News broke last week that the Biden administration’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, was leaving his position after only three months on the job. This early exit comes on the heels of the administration’s first Horn Envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, leaving the post in January, after less than a year on the job. These short tenures, in such rapid succession, raise questions about the direction of U.S. policy in this increasingly critical region at a moment of great inflection. They should also provoke some thinking about the role of envoys in the State Department and what needs to be done to set them up for success.
When Secretary Antony Blinken announced the creation of a Horn of Africa envoy in April of last year, the decision was widely heralded both as being responsive to unfolding events on the ground, and as a hopeful signal that the Administration planned to think strategically about its own engagement and managing the entrance of new and influential actors in the region, from Russia to Gulf states.
At the creation of the envoy position, the disastrous civil war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia; the unsteady democratic transition in Sudan; and escalating tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam were all highlighted as areas of potential focus. The absence of an assistant secretary for Africa, along with other key gaps across the interagency in the early days of the administration, made the appointment of an envoy, which does not require the time-consuming vetting or Senate confirmation of other political appointees, an expedient way to quickly respond to the growing crises in the region.
But by naming a Horn of Africa envoy, as opposed to separate envoys for Sudan and Ethiopia, the administration suggested that it saw the region as more than just a series of fires in need of extinguishing, but rather one of enormous strategic importance being put under strain by a host of, in the State Department’s own words, “interlinked political, security, and humanitarian crises.” The question then, as it is now, is how would the administration prioritize the competing aspects of such a broad portfolio?
Only months before the Biden team took office, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) argued in a report on the Red Sea region, compiled by a senior study group that then soon-to-be Envoy Jeff Feltman sat on, for a more strategic approach, noting: “The transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan present an opportunity to set the region on a transformative new trajectory toward reform and stability, yet they also carry a risk of state failure that, given these states’ combined population of more than 150 million, would send a tidal wave of instability across Africa and the Middle East.” These trends, the report argued, required long-term commitments, a political and diplomatic strategy to address them cutting across the US interagency, and the appointment of a special envoy “charged with addressing the region’s complexity in an integrated way.”
That both envoys were seasoned diplomats, heralding from the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, as opposed to the Africa Bureau reflected, again, a strategic understanding of the evolving influence the Arab world is having on the Horn of Africa and the need to leverage U.S. influence there to shape events in the Horn.
However, viewed by the countries in the region, the appointment of Middle East experts was largely seen as the further subcontracting of U.S. foreign policy in the region to Gulf actors, continuing a trend that that started during the Trump Administration and reinforcing a sense of strategic disengagement from Washington. The fact that both envoys spent seemingly as much, if not more, time in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, than in Khartoum or Addis Ababa, fed conspiracies in the Horn and suggested that, in practice, the United States could achieve its goals in the region through diplomatic horse trading rather than by building trust and relationships with African leaders.
Nowhere has this been more the case than in Sudan, which has worked with eight U.S. special envoys to the country over the past 20 years and which is experiencing its own fraught transition away from military rule that the Biden team has repeatedly pledged to support. To that end, Feltman was in Khartoum on the eve of the military’s coup d’etat last October, trying to head it off by warning Sudanese military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the consequences from Washington should he carry out a much-rumored impending coup only hours before it actually unfolded.
The U.S. response, besides suspension of more than $700 million in development aid, was largely to isolate and deny legitimacy to the junta, which came in part through a suspension of dialogue with junta leaders. But as a result, in the nearly six months since the military seized back power, U.S. envoys have only spent roughly two days in the country. In that time, the military has moved to consolidate its hold on power by arresting opponents and killing protesters, reinstated key elements of the former regime, and undermined a United Nations-led political process intended to restore civilian government by threatening to expel the U.N.’s representative.
Clearly, tradeoffs were made in favor of focusing on the dire humanitarian consequences of the conflict in neighboring Ethiopia, where as many as 500,000 people have already been killed and millions more risk famine and death as a result of a still-devastating humanitarian blockade. In Tigray, U.S. envoys appear to have played a more traditional and consistent role on the ground in building relations with the parties, engaging with regional partners, and calling in support from higher levels, like when President Joe Biden called Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy in January to press him to de-escalate. While the choice to prioritize urgent humanitarian concerns is understandable, the fact that such tradeoffs had to be made in the first place underscores a critical challenge of the regional envoy position.
But absent a strategy for the region, which Congress has suggested and the administration has yet to produce, it is impossible to fully appreciate what the impacts of these tradeoffs in time and attention truly are on the region, and how to mitigate them. Nor have these tactical responses succeeded in managing the role of third-party states to these conflicts, like Eritrea’s ongoing role in committing atrocities in Tigray or Russia’s behind the scenes support to Sudan’s military leaders, both of whom remain bent on undermining the U.S. goal of stability there.
But with this new vacancy in the envoy role comes a new opportunity for the administration to correct the recent shortcomings in its approach to this region and prepare the way for a new envoy, or envoys, to succeed where others have not thus far.
A useful place to start would be implementing the recommendations of Princeton Lyman, himself a former Special Envoy to Sudan, who co-authored a report on special envoys in which he argued that there are three essential elements to effectively using special envoys: purpose, empowerment, and policy authority.
From a purpose perspective, defining why the United States needs a special envoy, what their mandate is, and what end state in the region they are hoping to achieve are all critical to setting expectations both internally, where turf battles can often emerge, and externally, in the countries that are the focus of the envoy’s work. Critically important, as Lyman’s contribution to USIP noted, “Developing [a Special Envoy’s] mandate can also be a valuable process for revealing and resolving serious policy differences that may exist within the administration.” Here, the Biden team has fallen short by neither defining for the region how it was going to prioritize the manifold and interlinked challenges in the portfolio nor by defining how the envoy would work within the State Department. A leaked email to Foreign Service staff by the assistant secretary for Africa last fall acknowledged “confusion and discontent about who is doing what in Ethiopia and Sudan” between the Africa Bureau and the envoy.
Similarly, though the announcements of both Horn of Africa envoys were attributed to Blinken in written statements, neither envoy ever benefited from the needed boost that is seen as being able to speak on behalf of the Secretary of State, let alone the President – something foreign leaders are keen to gauge when assessing an envoy’s true importance. In a place like Sudan, which has seen so many envoys come and go, most of whom were seen as being close to successive Presidents, Biden’s Horn envoys never benefited from a meeting or photo opportunity with him. This might not mean much in Washington circles, but in a capital like Khartoum, which quietly bristled at the sense that Washington had dispatched a downgraded envoy, those optics can make or break U.S. diplomacy.
Indeed, the more recent suggestion that part of the reason for Satterfield’s departure was “insufficient White House attention to the region” is consistent with the view that Horn envoys have been stymied by working through the lower-level assistant secretary for Africa, which the USIP report argued was more a way to “deflect congressional pressure” but ultimately “not effective enough to have the needed impact.”
Lastly, whether they are leading the process or participating in it, envoys must be able to drive the policy process they are being asked to represent. It helps when the envoys are seen as having the seniority, expertise, and trust of their colleagues in the interagency, which may not have been entirely the case within an Africa Bureau bristling at seeming interlopers from the Near East Affairs Bureau. And things were surely not helped by reports that “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,” suggesting that envoys were acting more as mouthpieces to countries where the U.S. still has no Senate-confirmed ambassadors in place.
It remains to be seen how or if the administration is going to try to salvage its approach to the Horn of Africa. To be clear, the demand is still there as the region is no more stable and the threats no less worrying than at the start of the administration. And indeed, the administration’s initial instinct to view the region as interconnected was well reasoned. Taking that a step further, the State Department might instead decide to create a Horn of Africa office within the Africa Bureau to better support U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region, bring a strategic lens to those efforts, and signal a long-term approach to the Horn that is less dependent on individuals. Under such a scenario, the deputy assistant secretary for that region can often then be dual-hatted to serve in an envoy capacity when in the region and as a participant in the policy process when back in Washington.
But if the administration chooses to replace the envoy, they must do it for the right reasons and empower that person accordingly with the necessary authority, access, and policy guidance to make a difference. Anything less is unfair to the people in this region the United States is seeking to help and will only further reinforce the feeling that Washington is phoning in its engagement, or, worse, subcontracting it to others.