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Bill Burns, A Consummate Diplomat

William Joseph Burns, known as Bill to his colleagues, stepped down as Deputy Secretary of State in October 2014 after an illustrious 33-year career in the Foreign Service. Burns earned bipartisan support as a key figure in tackling some of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the United States. His accomplishments include eliminating Libya’s illicit weapons program, mediating the Middle East peace process, and strengthening the strategic partnerships with Russia and India.

Burns held the rank of Career Ambassador in the Foreign Service, equivalent to a four-star general, and was only the fourth career diplomat to become Deputy Secretary (after Walter Stoessel, John Negroponte, and Larry Eagleburger). Burns also served as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs from 2008 to 2011, Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005, and Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 until 2001.

Born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Burns received a Bachelor of Arts in History from La Salle University and his Masters and PhD degrees from Oxford.  Burns has been given numerous awards for service in the Department of State, including three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and two Distinguished Honor Awards. He was also Foreign Policy Magazine’s “Diplomat of the Year” in 2013, and earned a position on Time Magazine’s 50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40 list in 1994. Secretary of State John Kerry said Burns had “earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends” and possesses a “rare mix of strategic vision and operational skill.” President Barack Obama described Burns as “a skilled advisor, consummate diplomat, and inspiration to generations of public servants.”

Many individuals in the Foreign Service have had the pleasure of working with Burns in various posts worldwide. In interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in October 2005, Ambassador Johnny Young discusses the ease of working with Burns and his obvious potential. Insights into Burns’ decision making and devotion to his work in the Middle East are recalled in interviews from Miles S. Pendleton, Jr. in an interview with Kennedy in June 1998. Burns’ character is revealed in an interview with Teresita C. Schaffer by Kennedy beginning in September 1998.  Ambassador Edmund James Hull, in an interview with Kennedy beginning in October 2005, recalls working with Burns in a team to the Middle East.  Finally, during a January 2011 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Ambassador James A. Larocco talks about the widespread respect Burns enjoyed overseas and discusses working with him on reform in the Department and in the Near East Bureau.

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Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History


“You keep your eyes on that young man. He’s going to go far”

Johnny Young
Counselor for Administration in Amman, Jordan, 1983 to 1985 

YOUNG:  A new junior officer on his first assignment was Bill Burns…. I would like to cite a little story. One day I was up in [the] office and I had read a message and I can’t recall the substance of it, but I commented to the Ambassador, “That was a really good message.” (Young at left)

He said, “You liked that message?”

I said, “Yes. I thought it was very well done.”

He said, “It was well done. Who do you think is the best drafter in this mission?”

I said, “Surely you Mr. Ambassador.” He said, “No, not me.”

I thought quickly and I said Young, you better go down the list. I said, “The DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission]?” He said, “No, not the DCM neither.”

I said, “The political counselor?” Sticking to the hierarchy. He said, “No, not the political counselor either.”

I said, “Well, then who?” He said, “You know that new junior officer that just came up from the consular section, Bill Burns?”

I said, “Yes.” He said, “He is the best. You keep your eyes on that young man. He’s going to go far.”

Believe me if ever there was a prediction that came true, that was it. Bill was an extraordinary officer. Everybody loved him because he was so bright and so clever and yet with it all you would never know it because he was so modest and so decent that it was such a contrast with another officer who was there at that time. We had several junior officers, but the other officers, they arrived all about the same time. The other one was ready to tell you in a half a minute that he had a degree from Princeton and he spoke Arabic and he did this and did that and on and on.

Bill would never say anything, ever say anything. You would ask Bill, where did you go to school and he would say well, I went to a small school in Philadelphia. Okay, La Salle College. Did you do any graduate work? Yes, I did some graduate work; he wouldn’t tell you that it was at Oxford University. He wouldn’t tell you that he had written and published a book. He wouldn’t tell you that his father was General Burns. He wouldn’t tell you a lot of things about himself. You literally had to pull it out of him. That was the degree to which he was so modest, but you give him anything to do and he would turn out a piece of work that was just masterful in every sense of the word.

Q: What happened to Bill Burns?

YOUNG: He’s our Ambassador in Russia. Yes. Need I say more?

“He would appear almost every night about 9:15 with a bunch of decisions to be made and see whether I was dumb enough to make any of them”

Miles S. Pendleton, Jr.
Executive Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, 1983 to 1985 

PENDLETON:  I recall when I first went to my desk in this office, that I was both bemused and appalled to see, sitting in my in-box, the latest iteration of a memo on Iranian nuclear issues that I had put in my out-box when I left the Deputy Secretary’s office in 1976.

That was a memo which had been floating around for eight years in one form or another, and it was a warning that what you could have an impact on was probably smaller than you thought.  I suspect even Secretaries of State feel the same way on occasion.

And yet, I discovered that when I had to be there at night, it became clear to others that if you went up to the Under Secretary’s office long after regular working hours, long after, say, seven o’clock at night, you could find somebody who could make a decision. I began calling it “decision shopping.”

Some of the more rambunctious staff members, particularly from Near East Affairs, where Dick Murphy as Assistant Secretary had our ingoing Ambassador to Jordan, were willing to engage at all hours of the day and night.

Bill Burns was staff aide at that point. He would appear almost every night about 9:15 or something with a whole bunch of decisions to be made and see whether I was dumb enough to make any of them. I made a lot of decisions during this period, most of them between six at night and ten at night. If you thought you knew your boss’s views on things, you could decide. And I did.

“Bill had risen through the ranks very rapidly, but never let that go to his head”

Ambassador Teresita C. Schaffer
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Near East Affairs and South Asia from 1989 to 1992

SCHAFFER:  In any event, the negotiations had not come to closure when all of a sudden the political situation changed in Moscow. As I said, [at left, Secretary of State James] Baker went to Moscow right after the aborted coup in the fall of 1991. Baker was accompanied by Bill Burns, who at the time was the Deputy Director of the Policy Planning [S/P] staff. Bill was a young officer who had risen through the ranks very rapidly, but never let that go to his head. He found ways to keep in close touch with the experts in whose issues he was being involved.

After Dennis Ross, the S/P Director, assigned the Afghan problem to Bill, he began a concentrated indoctrination course. Before leaving for Moscow, he wrote down all the telephone numbers where I might conceivably be found — in case he had to get a hold of me in a hurry. That was a clue that Baker wanted to settle the Afghan issue during his stay in Moscow. In fact, Burns did call me a couple of times, essentially to discuss some specific words or phrases.

After each conversation, Burns reminded me that our discussion had never taken place. I should mention that I had given him my entire file on the draft statement that [Under Secretary for Political Affairs Robert] Kimmitt and the Russian ambassador had been working on. I circled some of the key words or phrases which had a history to them and which were deemed to be important to the Afghans and the Pakistanis. The Burns calls were clearly unauthorized and perhaps even in contravention of specific orders not to discuss what Baker was working on with anybody.

In the end, there was a joint statement issued in which both countries pledged that beginning with the new year — which was less than three months away — no arms would be shipped to Afghanistan. By then, I think that was a wise outcome. It seemed to me that a continuing weapons supply program was only contributing to the continuation of hostilities with no certain winner in sight. If the Russians were willing to halt their support of their clients, we should reciprocate and halt all arms shipments to Afghanistan.

We were a group of people Baker dubbed the ‘peace processors’”

Ambassador Edmund James Hull
Counterterrorism Advisor to the Secretary of State, 1999 to 2001 

HULL: We were a group of people  [Secretary of State James] Baker dubbed the “peace processors.” They included Dennis Ross, Bill Burns, Dan Kurtzer, Aaron Miller, and myself. We provided Baker with the substantive details he needed to have effective meetings. We would have a session with the Secretary about the upcoming meeting and what we hope to accomplish wherever we were, be it Tel Aviv or Cairo or Amman. This might end at seven or eight o’clock or it might be on the plane as we were leaving one capital to go to another and then the peace processors late in the night and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning would put the flesh on the bones that Baker had outlined.

Baker would wake up the next morning, and he would have very inclusive talking points tailored to either [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir, [Jordan’s King ] Hussein, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, or [Syrian President Hafez] Assad so he could go into a meeting very well prepared. We also kept very close track of what the parties wanted and what we could deliver to the parties. Baker kept score. He would try to take into his accounts whatever the head of government or head of state had stated as his desire. He would see which of those desires he could actually make happen, he would keep track of it and in the next session he would remind Shamir or Hussein or Mubarak just exactly what he had done for them in the interval. He built up steadily and immeasurably a great deal of political capital with the various parties.

We also, of course, did matrices of what the parties wanted from each other and what the trade-offs would be and those were what we used to put together the letters of assurances and really, the deal that amounted to the Madrid Summit….

So we were focused primarily on creating a diplomatic framework for getting the Israelis and the Arabs seated at negotiating tables, and getting a positive dynamic in the Middle East. We envisioned a two-track process. One track would be direct Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, with the Syrians and with the Lebanese. Secondly, we envisioned a much broader multilateral negotiating process whereby we would bring in Arabs from throughout the Arab world to sit down with the Israelis and talk about issues of general interest. For example, arms control or refugees or economic development, and by so doing create a positive atmosphere in which the elements of a final solution could emerge….

“Bill was one of the finest diplomats of his generation, an extraordinarily competent fellow”

HULL: [After the 9/11 attacks] the Yemenis had spilled their own blood in pursuit of these terrorist targets, [which] was a stronger argument for a potential partnership than any words that we could have had and very interestingly, the reaction in Washington for the first time was that we had serious prospects for working with government of Yemen against al Qaeda.

Well, things moved slowly. Washington was just beginning to wake up to the possibilities that we had been presenting them for some months. The first reaction of Washington was to dispatch Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, to have a meeting with [at right, Yemeni] President Saleh. Bill was one of the finest diplomats of his generation, an extraordinarily competent fellow, someone who had the full trust of Secretary Powell, Deputy Secretary [Richard] Armitage and the respect of the National Security Council so we were absolutely delighted that he was coming out. He came out the following January, and we set up a meeting with President Saleh.

Because it was winter, Saleh was in Aden, and Bill arrived in Sana’a with the intent of getting briefed and then proceeding to Aden for a meeting with the President. During the briefing for Bill, our defense attaché very expertly laid out in a map briefing the operation on December 18, what happened and why Yemeni forces were unable effectively to undertake this counterterrorism operation because they only had capability of moving large forces very slowly. What was needed was for us to engage with the Yemenis in training counterterrorism forces that could operate agilely and effectively.

Bill, of course, needed very little convincing. He had a good picture so we were ready to proceed down to Aden for the meeting with president. Bill was on a tight schedule. He had to meet with President Saleh and then he had meetings in Riyadh with the Saudi princes that evening so he made a plea that his return from Aden be in time to catch the commercial flight to Riyadh to keep those meetings with the Saudis.

To get down to Aden we were offered the presidential helicopter, and we rode in it. Later we realized we were taking our lives in our hands in doing so when a U.S. Air Force team evaluated the Yemeni helicopter fleet and found it, including the presidential helicopter, to be unsafe in the extreme. We didn’t know this at the time so we climbed aboard. We arrived in Aden, met with President Saleh.

President Saleh again was at the top of his game, reiterated what he had said in the Oval Office, said that the December 18 setback did not deter him. He was as determined as ever to eliminate al Qaeda and whatever the U.S. decided he was going to pursue that objective. Bill had from President Saleh exactly what he needed to take back to Washington.

Unfortunately, Bill had now lost his opportunity to catch the commercial flight to Riyadh from Sana’a and so we made a plea to the presidential staff to somehow hold the airplane until Bill could get back. In the event they didn’t do that, but Saleh instead commandeered a Yemeni Air 737, brought it to Aden, put Bill and his one staffer aboard along with an entire lamb that had been prepared for their in-flight meal, and Bill was sent off in style from Aden to be in time for his meeting with the Saudi princes.

Reforming the Department with Tom and Bill 

Ambassador James A. Larocco
Principal Deupty Assistant Secretary for Near East Bureau from 2001 to 2004

LAROCCO:  I completed my Arabic course, and it became clear that nominations were going to take a long time to go through the full process to Senate confirmation. I took some leave back in Chicago, and then one day I got a call from the Executive Secretary of the State Department, Bill Burns, someone I knew of but really didn’t know, and he asked me to come work for [at left, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] Tom Pickering while I wait for the confirmation process to run its course.

I said, “Doing what?”

He said, “Reform the State Department.” This sounded intriguing, and I had nothing else to do, so I said yes.

I reported to Pickering’s office, and he said that he would meet with me every day at 5pm to review reform issues. He would include Bill, Skip Gnehm, then Director General, the Resource Management chief… and Pat Kennedy, the chief of the Administration Bureau. They didn’t come every day, but Bill did most of the time.

Our first meeting was a session devoted to some longstanding issues, but I also raised the idea of making the office a formal one, so others would pay attention to us. I knew that this was vital in working the bureaucracy. Tom immediately agreed. The designation of P/R was made, the P standing for the Office of the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, the R obviously meaning reform, we were given an office space and I was provided with three assistants, all like me.

We had one desk, a phone, a file cabinet. Otherwise, we sat on the floor like in the movies, tossing around a tennis ball as we brainstormed. I felt like I was working for Bill Gates or Steve Jobs rather than for the stodgy State Department. We were on the cutting edge of change. No big studies, as had throughout State’s history ended up on shelves gathering dust. We were going to identify issues, recommend solutions, get decisions and then make things happen. What a novel idea for a government agency.

At the start of the next working day, I provided a memo for all participants, divided into three sections: Old issues, Pending issues and Future Issues. Tom and Bill especially liked this, because they wanted to move as quickly as possible on as many issues as we could identify, seeing this not as a gab exercise but a real exercise at reform. The Department had files and files of reform efforts with massive studies but no follow up. It was time for action. With this one-page work agenda, we could see whether issues agreed upon had been carried out. Follow up was essential. Our work was about results, not just ideas.

Our memos became longer and longer as we came up with long list of items, ranging from moving Canada from Europe to the Western Hemisphere Bureau (a sort of “Well, duh” issue, but much, much more complicated to carry out than one might think) to achieving Secretary [Warren] Christopher and then [Secretary Madeleine] Albright’s vision of a “universal presence,” to reshaping language training for the super-hard languages (my particular passion) to the authorities and responsibilities of chiefs of mission, and many, many more.

We had great fun coming up with options on carrying out the Secretary’s vision of a universal presence (that is, a State Department presence in every country). This flied in the face of the severe budget constraints of the mid-90s and pressure from some to consolidate and create “regional posts.”

I decided to go to the experts: the Directors of the Executive Offices of the Regional Bureaus. I was not disappointed. I ran many ideas by them, and they knew exactly what wouldn’t work, what would work and what might work. Among other things, one day as we were tossing around a tennis ball, we came up with a wonderful concept. We decided it had to have a catchy name so it might grab Tom’s imagination, so we drew up a concept paper on what we called “The American Presence Post.” Tom and the others loved it, and this idea moved quickly. As things turned out, a high-rolling political ambassador, Felix Rohatyn, got credit for this idea. In truth, he did translate the concept into reality, so I applaud him. But like so many stories of success or failure, there is a back story….

Tom and Bill were both ideas people. They had plenty of their own, and they knew immediately whether they would run with our ideas. We drew heavily from them as well as previous studies. It was amazing to me that Tom and Bill could devote an hour a day to this. That’s when I got to know Bill Burns. I didn’t know Bill before this.

Bill loved the ideas, the organization of the ideas, the action plans and the fact that things were getting done. He and I and others had seen so much invested in previous reform efforts that saw few results.

This was a results-oriented operation with no bureaucracy, no long drawn out meetings where nothing was done, no papers that were wordsmithed to death, no clearances that would water down an idea till it drowned.

This exercise, which lasted about five months for me, convinced me that despite the unwieldiness of the bureaucracy and the knee-jerk response of most that something couldn’t be done, things, many things in fact, could be done if you have the right network of people, good and convincing ideas and clear plans for implementation. And, perhaps most importantly, we always matched the mission with resources. If the resources weren’t there, we never moved the reform from the pending file.…I drew on my experience during these five months in everything I did as PDAS in NEA a few years later.

“He was the finest diplomat I had known after Tom Pickering”

[In early 2001] the Middle East was in the doldrums, as the second Palestinian intifada had ground so much to a halt. I saw the Far East as the land of opportunity, the Middle East as the land of problems, so why not go back to Taipei? HR dithered and dithered and dithered over this, since the incumbent director wanted to stay even though senior leadership in Washington was insistent he move on. Week after week I got the same answer from HR: I was the candidate, but we can’t move forward until the incumbent’s departure is confirmed.

Then one day I received a phone call from Bill Burns, who was Ambassador in Jordan at the time. He told me he had been selected by the new Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to be Assistant Secretary for NEA [Near East Affairs], and Bill wanted me to be his Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary.

I was stunned. I had no inkling that Bill would call on me to do this. He knew so many officers, why me? He then told me that the Secretary had given him full authority to assemble a new team, and in addition to me, he had already confirmed that David Satterfield would be the DAS [Deputy Assistant Secretary]  for Israel, Egypt and the Levant, and was working on Ryan Crocker to be DAS for the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. He asked if I might call Ryan and nudge him to accept.

I must say that Bill Burns, as I may have noted earlier, is not someone who it is easy to say no to. Unlike Baker and his slammed book, Bill wasn’t into drama. He didn’t have to be. He somehow created an atmosphere in which you simply did not want to disappoint him. It was an amazing ability he had, and it was most effective in one-on-one conversations. He conveyed a sense of integrity and sincerity unmatched by anyone I had ever met.

He also conveyed a sense of caring, really caring, about you and what you were saying, that totally disarmed his foreign interlocutors. He was the finest diplomat I had known after Tom Pickering, although their styles were very, very different.

I told Bill I would get back to him. If I would say yes, I would see what I could do to persuade Ryan. I admitted that it would be a great team: four ambassadors experienced in the region. I couldn’t recall a front office like this in any regional bureau. …. I called Bill back and said yes.

Bill being Bill, he assigned me a bunch of work related to my new assignment, which placed me in awkward position with the incumbent PDAS [Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary], someone I highly respected who had done an excellent job for months as Acting Assistant Secretary….

In hindsight, it was a wonderful team to be on. And when I say team, I am speaking of the entire NEA Bureau. I could list so many outstanding officers it would take up pages. Many are ambassadors today. Others are in senior positions in Washington. They were a joy to work with. I will never forget them and will always be grateful for their service to our country.

“There are few who can see this issue in the 360 degree way he does”

Bill is someone who believes not just with his mind but also feels in his soul the importance of a comprehensive peace for stability and security in the region, including and especially a sustained security for the State of Israel. He understands the strategic importance to our country and how consistent this is to our values and the propagation of those values. There are few who can see this issue in the 360 degree way he does.

At the time, the peace process was in shambles. The failure of a new Camp David, this time in the waning days of the Clinton presidency and the launch of a new Intifada swept away almost all the good work of the 90s….

Bill was determined to build from these ashes a new framework, focusing on stanching the hemorrhaging from the Intifada and providing new hope for Palestinian moderates and Israelis determined to not let the peace achieved in the 90s slip away.

Bill began putting the pieces together for a framework and roadmap that would be a new guide. He convinced the Secretary that this was worth the effort and worked with regional leaders, reluctant at best, to support a new initiative. They saw little hope for success, but were motivated as much if not mostly by a fear of total failure. The price to regional stability and security would be steep if that happened.

“Everywhere I go, especially today, his name is spoken with profound respect”

Let me state something again. Personalities do matter, especially in the field of diplomacy and negotiation. Bill conveys sincerity and integrity in such a compelling way that leaders believe in him, trust him, confide in him. Everywhere I go, especially today, his name is spoken with profound respect. He listens more than he speaks, but when he speaks, which is always in his quiet, deliberate way, people not only take note, they inculcate his words. I am convinced to this day that it was his personal relationships and the trust he build up with regional leaders that permitted a new peace process, however limited in scope and results, to emerge in 2002.

I have always been one of those who believes that having a peace process and the hope it brings, however modest the results, is far better than not having one. That seems so un-American; we want results. But wherever I served in the region, when there was a peace process, the temperature went down in our relationships, allowing us more time and latitude in pursuing our other strategic interests, regional or bilateral. This is exactly what happened from 2002-2004, and The Roadmap, as it was called, took pressure off everyone from our soldiers in Afghanistan to our diplomats in Rabat as our priorities shifted to the wards in the east.

Bill’s role as a trusted confidant, however, was most manifest in his work on Libya. Two of our highest strategic priorities had been stymied for decades by Qadhafi:  non-proliferation and counter- terrorism. Libya, to be sure, was low-hanging fruit, as some wags would say, especially following our invasion of Iraq. Qadhafi was clearly spooked, wondering if he was next. We took advantage of this, and talks with his regime, tried by earlier administrations, including Clinton’s, which had not borne fruit, were now poised for possible success.

There were several key actors on our side, one from the [Central Intelligence] Agency, the other Bill, in moving the process forward and eventually coming to closure. The trust that the Libyan leadership had in Bill’s judgment was so manifest throughout the process. Toward the end, when the White House yanked Bill out to put politicos in the lead for the final talks, I marveled at Bill’s modesty, even as he was getting constant phone calls from Libyan leadership seeking his guidance. He never took the credit, even though the credit was truly his.

At the same time, Bill took the time to meet regularly with the families of the victims of the Pan Am 103 disaster [which exploded in Lockerbie, Scotland because of a bomb planted by Libyan-backed terrorists]. He bonded with them, and they felt his sincerity. Once again, I believe his personal role in this key human element of the reconciliation with Libya was never fully recognized.

While Bill was engaging in these historic initiatives, he left me in charge of running the Bureau. I never recall even a single instance in which he questioned my decisions. At the same time, we were of the same mind from the start on what we wanted the Bureau to be, how it would relate to the leadership on the Seventh Floor [where the Secretary of State and other key officials have their offices] and how it would interact with other agencies, The Hill and the media. It was indeed seamless, and I will always be grateful to Bill for his own trust in me and clear guidance.

Q: You mentioned something I imagine particularly in dealing with the Middle East because the problems there are so horrendous and the history is so horrendous, trust has to be an extremely important factor.

LAROCCO: Here’s the thing with the Middle East; their innate distrust of us is profound. You can’t measure it, it is so high. What is counter-intuitive from this is that at the same time, their degree of trust in certain individual Americans is also almost immeasurable. George H. W. Bush, had earned enormous trust from many of the leaders in the Middle East, including the Saudis, and especially the Kuwaitis. I also know the trust the Chinese had in George H.W. He had taken the time to get to know all these people, walk in their shoes, and understand their concerns. He drank the tea and enjoyed it, and they saw this. They trusted him, and this particularly paid off in the Gulf War.

Bill had that relationship with virtually every leader in the Middle East he had interacted with. This was vital at a time where the same could not be said for the White House and when anger over the invasion of Iraq was widespread. Our policies as well as our practices were creating an even deeper mistrust than I had experienced at any time during the previous thirty years of my career.

People in the Middle East, from leaders to those on the street, can and do distinguish between our policies, our practices, our ideals and who we are as individuals. They have long loathed our policies, found our practices hypocritical with those ideals that they admire, while bonding closely with certain individuals irrespective of the messages those individuals convey or the policies they must represent. It’s the nature of the region. Those much vilified “Arabists,” especially during the period right after 9/11, understood this. They had experienced it. Our leadership then and our leadership now do not understand it, with some notable exceptions.