- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

Call him the understated undersecretary.

The highest-ranking career diplomat in the U.S. government, William J. Burns, held onto his job as undersecretary for political affairs when the administrations changed in January — a testament to his abilities, experience and, unusual for Washington, apparent lack of desire to grab the limelight, his friends and colleagues say.

There are many subjects he can discuss with ease — from Russia to the Middle East — but one he always shies away from: himself.

Predictably, he declined to be interviewed for this profile. Many others, however, were happy to share their views.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Mr. Burns was the first State Department official she met with after she was nominated by President-elect Barack Obama in November.

“He immediately lived up to his stellar reputation as a seasoned diplomat, and I have valued his insight and judgment every day,” she said. “He personifies the very best of our Foreign Service and is a model of dedication to our country.”

Mr. Burns was appointed a year ago by Mrs. Clinton’s predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. Although it is typical for every secretary to hire her own undersecretary, Mrs. Clinton made the almost unprecedented decision to retain Mr. Burns.

“She knew from the start she wanted him to stay and wasn’t ever in doubt,” said one of Mrs. Clinton’s closest aides.

Just before Ms. Rice left the State Department in January, she said she was “really sad to leave people like” Mr. Burns, but “delighted” that he would continue to work with the new team, which “will never find a better repository of skill and dignity and integrity and honor.”

Similar praise from departing political appointees to civil servants is not unusual, but Ms. Rice teared up when she uttered those words, and Mr. Burns was visibly touched.

During his nearly three decades of public service, Mr. Burns has received the nation’s highest honors, including two Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and several State Department awards.

But perhaps most telling is the fact that both Democratic and Republican administrations have appointed him to senior positions.

“He is one of the two finest diplomats I’ve ever met. The other happens to be a Japanese diplomat, said Richard L. Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state during President George W. Bush’s first term, when Mr. Burns was assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. “What makes Bill so special is that he is calm, unflappable, informed, with an absolute steel core. He is a man of principle who will not bow to expediency.”

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III called Mr. Burns a “top-notch public servant” who “speaks truth to power in an understated way.”

“He’s not ideological, calls it like he sees it, and everybody has confidence in him,” Mr. Baker said. “I don’t know anyone who thinks ill of him, and if you look at the results of his work, you’ll know why.”

Elliott Abrams, the top Middle East expert in the Bush White House who has often been described as a neoconservative, said he traveled with Mr. Burns “quite a bit and had a very pleasant experience.”

“He knows how to make the machinery work and to serve the secretary well,” Mr. Abrams said of Mr. Burns, who was the Bush administration’s point man on diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. “He worked within the policy guidelines, and he did everything he could within that framework. So critics of the policy should focus on people who made the policy.”

The Bush administration refused to join European Union-led negotiations with Iran unless Tehran suspended uranium enrichment. Ms. Rice sent Mr. Burns to a meeting with an Iranian official in Geneva last summer, but he was not authorized to engage directly with the Iranian.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration decided that Mr. Burns will participate in such discussions with Iran from now on.

Mr. Burns is expected to have a major influence on U.S. policy toward Iran and the wider Middle East, a reflection of experience that goes back to the administration of George H.W. Bush. Then Mr. Burns was one of a handful of so-called food processors” who churned through ideas for Arab-Israeli peace following the 1990 Gulf War.

Toby Gati, who was assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research in the Clinton administration, said that, although Mr. Burns has been able to serve both Republican and Democratic administrations “without losing his core beliefs,” he appears “liberated” working for the Obama administration.

“Whenever we have a problem, I would sleep a lot easier knowing that Bill Burns is in charge of it,” Mrs. Gati said.

Several State Department officials said Mr. Burns has been an inspiration for young Foreign Service officers, because his career is proof that a modest but capable civil servant can reach the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Unlike his predecessor, R. Nicholas Burns, who loved being in the spotlight and held regular on-camera press briefings, “Bill Burns is not a politician — he prefers to do things quietly,” said one official who has worked for both men but asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Mr. Burns gave a rare speech at Princeton University last month, during which he talked about humility in foreign policy and seemed to be criticizing the Bush administration’s “lecturing” other countries on human rights and other issues, rather than leading by example.

“We do make mistakes,” he said, “and we gain in global status when we admit them, and then show how our own democratic system can reliably correct them.”

Mr. Burns returned to Washington last year after a stint as ambassador to Russia. His expertise is highly valued by the current administration, and he sat at Mr. Obama’s right during a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London earlier this month.

“I entered the Foreign Service in 1982, in a world defined largely by the Cold War and an international order organized largely around Russian-American rivalry,” Mr. Burns said at Princeton. “Twenty-seven years later, the world is, of course, a much different place, and a constant source of humility for those of us trying to navigate through it, in pursuit of our country’s interests and values.”

Earlier in his career, Mr. Burns was ambassador to Jordan and also held senior staff positions at the State Department, such as executive secretary and executive assistant to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine K. Albright.

Mrs. Gati, who has known Mr. Burns since he was on the Soviet desk in the 1980s, said that one of Mrs. Clinton’s most challenging tasks would be “to produce the next generation of Bill Burnses.”

“These people don’t appear from nowhere,” she said. “It takes 20-30 years to nurture someone like that.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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