The Cable

State Department gets new executive secretary

Starting next week, former Ambassador to Georgia John Bass will take up his new post as executive secretary of the State Department, a crucial high-level position.

Bass, who was replaced in Tbilisi by Richard Norlund last month, is a senior member of the Foreign Service and had been the envoy to Georgia since 2009. Before that, he spent three years as director of the State Department Operations Center, which will aid him in his new role because one of the many duties of the executive secretary is to manage the crisis centers that are stood up in emergencies such as the spate of embassy attacks in the Middle East last month.

The executive secretary, with the help of four deputies, serves as the liaison and the clearinghouse between the State Department's many bureaus and the leadership offices of the secretary, the deputy secretaries, and the undersecretary for policy. The executive secretary's office also manages relations between State and the White House, the NSC, and the other cabinet-level agencies.

From 2004-2005, Bass was a special advisor on Europe and Eurasia to Vice President Dick Cheney, a role similar to the one played by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland during the George W. Bush administration. His overseas assignments have included stints in Italy, Chad, and Belgium, and he was chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott during the negotiations to end the war in Kosovo.

In 2008, just before becoming ambassador to Georgia, Bass led a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq.

Bass replaces Stephen Mull, who was nominated in July and confirmed in September to be the U.S. ambassador to Poland. In a note to colleagues this week, Mull said he will go to Warsaw next month after brushing up on his Polish language skills.

"This weekend, I finish up as Executive Secretary to prepare for my assignment to Poland.  But before moving on, I wanted to thank you all for your great collegiality and support over the past couple years that we've worked together.  It's been an honor to be on your team through the good times and the bad - from Wikileaks, QDDR and the Arab Spring through our transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the horrific tragedy in Benghazi last month - and I'll miss working with you under Secretary Clinton's leadership," Mull said.

"Ambassador John Bass will begin work as the new Executive Secretary next week, and I know you'll find him to be an extraordinary leader and reliable colleague as we take on the inevitable new challenges that await the Department."

National Security

Top Romney advisor supports negotiating with terrorists

A top advisor to the Romney campaign argued in a book that the United States must at times negotiate with some of the world's most objectionable actors, including terrorists, rogue states, and even the Taliban.

"What kind of foreign policy can we expect from a Romney administration? In preparing for his presidential bid, Mitt Romney has carefully curated an inner circle of advisors, among them a well-regarded former U. S. diplomat named Mitchell Reiss," reads a marketing e-mail sent out last month for the 2010 book by Reiss, who served as the State Department director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and is now a senior advisor to Romney.

"In his book Negotiating with Evil, Reiss explores one of the most critical questions in foreign policy today -- when, and how, should we negotiate with terrorists? Drawing upon his experiences in Northern Ireland and North Korea, he presents an argument that the United States not only should, but at times must enter into conversations with hostile foreign elements."

Reiss became an unlikely figure in the Republican primary debates when Romney explicitly rejected Reiss's call to open up negotiations with the Taliban as a means of ending the decade long war in Afghanistan, and said no negotiations should take place with the Taliban while they are fighting American soldiers.

In his book, Reiss doubled down on that call, praising the Obama administration for opening up channels of communication with the Taliban in 2009, though he criticizes the Obama team for fumbling those interactions.

"The president appeared to recognize that the United States could not kill or capture every Taliban member," Reiss wrote. "Some would have to be co-opted, accommodated, or bargained with in order for Washington to accomplish its mission."

Reiss's travels over three years in the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia informed the writing of his book, he said in the introduction.

"The United States has numerous examples of leaders engaging with terrorists and rogue regimes," he wrote, pointing out that the founding fathers paid off the Barbary pirates for protection of American assets on the high seas and Teddy Roosevelt cut a deal with a pirate who kidnapped an American citizen in Tunisia.

Lyndon Johnson negotiated with North Korea to secure the release of 83 American prisoners captured on the U.S.S. Pueblo, Richard Nixon pressed for the release of Palestinian prisoners during a hostage crisis over two hijacked airliners, Jimmy Carter returned $8 billion in frozen assets to Iran during the hostage crisis there, and Ronald Reagan sent weapons to Iran to secure the release of U.S. hostages in Beirut, Reiss pointed out.

"American presidents have negotiated with terrorists and rogue regimes to secure the release of hostages, to arrange temporary ceasefires, and to explore whether a more permanent truce might be possible, although they have sometimes gone to great lengths to disguise their direct involvement," Reiss wrote.

George H.W. Bush negotiated with Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton's administration sat down with Hamas and the Taliban, and George W. Bush cut a deal on weapons of mass destruction with Muammar al-Qaddafi and initiated several rounds of negotiations with North Korea, Reiss noted. His book sought to explain when the U.S. government should engage the world's worst actors -- and when it should not.

"The most powerful reason not to engage with certain enemies is the judgment that no amount of concessions will pacify their hostile behavior," he wrote. "Attempts to do so are usually termed ‘appeasement' and may result in disaster."

As for dealing with terrorists, Reiss argued that non-state actors are less dangerous and less powerful than states that wish American harm, and therefore should be treated as such. Domestic politics makes talking to terrorists tricky, but that's no reason to ignore them, he argues.

"Although terrorist groups have blood on their hands, they are responsible for relatively few deaths; over the last forty years, the number of American victims of international terrorism is roughly the same as the number of people killed by lightening," he wrote. "In short, there may be tangible benefits to talking to terrorists, and real penalties for failing to do so."