Foggy Bottom Bristles at Proliferation of Special Envoys

The State Department’s Africa chief addresses concerns that special envoys shut out other diplomats from policymaking.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Horn of Africa special envoy Jeffrey Feltman leaves Sudan.
Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, leaves after meeting with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Khartoum, Sudan, on Sept. 29. Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

In the words of Molly Phee, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, career diplomats are apples and special envoys are oranges—and not particularly tasty ones at that. The challenge facing the U.S. State Department’s top Africa official is making a diplomatic fruit salad that prevents some of Africa’s worst political crises from spiraling out of control.

In the early days of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, the White House team, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, moved quickly to appoint or reappoint several special envoys to tackle a variety of challenges, including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and a series of political crises in the Horn of Africa—thereby placing the White House stamp on foreign policy.

The State Department, which has confronted a painfully slow nomination process in the Senate, is now trying to catch up. In an internal Oct. 15 email to State Department staff and Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Phee detailed divisions of labor to handle major crises in Ethiopia, which is in danger of breaking apart, and Sudan, where a military coup has undercut the country’s tenuous transition to democracy and roiled U.S. plans to patch up relations with Khartoum. Phee, who was sworn in on Sept. 30, five months after Feltman was appointed, wrote “there will inevitably be instances of overlap and lane sharing, so I ask everyone to be as charitable and generous as possible in working through those occasions. … This is not a zero sum game. There is more than enough work for all of us.”

In the words of Molly Phee, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, career diplomats are apples and special envoys are oranges—and not particularly tasty ones at that. The challenge facing the U.S. State Department’s top Africa official is making a diplomatic fruit salad that prevents some of Africa’s worst political crises from spiraling out of control.

In the early days of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, the White House team, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, moved quickly to appoint or reappoint several special envoys to tackle a variety of challenges, including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and a series of political crises in the Horn of Africa—thereby placing the White House stamp on foreign policy.

The State Department, which has confronted a painfully slow nomination process in the Senate, is now trying to catch up. In an internal Oct. 15 email to State Department staff and Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Phee detailed divisions of labor to handle major crises in Ethiopia, which is in danger of breaking apart, and Sudan, where a military coup has undercut the country’s tenuous transition to democracy and roiled U.S. plans to patch up relations with Khartoum. Phee, who was sworn in on Sept. 30, five months after Feltman was appointed, wrote “there will inevitably be instances of overlap and lane sharing, so I ask everyone to be as charitable and generous as possible in working through those occasions. This is not a zero sum game. There is more than enough work for all of us.”

Phee sought to allay concerns from State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSO) who are being cut out of policymaking, explaining there has been some “confusion and discontent about who is doing what” in Ethiopia and Sudan.

“I know the mechanics of working with an orange while we are apples can be confusing,” she wrote. “I have no interest in sidelining you or undermining the bureau’s performance. I welcome and indeed expect your ideas and inputs and look to you to help drive us forward.”

In doing so, Phee acknowledged the State Department’s longstanding misgivings about special envoys. “The State Department is historically uneasy about special envoys,” she wrote. “We have all been victim on occasion of envoys run amok and this experience will hopefully help us avoid mistakes.”

“But I am not a typical FSO,” she added. “I genuinely welcome the energy, perspective and reach of special envoys to complement our work. … Our embassies with the support of the bureau properly have the lead on our bilateral relationships, but in crisis cases there is often an urgent need for dedicated supplementary support.”

Phee also heaped praise on Feltman (“one of our best diplomats—brilliant, innovative, dynamic”), who was selected for envoy by Sullivan and Robert Godec, who served at the time as acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the time. She said Feltman and his special assistant, Payton Knopf, “intentionally avoided acquiring a large staff because they have no desire to replicate what you are doing. With my strong backing they prefer to fully integrate their efforts into the Africa bureau.” She wrote that given her vast responsibilities overseeing U.S. policy with African countries, she doesnt have the bandwidth to devote sufficient personal attention to the crisis in Ethiopia and Eritrea and wholeheartedly supports Feltman’s role.

The email came to light amid a report in Foreign Policy that Phee and Feltman have clashed over applying sanctions on Sudan’s coup plotters, with Feltman advocating for penalties and Phee opposing them on the grounds they wouldnt work. A month after the email was sent, Phee declined an offer by Feltman to have his deputy accompany her to Khartoum to meet with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the top military leader who orchestrated a coup and briefly detained the country’s prime minister. The incident reflected a rift in how Phee and Feltman thought Washington should respond to the crisis in Sudan.

State Department officials characterized the rift as a natural disagreement that arises in policymaking, and said the two are now largely in agreement on a wait-and-see approach to determine whether a recent agreement between Burhan and the once-ousted, then-restored prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, will lead to a more democratic outcome.

Presidents and secretaries of state have relied on special envoys with increasing frequency to tackle complex diplomatic crises or specific global issues that don’t fall under other top diplomats job descriptions, such as countering antisemitism or securing the release of U.S. hostages detained abroad. But some veteran diplomats oppose the practice of assigning special envoys for specific regions—such as envoys for Syria, Libya, or some regions of Africa—arguing new envoys can add bureaucracy and undercut a U.S. ambassador’s authority in their assigned country.

During the Trump administration, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to cut back the proliferating number of special envoys in Washington—one of the few measures in his controversial efforts to redesign the State Department that gained broad support from rank-and-file diplomats. His efforts were short lived.

For team Biden, one unique advantage for special envoys is—unlike other senior State Department posts—they don’t require Senate confirmation. The Biden administration’s State Department has been struggling with depleted ranks from the outset; Biden was slow to name nominees for many ambassadorships and other senior State Department posts. Then, a spat with Senate Republicans over a controversial Russian gas pipeline project prompted Sen. Ted Cruz to issue an unprecedented hold on all State Department nominees, leading to a growing backlog in Senate confirmations that left many posts unfilled for months. Assigning special envoys to address leading diplomatic crises, some administration officials argue, helped fill that gap, at least on an interim basis.

Phee proposed the State Department takes the lead in fashioning policy, saying the department’s desk officers responsible for Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan will lead policy paper-drafting on those crises, with the special envoy signing off on them. In the inevitable cases when Feltman wields the pen, State Department experts should act as co-drafters.

U.S. officials are slated to meet this week to discuss next steps in U.S. policy on the Sudan coup, including weighing whether to remove its hold on some $700 million in assistance funding it paused after Burhan launched his power grab last month.

In the email, Phee struck a conciliatory tone with Feltman and his deputy.

“I am proud of my friendship with Amb Feltman,” she wrote. “He has unparalleled contacts with Arab states engaged in the Horn, across U.N. agencies, and with regional and international leaders. He came out of retirement to help us, and I count us extremely lucky to have him on the team.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden  at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the NATO summit in Spain on July 7, 1998.

Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

A report card is superimposed over U.S. President Joe Biden.

Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Grade A Material?

More than 30 experts grade the U.S. president’s first year of foreign policy.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.

Defining the Biden Doctrine

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with FP to talk about Russia, China, relations with Europe, and year one of the Biden presidency.

Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk region of the country attend the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment in Kiev on November 15, 2018.

The West’s Weapons Won’t Make Any Difference to Ukraine

U.S. military equipment wouldn’t realistically help Ukrainians—or intimidate Putin.