State Department opens Middle East Transitions office

State Department opens Middle East Transitions office

The State Department has opened a brand-new office to manage U.S. policy toward countries attempting democratic transitions in the Middle East.

William Taylor, senior vice president for conflict management at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has moved over to Foggy Bottom to lead the new office, called the Middle East Transitions office, which began operations this week. His deputy is Tamara Cofman Wittes, who is now dual hatted, also continuing on deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Taylor’s chief of staff is Karen Volker, who until August was director of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is now directed by Tom Vajda. MEPI also falls under Wittes’ portfolio. Taylor reports up to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

In a Monday interview with The Cable, Taylor said his office will begin by leading State Department coordination on policy toward Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the three Middle East countries that are trying to make the shift from dictatorship to democracy.

"The idea is we want to focus energy and policy attention on how we support these three transition countries," he said. "The idea is to be sure this gets top-level attention in the department."

Taylor’s office will have about 10 to 12 people, and he said he hopes to soon add a resident senior advisor from both USAID and the Pentagon. The office is meant to be permanent, and would expand its operations to cover countries like Syria and Yemen — if and when those countries attempt a democratic transition.

Taylor’s first job will be to lead an effort to develop support strategies for Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Then, his office will go about trying to implement those strategies by working within State, around the interagency process, and then with international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders on the ground. Taylor said he will attend National Security Council meetings on issues related to his brief.

In President Barack Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East, he promised to work on establishing enterprise funds for Egypt and Tunisia, which are accounts meant to support start up programs and activities abroad, and said that U.S. support for democracy will "be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy — starting with Tunisia and Egypt."

Taylor said that the administration was still eager to pursue enterprise funds for these countries, but that legislation would be needed to get it done.

"We’re looking at the possibly of enterprise funds model as a possible model for these transition countries but we’re going to need a lot of support from Congress," he said, adding that State would also ask Congress for authorizations and appropriations to support the new transitions initiative at State. New funding for diplomatic initiatives is a tough sell in this tight fiscal environment, but transition funding does have some support in both parties.

Taylor was chosen for the job in part because he played a key role in a similar diplomatic effort following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the State Department put together the Freedom Support Act Office, which managed relations with former members of the Soviet bloc.

That office was run by Ambassador Richard Armitage and reported up to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Taylor worked for Armitage in that office and eventually became its director, a position he held until 2001. The Freedom Support Act Office was combined with the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) office and still exists today.

Taylor was U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, and before that served as Washington’s envoy to the Mideast Quartet. In 2004 and 2005, he directed the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad, and from 2002 to 2003 he served in Kabul as coordinator of U.S. government and international assistance to Afghanistan.