For his first round of political appointments, President Barack Obama has overwhelmingly chosen strong-minded individuals with storied political resumes: Hillary Clinton for State, Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services, Bill Richardson for Commerce (until he withdrew), etc. Apparently, the operating assumption has been that reputedly capable people can be trusted to perform their roles authoritatively – even when they otherwise lack the necessary expertise for running their respective agencies (see Panetta, Leon).
The appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as Middle East envoy is consistent with this trend. Indeed, throughout his three decades in national politics, Mitchell has solidified his reputation as a fair-minded and talented problem solver. In turn, the assumption seems to be that — as an infamously capable person — Mitchell represents the Obama administration’s best hope for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, or at least a long-term cease-fire.
Yet this very assumption will doom Mitchell’s mission from the start. After all, an envoy needs more than wits and a strong political reputation to be successful — first and foremost, he needs the president’s unyielding and unambiguous support. As Aaron David Miller noted in his recent book, a successful envoy needs Middle Eastern leaders to believe that he speaks for the president himself, so that the various inducements that the envoy might use to push the negotiations along are credible and actionable. This requires that the president remain totally engaged in the negotiations, even if from afar, so that the envoy’s every action contains the imprimatur of the commander-in-chief.
For this reason, Obama would be making a huge mistake if he believes that sending an envoy to the Middle East — no matter how excellent that envoy might be — counts as “engagement.” If he is serious about making any progress at all in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, Obama must be prepared to invest his own political capital in ensuring that George Mitchell’s mission is taken seriously. Simply put, Mitchell’s own political capital will not suffice for this particular role.