Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plan to reduce the number of special envoys in his department has prompted a good deal of hand wringing throughout Washington’s professional chattering class.
Foreign policy experts have lamented the closing of special envoy offices, warning that such moves signal to the world that the U.S. no longer cares about war crimes, cyber security, Afghanistan and many other issues that will supposedly get short shrift without a special representative overseeing them. (RELATED: Bloated ‘Special Envoy’ System Under Scrutiny In State Department Reorganization)
But there are an equal number of former diplomats with extensive, on-the-ground experience in the State Department who are cheering Tillerson’s cuts to the envoy system. Whatever other criticisms they have of the Trump administration’s handling of the State Department — and there are many — on one thing they agree: many special envoys have to go.
James Dobbins, who served as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Barack Obama, says folding the special envoys back into State’s permanent regional and functional bureaus is hardly the catastrophe some have made it out to be.
“Tillerson’s putting most of the special envoys back into the regular structure is a step in the right direction. Colin Powell did same,” Dobbins tweeted Wednesday, noting that such reorganizations are not without precedent.
Even some of Tillerson’s harshest critics believe he has the right idea when it comes to paring back the number of special envoys cluttering State’s bureaucracy. Retired U.S. ambassador Laura Kennedy, who thinks Tillerson is the worst secretary of state in U.S. history, says trimming the ranks is long overdue.
“Scrubbing the Special Envoy ranks [at State Department] is a needed & sensible step by Tillerson which many foreign policy experts have long advised,” she tweeted Monday.
Special envoy offices are created to address immediate, high-priority problems that flare up on the world stage, such as the special representative for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS or the special representative for Ukraine. They can focus attention on important issues and overcome bureaucratic inertia, but critics within the foreign service say special envoys often divert resources and expertise from permanent bureaus and complicate the diplomatic process.
The number of special envoys soared under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and many special offices created to address problems from earlier eras were never closed. The American Academy of Diplomacy found in a 2014 report that the proliferation of special envoys was hurting morale within the foreign service and disrupting the policy-making process.
“They [special envoys] often bring numbers of staff from outside the Department, operate in a closed loop with other non-career staff, and pursue their issues without integrating the larger national interests that must inform responsible foreign policy decisions and implementation,” the report said. “Many are supposed to report directly to the Secretary, an obvious impossibility.”
Details of Tillerson’s plan for special envoys first emerged Monday, when CNN reported on a letter the secretary sent to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, proposing significant changes to State’s use of the ambassador-level representatives.
Tillerson noted that 66 special envoys currently operate within the department, in some cases long after the global crises that inspired their creation were resolved or became irrelevant. He recommended that 30 envoys keep their titles, another 21 be integrated into regional or functional bureaus, nine be eliminated entirely and five be merged with existing positions.
“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose,” Tillerson told Corker.
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