A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Better Late Than Never Comment: On Bill Burns as Deputy Secretary of State

This is week-old news now, but, uh, something must have been happening in the Mideast, or something, so I'm just getting around to commenting. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, number two to Secretary Clinton, is stepping down, and she has named Under Secretary of State William Burns, the number three man and a career Foreign Service Officer, as the new Deputy Secretary.

Under Secretary Burns is a former Ambassador to Jordan and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. (He later served as Ambassador to Russia, but I'm focusing on his Mideast expertise.) He's got some command of Arabic and a lot of experience in the region. (Full disclosure: when he was first going out to Jordan in 1998 I actually met and briefed him, with a group of others, a bit, and met him a couple of more times when he was at NEA; I won't claim we're friends, but I have dealt with him.) Looking at a list of Deputy Secretaries of State, I have to say he has more Mideast experience than any of his predecessors, which ought to be a good thing. In fact of them all, only Richard Armitage had real experience in the region, and that fairly late in his career. (I know him too, and once worked for him briefly, helping him start a newsletter when he was in private sector consulting. I'm not trying to name drop, but to flag my own potential pre-judgments and biases.)

Of course, the Deputy Secretary is at the service of the Secretary, and does not make policy himself or herself. But it will be useful to have someone with real experience of the region so well placed. I think. Even if I'm a week late in commenting.


David Mack said...

There has been some thrashing around in the blogosphere with some commenting that Burns is tarnished by his association with the Middle East policies of the current and last administration. I know Bill fairly well, and thought that such criticism is ill informed. With apologies for the length, following is my view on the subject:

Having read some critical posts about my former colleague Bill Burns, I feel obliged to make a few observations based on my personal reading of his foreign policy outlook.

It is true that Burns is "something of an Arabist." For those who view "Arabist" as an epithet rather than a description of expertise, that may be a criticism, but Arabists come with a full range of attitudes and are not necessarily satisfied with maintaining long standing policies toward Arab governments. He was also the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow and has had a variety of other positions that obliged him to take a broad outlook of the world.

My impression was that Bill did his best under difficult circumstances to move U.S. policy off a dead end in dealing with Iran. He has worked on this issue for two very different presidents and their secretaries of state. That our policy toward Iran remains unsatisfactory in the view of many ought not prejudice them against Burns.

At the end of the day, U.S. foreign policy is made by elected officials. Neither career officials at the State Department nor all but a few appointed advisers at the White House can change that fact about the formation of foreign policy in our country. Within certain political parameters, career and political appointees can make policy smarter and more effective, but they can seldom change the political parameters. Rarely, through persistent and effective argument, they can convince the President to do so. Of course, the Burns appointment reflects the view of the Secretary Clinton, unless the President happened to overrule her judgement, and I don't think that was the case here.

All things considered, I feel better having at least one person in senior level policy circles who has experienced over many years the reality of dealing with Middle East political figures. Moreover, I do not believe that Burns developed unreasonable biases for or against those figures. His appointment is a modest plus for U.S. foreign policy going forward.

Tim said...

David Mack is almost correct.

Elected officials make the policy and State implements.

Yes, but in the Middle East, the elected officials of one rather small state also have a voice - the predominant voice - in our policy.