Two former U.S. senators made their way around the Mideast last week. One, of course, was Hillary Clinton on her first foray to the key region as secretary of state. In Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank, she was joined by another well-known Washington figure, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who is the new U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace efforts.
The selection of Mitchell, who gained international renown for helping to mediate a historic reconciliation in Northern Ireland, for the post reflects the way the Obama administration is doing diplomatic business. Faced with the certainty of tough going on foreign policy, it has signed up a high-profile set of ex-officials to take on the most intractable overseas problems.
Five such players have been named so far; conceivably, more may follow. They go by different titles: special envoy, special representative, and special adviser. But their hiring recognizes that some extra, senior-level help is needed to push for progress on so many fronts. "This administration faces more first-order problems than any predecessor," says Thomas Pickering, a former under secretary of state for political affairs whose four-decades-long diplomatic career included seven postings as a U.S. ambassador. "The ordinary bureaucracy is going to be taxed."
In addition to Mitchell, the new group consists of former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the broker of the Dayton accords ending Bosnia's civil war, to handle Afghanistan and Pakistan; veteran Mideast peace negotiator Dennis Ross, who serves as a special adviser on the Persian Gulf region, including Iran; Stephen Bosworth, a former ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines, and Tunisia, to take on the North Korea nuclear impasse; and Todd Stern, chief U.S. negotiator at the Kyoto Protocol talks during the Clinton administration, as special envoy for climate change.
The new group has moved out of the blocks quickly. Last week, Mitchell completed his second swing through the Mideast. Bosworth was making his first trip to East Asian capitals and Moscow. A few days earlier, Holbrooke hosted an unprecedented trilateral meeting with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department.
Obama and Clinton's reliance on so many luminaries has risks. "It is a serious problem in being able to manage and syncopate the work of these people," says Pickering. Other analysts have suggested the arrangement could spawn turf battles or trample on career diplomats—outcomes that officials say can be avoided through effective coordination. In any case, the strategy suggests that Obama and Clinton are confident they can orchestrate the energies and egos of their new top players.
This approach is being emulated by some allies, with Britain, Germany, and, just this week, France naming special envoys for "Af-Pak," as Afghanistan-Pakistan is known in Washingtonese. "We believe this is a very valuable technique for showing urgency," says a senior British official. "You have to be involved every day."