Stephen Bosworth's resignation as special representative for North Korea policy makes him the last of the Obama administration's original team of special envoys. All are now gone: their missions unfinished, replaced by lower-profile officials.
Upon entering office, the Obama administration emphasized its strategy to delegate primary responsibility for major foreign-policy problems to high-level political diplomats who were supposed to use their international gravitas and decades of experience to move forward seemingly intransigent international issues: Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, George Mitchell for Israel and Palestine, Scott Gration for Sudan, and Bosworth for the North Korean nuclear crisis.
All of those figures are now gone, replaced by non-political bureaucrats who are presiding over less-ambitious policies and have less prominent roles in administration decision making.
"They started out with these big glitzy people and now they are taking all of these positions down a notch," said Victor Cha, National Security Council Asia director during the George W. Bush administration, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Of course, each former envoy's situation is different. Holbrooke died suddenly late last year, but even while in office he was never able to get the White House and the Defense Department to follow his lead. His replacement, Marc Grossman, leads an office with a scaled-back mission.
Mitchell also never could get the White House to totally buy into his strategy. He stepped down after the Middle East peace process fell apart, and no replacement has yet been forthcoming. His deputy, David Hale, is conducting behind-the-scenes diplomacy, with little obvious success.
Gration 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 will be replaced by Glyn Davies, the U.S. envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Davies, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia under Chris Hill, is seen as a competent negotiator, though not a North Korea expert, per se. As with the other appointments, the switch is seen as a scaling down of the position, both in terms of public profile and internal power.
"In all those cases, the envoys are being replaced by foreign service officers," said Mike Green, former National Security Council senior director for Asia. "One thing it represents is the maturation of the Obama administration's foreign policy. They realized they had too many envoys and were investing in too much drama, but they couldn't acknowledge that and so it took time."
We're told reliably by several sources that Bosworth's decision to resign was his own. He had been trying to do two jobs at once, spending two days a week in Washington and the rest of the time in Massachusetts, serving as dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. The part-time nature of job was not a problem, however, because the Obama administration was pursuing a strategy of "strategic patience" with North Korea, which basically amounted to withholding engagement until Kim Jong-Il's regime showed signs of adhering to its previous commitments.
Those signs have not come, but the administration has nevertheless decided to reengage with North Korea. Bosworth and Davies will both attend the second U.S.-North Korea meeting on Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 in Geneva. The administration is warning, however, that the Davies appointment shouldn't be seen as a sign of a dramatic change in the administration's policy toward the Hermit Kingdom.
"It's important to stress this is a change in personnel, not a change in policy," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at Wednesday's briefing.
Bosworth is also different from the other special envoys because he was never meant to dramatically advance the issue he was tasked with, said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a Northeast Asia-focused policy organization.
"Stephen Bosworth is not Dick Holbrooke," he said. "The difference is that Holbrooke and Mitchell came in promising to change the world and Bosworth came in promising not to change the world. He recognized at the outset, that given where North Korea was, that they were unlikely to be able to make the necessary shifts to return to the talks in a meaningful way. And he was spot on."
So why is the administration engaging with Pyongyang if it has only demonstrated bad behavior over the past two years? According to the experts, it's the importance of the coming year for both countries that is driving the reengagement.
For North Korea, 2012 marks the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea's dynasty, and a possible transition of power to heir apparent Kim Jong Un. For the United States, 2012 is all about President Barack Obama's reelection campaign.
"These talks are defensive, they are aimed at getting to some kind of holding position to prevent more provocative actions by the North," said Green. "In an election year, message control is really important. The White House wants no drama, no problems, and control in an election year."
Flake said that the timing of Bosworth's departure was also due, in part, to election year politics.
"At the end of the first term of any administration, usually the White House sends out the word to senior people: ‘Get out now or stay until after the election.'"
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