Bloated ‘Special Envoy’ System Under Scrutiny In State Department Reorganization

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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When the Department of State revealed early in July that it was closing down a pair of ambassador-level offices and folding their responsibilities into larger bureaus, there was much gnashing of teeth among the foreign policy commentariat and some former diplomats, who said key international issues would be given short shrift as a result.

The offices of Global Criminal Justice (GCJ) and the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, just two of more than 60 so-called “special envoys” floating within the department’s permanent bureaucracy, are necessary to focus attention and resources on particularly tricky foreign policy problems, critics said. (RELATED: Tillerson Looks To Close Cyber Office Amid State Department Reorganization)

“It’s taking an issue that’s preeminent and putting it inside a backwater within the State Department,” said Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Robert Knake of the decision to shutter the cyber envoy. “Position to power matters both within the U.S. government and within the international community.”

But not all observers are so sure that the special envoys are as effective as advocates make them out to be. As retired U.S. ambassador Ronald Neumann argues, the proliferation of special envoys may actually be harming State Department’s ability to manage diplomacy inside an already complex chain of command.

“Overall, the administration is moving to remove most special envoy positions, which I think is eminently correct,” Neumann told NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Monday. “They have grown like weeds in the garden after a rainstorm. They clutter the policy process, and they’re inefficient.”

Depending on how the term is defined, the State Department counts 67 special envoys, each with the rank of ambassador and each competing for attention and resources with larger bureaus that often share overlapping responsibilities, reports Politico. Congress has mandated or authorized only 18 of those envoy positions — the rest were created by previous administrations to address foreign policy issues they deemed to be especially important.

Some lawmakers are now backing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s effort to pare down the number of special envoys as a part of his larger restructuring plan for the department. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said special envoys “do more harm than good” during a hearing earlier in July.

“I think that they hurt the culture of our professional Foreign Service officers candidly because I think they see them in many cases as a work around … I hope that we’ll do away with all of them that are unnecessary,” Corker said. “And I think most of them are unnecessary.”

A complicating factor for Tillerson is that many of the special envoys have developed their own constituencies, both at Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill. When Tillerson suggested that appointing an envoy to monitor antisemitism might be redundant given the attention to the issue elsewhere in the department, pushback from lawmakers and activists was swift and severe.

A similar response came when Tillerson moved in June to fold the Office of the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan into State’s bureau for South and Central Asia. Although an acting envoy was named to manage the transition, critics ripped the decision anyway, saying it would cede Afghanistan policy to the Department of Defense.

State Department officials have sought to reassure Congress and other policy stakeholders that the removal of special envoys does not necessarily mean the administration intends to downplay the issues those offices cover.

“Every single function of a special representative of this or that, all of those issues will still be addressed,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters last week. “We’re not going to stop caring about Afghanistan, for example, if there’s not a special representative. The functions will still be done.”

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