Today Secretary of State Pompeo announced the appointment of Steve Biegun to be Special Representative for North Korea. This follows the announcements of Brian Hook as Special Representative for Iran and Jim Jeffrey as Representative for Syria Engagement.
These announcements deserve a few comments. The first is to congratulate Pompeo for attracting Jeffrey and Biegun to State and selecting them for top-level responsibilities, and for giving Hook this new task. I know both Biegun and Jeffrey as former colleagues in the Bush administration, and their records of public service are exemplary. Their many talents are impressive and we are all lucky they agreed to leave the private sector and serve yet again. They will join Hook, another former colleague, who has been Director of the Policy Planning Staff and a key figure in foreign policy since the administration took office. The selection of a top adviser to handle Iran shows how important Iran is for Secretary Pompeo and the administration.
Jeffrey’s appointment is important for another reason: he signed one of the anti-Trump letters in 2016 and is I believe the first person to have done so who got an administration post. If this means that the blacklist is fraying, the president and the secretary of state will benefit greatly. They will have dozens more names to choose from in seeking top-notch advisers. It’s noteworthy, though, that Jeffrey is getting a non-confirmation post. Perhaps this represents a sort of compromise between Pompeo and the White House: he can select people who signed those letters, but a confirmation hearing could be embarrassing for the president. So hire them, but for “special” positions.
As a former assistant secretary of state (in the Reagan administration), I notice something else here. Traditionally the heart of the Department is the regional bureaus. Typically, new secretaries of state arrive and immediately notice that too many people in special spots outside the bureaus are reporting to them. They then try to eliminate all the “special” roles and return to “regular order:” one deputy secretary, a few undersecretaries, and the assistant secretaries heading all the regional and functional bureaus. That way they reduce the number of people reporting directly to them and put responsibilities back in the bureaus created to handle them. Pompeo is not doing this but on the contrary is adding several new “special” envoys reporting directly to him. According to rumor a fourth will be announced in a week or two, for Afghanistan.
Why? Presumably because he needs to staff up with first-rate people and cannot otherwise get them fast enough. Confirmation takes many months, with squabbles with Congress and congressional holds on nominees. Pompeo does not want to wait. He is correcting the error his predecessor made by failing to fill important posts fast. By going the “special” route he avoids those delays, gets the people he wants now, and has even been able to get someone who had been blacklisted.
There is a price to pay, and it is the weakening of the regional bureaus. The Near East Bureau, for example, has in essence lost control of Syria to Jeffrey and of Iran to Hook—and had already lost the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relations with Israel to Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt in the White House. This runs the risk that coordination will suffer because all Near East matters do not go through the bureau. A similar problem will exist in Asia. The announcement of Steve Biegun says "As Special Representative, he will direct all U.S. policy on North Korea, lead negotiations, and spearhead our diplomatic efforts with our allies and partners." Missing entirely is a role for the East Asia bureau.
Clearly this problem can be solved if all hands—for the Near East, that means Hook, Jeffrey, the assistant secretary when one is confirmed, and the under secretary-designate for political affairs (David Hale, a former ambassador to Lebanon and Pakistan)—meet often and keep each other fully informed about things that affect all of their bailiwicks. This won’t happen by itself and will require constant efforts, and the same is true of East Asia. Biegun has North Korea, but the bureau has Japan, Australia, and so on.
Morale in the regional bureaus must also be a concern. If many of the most important activities in a region—East Asia, the Middle East, or any other—are happening outside the relevant regional bureau there is a risk that bureau personnel think they are in a backwater, are missing all the action, and do not have the secretary of state’s confidence. Again, this can be addressed if the “specials” use bureau personnel and link up closely to the relevant bureau offices. But this too won’t happen unless there is constant effort to ensure coordination and good morale.
Secretary Pompeo is right to take this path forward, given the various constraints--and given the calendar. His department and the administration will be stronger if these critical issues are handled by highly capable officials—and given that the administration is already more than a year and half old, it’s about time. In the next couple of months he will be filling many more department and ambassadorial posts. The pace of nominations has risen and it remains for the Senate to act on those that are pending. If due to the elections in November, and perhaps to the results, the White House is increasingly entangled in political activities, more of the weight of foreign and national security affairs will fall on the State Department. So Pompeo’s efforts to get all the key personnel in place very soon are encouraging. The Senate should confirm his nominees quickly. And the White House personnel office should let him appoint the best people he can find for these special posts—and should also stop fighting him with purity tests never before imposed in a Republican administration on personnel below (and sometimes well below) the assistant secretary level.