Who is Miriam Sapiro?

posted by
on April 22, 2009

President Barack Obama has tapped Miriam Sapiro to be a deputy U.S. trade representative. If confirmed by the Senate, Sapiro, 48, will be one of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk’s three top policy officials. Along with fellow deputies Peter Allgeir and Demetrios Marantis, Sapiro will play an important role in shaping U.S. trade policies in the Obama administration.

But what role will that be? What policies? How does her professional experience fit in with the other senior members of Kirk’s top team? Sapiro, whose experience with trade issues is slim, is not well known in the Washington trade community (although two prominent Washington-based corporate lobbyists, Bob Vastine, who runs the Coalition of Service Industries; and Bill Lane, Caterpillar Inc.’s man in D.C., speak well of her).

At USTR, a Kirk spokeswoman referred all questions on Sapiro’s background to the White House, saying that she was not in a position to comment about a pending nomination. The White House was no more forthcoming. When he announced her nomination on April 14, Obama only offered a few skimpy details about Sapiro’s credentials. White House press aide Ben LaBolt declined to respond to a request for more detailed basic biographical information on Sapiro, or how she came to the attention of Obama’s political operatives.

A little digging quickly suggests the answer to the latter question. Sapiro has strong political connections to important figures in the Obama administration, stemming from her most recent experience as an important fundraiser for the Obama presidential campaign. But she is more than a fundraiser, having served in sensitive national security positions during the Clinton administration as a lawyer in the State Department and as a key operative on the National Security Council. That experience — including a stint as a backup to Richard Holbrooke and Jim Steinberg (now deputy secretary of state) in the 1995 Balkan peace negotiations — could be valuable as Sapiro turns her focus to the complex issues associated with international trade negotiations.

Let’s take a closer look.

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During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sapiro was a so-called “bundler” who worked her network of connections to raise at least $100,000 for Obama. She also raised some $290,000 for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. When she gets to USTR, Sapiro will be working with Juliana Smoot, Kirk’s chief of staff, who was Obama’s national finance director for the 2008 presidential campaign. Smoot’s team, including the bundlers, raised a record $750 million to propel the Illinois senator into the White House. .

[While Sapiro was raising money for Obama, her husband, veteran New York Times reporter Stephen Labaton, was covering various ethical issues associated with Republican Sen. John McCain’s fundraising efforts. One of the stories that Labaton worked on — raising questions about McCain’s associations with a female telecommunications lobbyist named Vicki Iseman — became quite controversial, as McCain and other leading Republicans angrily charged that it was an unfair smear. For those who love to hate the New York Times, the revelation that reporter Labaton was married to an Obama fundraiser while he was critiquing McCain’s ethics would illustrate the workings of the liberal establishment in Washington. To others — including this writer — the coincidence would better illustrate the not-uncommon professional intersections of Washington, D.C. marriages, where spouses pursue their independent professional lives. Labaton is an award-winning reporter who enjoys a reputation as a straight shooter. His reporting on the so-called Whitewater scandal caused discomfort in the Clinton White House during the 1990s. He earned the 2003 Gerald Loeb award for distinguished financial journalism for his investigative reporting that contributed to the resignation of Harvey Pitt as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. More recently, Labaton has turned in several solid reports that have offered fresh details on the awkward tensions between the Obama White House and leading bank executives like Jaime Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, who has complained about perceived unfair repayment conditions associated with the Obama administration’s financial bailout.]

Sapiro was an early Obama supporter. On March 15, 2007 she joined Sen. Obama at a fundraiser that was co-hosted by prominent Democrats including William Kennard and Reed Hundt, both top powers at the Federal Communications Commission when Bill Clinton was president. The event was held at Hundt’s home in Chevy Chase, Md. Susan Rice and Bonnie Cohen, who (like Sapiro) worked at the State Department during the Clinton administration, were also present. Rice is now Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Julius Genachowski, a former chief counsel to Hundt at the FCC, was another attendee. Genachowski has been close to Obama since they each attended Columbia college and Harvard Law School, where they worked on the law review. Obama has tapped Genachowski as his first FCC chairman. (Hundt is also close to Peter Cowhey, another key aide to Ron Kirk at USTR who also worked in the FCC during the Clinton administration.)

Another fundraising events that Sapiro was involved with during the Obama presidential election was held on July 28, 2008 at the home of prominent Democratic Party fundraiser Elizabeth Frawley Bagley and her husband, Smith Bagley. Along with Sapiro, other heavyweight Democratic donors helped sponsor the event, including: Sandy and Steward Bainum, Norm Eisen, Laurie Fulton, Gary Gensler, Holly Hassett and Tom Gage, and Colleen and Charles Markham. Caroline Kennedy was the draw at a cocktail reception to benefit the Obama Victory Fund — the cheapest tickets went for $1,000, but that was apparently just to get in the door. “The first $2,300 of each contribution from an individual will be allocated to Obama for America and will be considered designated for the primary election,” the invitation noted. “The next $2,300 of each contribution from an individual will be allocated to Obama for America and will be considered designated for the general election. The next $28,500 of each contribution from an individual will be allocated to the Democratic National Committee” — and so on.

During last year’s presidential race, Sapiro was also one of 158 signatories — including Ruth Greenspan Bell, Abner Mikva, Mel Levine, and Laurence Tribe — to a letter published by a group that called itself Jews for Obama. The letter, which was widely circulated on the Internet, praised the Democratic candidate as “one of those unusual visionary leaders who comes once in a generation to inspire us to overcome what has, especially for the past seven years, divided and polarized us.”

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Sapiro earned her B.A. At Williams College, where she was Phi Beta Kappa; and her law degree at New York University School of Law, where she was an editor of the law review. She also has done graduate work at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Sapiro apparently started her professional career in 1988 as a State Department lawyer in the office of the legal adviser. But perhaps the most interesting part of Sapiro’s resume — and an indication of her qualifications to be a deputy U.S. trade representative — shows up in 1995, when she was working for Jim Steinberg, who then headed State’s policy planning staff (Steinberg is now deputy secretary of state).

In 1995, as a member of Steinberg’s office, Sapiro played a role as a backup to Richard Holbrooke, who led the negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. Basically, Sapiro and her colleagues had to master the thorny details of the political map that set up Bosnia, and of course the infighting between the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. Holbrooke, himself no slouch at bureaucratic maneuvering, and his team also had to work around the various bureaucratic rivalries in the Clinton State Department and the NSC, which Holbrooke details in his 1998 insider’s account of the the peace negotiations, To End a War.

Now, at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative on 17th Street across from the White House, Ron Kirk could be thinking that lawyer Sapiro is just the woman to master the details of the World Trade Organization’s Doha negotiations. It is a safe bet that after learning to maneuver in a world of Balkan politics that was dominated by names like Milosevic, Mladic, and Karadzic, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro will not be easily intimidated by the likes of India’s intransigent trade negotiator, Kamal Nath.

After her Bosnian experience, in 1997 Sapiro went on to work for National Security Adviser Sandy Berger at the White House, where she was the NSC’s director for European affairs. Sapiro’s last position with the Clinton administration was as special assistant to the president and counselor for Southeast European Stabilization, where she worked on issues ranging from security to economic development.

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In November, 2000 Sapiro left the government for the private sector, becoming the director of international policy at VeriSign, the Internet-related provider of security and encryption services. She worked on various Internet policy issues including trade and privacy, and headed the Coalition of Service Industries’ China E-Commerce committee. Bob Vastine, the president of the service industry coalition, says he was impressed by Sapiro: “We met through VeriSign, one of our members. At the time, VeriSign had problems with China and Internet standards. She certainly picked up the technical issues. I think she’s very, very bright, and a very nice and serious person.”

In 2002, Sapiro started her own consulting company, Summit Strategies International, LLC. Ironically, for an authority on the Internet, Summit Strategies has no website of its own, and little could be found about the firm on the public record. In a biography that Sapiro submitted to Georgetown Law School, where she has been an adjunct law professor, Sapiro describes Summit as “a firm specializing in Internet policy, electronic commerce and other international issues that demand strategic planning and solutions.” Sapiro’s brief bio for Georgetown goes on to say, “Over the years her work has included projects involving the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN0, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and a variety of governments in Europe and Asia.” In the course of researching this article, I called WTO headquarters in Geneva, but was unable to find anyone who remembered Sapiro.

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However slim her trade credentials may be, Sapiro has moved in respectable international circles. She has served as a vice president of the American Society of International Law. Sapiro has also been on the advisory board of the Global Internet Policy Initiative, which describes itself on its website as “a network of non-profit, non-governmental organizations supporting adoption in developing and transitional countries of the legal and policy framework for an open and democratic Internet.”

Bill Lane, Caterpillar’s top trade lobbyist, says he remembers Sapiro as a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign. Lane plays a key role in this broadly-based coalition, which has brought some 400 organizations together to “engage policy-makers in the nation’s capital and educate the public around the country to build support for the U.S. International Affairs Budget.” The members include corporations like Alcatel-Lucent, the Bank of America, 3M, Boeing,and Caterpillar; and also non-profits including Big Brothers Big Sisters International, B’nai B’rith, and Catholic Relief Services. Lane says he didn’t work closely with Sapiro, but that he recalls that his overall impression of her was favorable.“She fully recognizes the importance of diplomacy and development.”

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Once she is confirmed as one of Ron Kirk’s top three deputies, Sapiro will help develop and implement the Obama administration’s trade diplomacy. As the Obama administration is still in its early stages, a simplified analytic forecast of the top team’s fit would run something like this:

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Peter Allgeir is widely respected as probably the most knowledgeable career civil servant at USTR. While Kirk, a former Dallas mayor and lawyer, is free to acknowledge he is learning on the job, Allgeir knows everything, especially the details of the WTO’s Doha Round.

The second deputy U.S. trade representative, Demetrios Marantis, knows Capitol Hill intimately; he was the chief international trade counsel to Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Marantis, who lived in Hanoi for two years, also is regarded for his work as an adviser to the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council during the sensitive negotiations that lead to the U.S.-Vietnam trade bilateral accord, and then to Vietnam’s subsequent accession to the WTO.

So the hope would be that Sapiro’s foreign policy experience at State and the NSC, especially her lawyer’s eye towards mastering difficult negotiating issues, will provide Kirk with a valuable perspective as to how trade issues fit into broader American foreign policy goals.

Beyond this, not much arm-chair analysis would seem to be meaningful. This is because, most importantly, whether Kirk and his team will succeed or not depends upon what direction comes from a White House that is mostly preoccupied with many other priorities, and is still feeling its way gingerly on trade.