The Cable

Bosworth's departure marks the end of the Obama envoy era

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.'"

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Inside the tiny Washington group that is 'mainstreaming Palestine'

Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."

ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.

The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.

"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."

Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.

"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."

Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.

"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said.  "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."

ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.

But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.

 "There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."

ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.

"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."

Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.

In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.

"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.

Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."

Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.

Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."

"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."

Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.

"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."

And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room.