In the first week of August, shortly before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarked on her swing through Africa to highlight the continent's woes (on Tuesday, August 4), President Barak Obama summoned her to the Oval Office for a face-to-face on his redistribution of external spheres of operation.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington quote informants in the know, who refused to go on record because of the sensitivity of their disclosures, that Obama and Clinton ended their conversation by agreeing on three issues:
1. Something is clearly amiss with the administration's foreign policy moves and changes are urgently called for. It will therefore be necessary to redraw the areas of responsibility between the White House and State Department.
2. The system of special envoys representing the president and the secretary of state introduced early in the Obama administration has not yielded the desired results. This applies especially to Richard Holbrooke, who was assigned Afghanistan and Pakistan, and George Mitchell in the Middle East.
3. A redistribution of areas of responsibility will take immediate effect before the administration's foreign policy missteps become blindingly apparent to American and world opinion.
Our Washington sources report that the three principles were quickly agreed in the easy part of the Obama-Clinton conversation. The more contentious part concerned the re-allocation of spheres of operation.
Pre-empt Mitchell, block Holbrooke
The secretary of state was not exactly thrilled to learn that her department would have to be satisfied with the Levant, namely Syria and Lebanon, while the Middle East at large – Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan – would fall under the purview of the White House.
On the continent of Africa, the State Department will be confined to handling North Africa, i.e. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The rest of the continent, including the trouble spots of South Africa and Sudan, would be the preserve of the National Security Council at the White House.
The White House will directly control policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as China, Japan, India, Taiwan, and North and South Korea. The State Department will deal with Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma (Myanmar).
Our Washington sources noted that Clinton had to grin and bear the paring down of areas under her jurisdiction because she was in no position to argue. The president told her he had already made his decisions “and swift action was demanded to achieve better results than those shown hitherto.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report that the redistribution of functions was later presented to the top staff of the White House and State Department as agreed between Obama and Clinton.
In the view of those sources, the downgrading of the two special envoys, Holbrooke and Mitchell, boosts Dennis Ross, Assistant to the President and Senior Director in the NSC for the Central Region, to become the administration's most senior external policy figure with a finger in every pie from Africa to India and Iran.
Clinton angry at damage by husband's trip
The president took care to order a fundamental review of his Middle East policy in deep hush (see first article in this issue) after he and Clinton finished splitting up the areas of foreign policy between them.
One of his main motives in arranging matters in this order was to keep Holbrooke and his close ally Lt. General Douglas E. Lute, Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, from interfering in the new arrangements.
Obama's directive to the Middle East review team to produce their conclusions with all possible speed was aimed at beating Mitchell to the post and pre-empting his report to the White House and State Department which is due at the end of the month.
It is most probable that had Hillary Clinton known in good time that the president was planning to curtail her department's jurisdiction in Africa she would have rescheduled her Africa tour, which was supposed to have been a high point of her first year as Secretary of State.
And all too late, she discovered Obama had robbed her of another potential high point by handing Bill Clinton the mission to North Korea for the rescue of two American journalists, a mission she believed should rightly have been entrusted to her.
Her aura seriously dimmed by one setback after another, it is no wonder that Secretary Clinton lost her cool Monday Aug. 10 when a Congolese student, speaking through a translator, asked her what “Mr. Clinton” thought about a Chinese trade deal with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?” she asked, almost beside herself.
My husband is not secretary of state, I am,” she snapped. “If you want my opinion I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband.”