Diplomatic storm leads to question: what was Wisner?

February 8, 2011

Frank Wisner created a bit of a diplomatic tempest when he went off message in Munich on Saturday and said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should stay in place to oversee the transition. “We need to get a national consensus around the pre-conditions for the next step forward. The president (Mubarak) must stay in office to steer those changes.” SERBIA-KOSOVO/

That set the State Department and White House into scramble mode, trying to downplay Wisner’s role, after actually sending him on Jan. 31 to personally deliver a U.S. government message to Mubarak to take more action in response to mass protests.

Administration feathers got so ruffled that the White House tried backpedaling on whether Wisner had actually in fact been an envoy.

The Cable blog on foreignpolicy.com quoted National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor saying: “He is not and was not a U.S. envoy. He was not sent to negotiate. He is an individual who has a long history with President Mubarak and thus could deliver a clear message. He spoke to President Mubarak once, reported on his conversation, and then came home.”

On Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also tried distancing: “I want to be clear that, as I think many of us told you, former Ambassador Wisner is not an employee of the government.  He was, based on his broad experience in Egypt, asked by the State Department — and I would direct you to the State Department on the specifics of anything regarding him — to travel to Cairo and have a specific conversation with President Mubarak.  He did, and reported that back to us.”

“But his views on who should or shouldn’t be the head of Egypt don’t represent the views of our administration. The views of our administration are that those are decisions that will be made by Egyptians.”

Gibbs at Tuesday’s briefing steadfastly stayed on message to emphasize that the United States had not changed its view that Egyptians will decide who should lead their country, and when.

Which brings us to the question of what is an envoy?

The dictionary definition of  envoy includes “a diplomatic agent” or “any accredited messenger or representative” which seems to fit Wisner’s mission, since he was in fact carrying a message from the U.S. government.

By comparison, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson went to North Korea on his own as an unofficial envoy in December to talk to Pyongyang about its nuclear program.

The lower-case envoy should not be confused with Special Envoy, which is an official State Department designation, as are Special Representative, Special Coordinator and Special Advisor.

Wisner is a former diplomat, having been U.S. ambassador to Egypt when he did officially represent the government in official relationships with other countries.

His current real-life role also created a stir as an employee of  lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which on its website says it has advised the government of Egypt and the Egyptian military.

“Do you think it’s a problem or a conflict in any way?” a New York Times correspondent asked Gibbs on Monday.

Gibbs: “Please call the State Department.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley indicated that they, at least, didn’t see it as a problem.

“We are aware of his employer.  By the same token, we’re also aware he is a distinguished diplomat, former ambassador to Egypt, and we felt that he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that we felt needed to be done in Egypt,” Crowley said.

Photo credit: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov (Wisner in Sofia, Dec. 5, 2007)

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