What Bill Burns’ Ascension at State Says About Obama’s Foreign Policy

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James Steinberg announced last week that he is stepping down as Hillary Clinton’s deputy at the State Department to run the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Taking over for him is Bill Burns, a career diplomat.

The shift is natural enough on the surface. Steinberg had made it clear he wanted out after two years and had been looking to leave sooner if he could. And Burns comes from the tradition of experienced foreign service officers rising to the top of the diplomatic heap, like John Negroponte or Larry Eagleburger.

But it’s early in the President’s term for an FSO to rise so high. Recently, political appointees like Steinberg or Richard Armitage have dominated the early years of an administration’s State department leadership. Burns’ selection says a couple of things about foreign policy under Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Secretaries of State are usually divided into those who are close to the president and those who are close to “the building”. Colin Powell was popular in-house at Foggy Bottom, but out-of-the-loop in the W. White House. James Baker was linked to George H. W. Bush at the hip, but was disliked at Main State for running rough-shod over experienced hands.

Clinton has managed to split the difference. She’s not the most influential Secretary of State at the White House by a long shot, but she gets her time with the President and has played an important role at key moments—most recently the decision to intervene in Libya. At the same time she has bolstered morale at state and is popular with career diplomats who get a hearing on the 7th floor.

It is the character of the Obama administration’s decision-making that has made that straddle possible. The president is deliberative—he convenes debates both in formal meetings of his advisors and in small groups called specifically to hash out contentious issues. From the outside, that deliberation can produce seemingly contradictory ad hoc decisions: why go to war in Libya but not Cote D’Ivoire? What is the logic behind alternately engaging and isolating Iran? Why promise to close Guantanamo Bay, then reverse course and bolster the facility?

Inside the administration it reflects a reaction away from what Obama believed was George W. Bush’s ideologically driven foreign policy, to a more tactical diplomacy that tests each policy decision with debate. Clinton has built her influence at the White House by leveraging the argument-winning expertise of her more talented diplomats.

Burns fits the bill. He first came to public attention as a member of Baker’s hand-picked crew of young diplomats, joining Dennis Ross as a one of the cadre that advised Baker on everything from the Middle East to the Soviet Union’s collapse. “Intellectually, he is as capable as anyone I have ever come across,” Ross said of Burns back in 1994, when Time named Burns one of the 50 future leaders under 40.

Burns went on to serve in the Moscow embassy, and was the top Middle East envoy for George W. Bush, driving a late push to restart the peace process and engage in talks with Iran. For the last two years, Burns has been number three at state, throwing weight particularly on the Middle East.

Critics on the right will distrust increased power for a representative of the State department’s diplomat corps, whom conservatives believe are unduly deferential to foreign interests and international institutions. But Burns’ ascension suggests Hillary Clinton thinks experience is her best path to influence at the White House.

–with reporting by J.F.O. McAllister