Pompeo has reversed his predecessor’s policy of eliminating special envoy posts.
By Robbie Gramer
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to announce the appointment of a new special envoy to oversee the Great Lakes region of Africa, as part of his drive to fill the U.S. State Department’s depleted ranks.
Peter Pham, an Africa scholar at a Washington-based think tank, is slated to be tapped for the job, two officials familiar with internal deliberations told Foreign Policy, which State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert later confirmed in a statement. He will oversee U.S. policy on a region beset by insecurity and political unrest. The area includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where President Joseph Kabila is clinging to power well beyond the country’s constitutional term limits and which is struggling with an internal rebellion, humanitarian crises, and a growing Ebola outbreak.
Pham was initially slated to be President Donald Trump’s senior-most diplomat on Africa, but alone Republican senator threatened to block his appointment to the post of assistant secretary of state for African affairs if nominated, as FP first reported.
Republican Sen. James Inhofe held up his nomination over a disagreement between the two on issues related to the disputed Western Sahara region that Morocco claims as its own territory. Following the impasse, Trump instead tapped Tibor Nagy, a former career diplomat, to fill the assistant secretary post.
Assistant secretary of state positions requires presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, whereas special envoy positions do not.
The Great Lakes region includes Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, in addition to Congo. Much of the portfolio for the new envoy, officials familiar with the matter say, will focus on Congo. One of Africa’s largest and most populous countries, it is also one of the most unstable. Fighting between warring militia groups and government forces has worsened the country’s already precarious security situation while displacing more than 4 million people and leaving 7.7 million “severely food insecure,” according to the World Food Program. Congo is also grappling with a growing Ebola outbreak in its eastern provinces, which has infected 300 people so far.
Kabila, who was supposed to relinquish power in December 2016, has pledged to hold new elections next month, following pressure from the United States and the international community. Experts and international observers fear a flawed vote could stoke a new political crisis, further unraveling the country’s fragile security situation.
In September, Mike Hammer, a career diplomat, was sworn in as the new U.S. ambassador to Congo after the post sat empty for nearly two years, one of dozens of ambassador positions that the Trump administration has failed to fill. But Kabila has not yet accepted the credentials of the new ambassador, leaving Hammer stuck in diplomatic limbo and further complicating the U.S.-Congo relationship.
The State Department expects Kabila to accept his credentials soon, according to a department spokesperson, who added that “it is common for credentialing to take a few weeks.”
Pham’s expected appointment reflects a stark departure from State Department management under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who sought to eliminate a raft of special envoy positions in his drive to reform and streamline the department. Critics of special envoy posts say they can duplicate efforts of other department bureaus, while proponents say they bring high-level attention to specific issues of priority for a U.S. administration.
Since taking over as secretary of state in April, Pompeo has appointed five new special envoys: Brian Hook to coordinate the administration’s Iran policies; Zalmay Khalilzad for Afghanistan; Stephen Biegun for North Korea; and James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn to oversee efforts on Syria.
Pham, now the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, is expected to fill the position in a part-time capacity. His position mirrors the arrangement of Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, who also retains his job as the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.
Atlantic Council Statement on the Appointment of J. Peter Pham
Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe today issued the following statement on Secretary of State Pompeo’s decision to appoint J. Peter Pham, Vice President for Research and Regional Initiatives and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, as the United States Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa:
“The Atlantic Council is proud that Secretary of State Pompeo has selected one of our own, J. Peter Pham, to serve in the role of Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, to address the numerous challenges facing the region and represent the United States in negotiations on commercial and diplomatic issues.
For more than seven years, the Atlantic Council has been privileged to have Peter on our team. Peter has produced a great number of cutting-edge projects and impressive written work focused on the African continent. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with deeper subject-matter expertise on the challenges faced by Africans or US ties with the countries of the African Great Lakes. No one has a greater passion for the people and the opportunities that exist in those relationships. Few, if any, Americans enjoy greater trust and respect among our African partners.
We are delighted that Peter will maintain his role as Vice President for Research and Regional Initiatives and Director of our Africa Center. We look forward to supporting him as he takes on this important role at the Department of State.”