appointed ambassador to Kenya, but he faced criticism for his handling of U.S. policy on Sudan and constantly butted heads with other figures in the administration, notably U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. He is now replaced by the quiet yet well-respected Princeton Lyman.”
Bosworth, who is dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and has only been working part-time on North Korea, is replaced by career diplomat Glyn Davies, who is not a North Korean specialist. The State Department said, “This is a change in personnel, not a change in policy”—without mentioning that the policy has achieved no significant success. Davies’s main role is seen as keeping things quiet on the North Korean front in the period leading up to next year’s U.S. elections.
That is perhaps symbolic of the Administration’s change of approach to the role of special representations in general. Now that none of them has achieved the diplomatic breakthroughs so naively expected by the newly elected Obama, ambitions have been reduced to not making things any worse—and even that may be difficult.