In praise of Nicholas Burns

Both John and I noted the New York Sun editorial on Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns yesterday. The Sun editorial described Burns as a “Kerry-ite” and decried his appointment to the third-ranking position in the State Department. We’ve received three messages taking issue with the editorial (and our posts). Robert Keenum wrote to take issue with my post:

The “reported” editorial in the Sun is both shallow and ignorant. It is shallow in that it resorts to guilt by association. Even if Nick Burns would be in a Kerry cabinet, he is a career Foreign Service Officer, not a political appointee. He has risen to his position on diplomatic talent, not party politics. The ignorance, and that is giving them credit for pure motives, comes in not remembering that Nick worked in the Bush I White House with the, then, head of the Russia desk, Condoleezza Rice. His ascent to his current post would be because Secretary Rice has confidence is his ability and character, not because he is a stalking horse for the Democrats.

I defy anyone to provide an example of a public utterance that reveals Undersecretary Burns personal politics. He takes his role as a representative of the United States seriously and I have never heard or read a speech that contradicted the policy of the president he was serving. If the New York Sun has evidence of such, they failed to provide it. This is an unsupported slur of a good man. No wonder we have trouble finding good people to fill public posts.

Ray Caldwell wrote to take issue with John’s post:

I usually read Power Line with anticipation and finish reading with satisfaction. But I confess that I’m deeply perplexed by the trouble PL is taking to trash Nick Burns’s appointment as Under Secretary of Political Affairs at State. I am a retired American diplomat, having spent almost 30 years at State and overseas. As I’m sure you and others at Power Line must know, the Under Secretary of Political Affairs position at State is considered the senior position for a career diplomat and is usually, though not always, encumbered by a career officer. In my experience, the choice for the appointment (Marc Grossman immediately before Burns, for example) is almost always a best-of-generation type of diplomat and imminently defensible. I think that was the case here as well. I never served with Burns, but he has had the reputation for years as being, if not best-in-class, very close to it.

As much as I respect and value the opinions of the Power Line triumvirate, I think you are simply wrong here. And what concerns me most is that you seem to have swallowed whole the notion that career diplomats ipso facto cannot serve administrations of both parties loyally and effectively. This is a canard, but it is a sentiment expressed on both the left and the right, although it usually takes a more virulent form on the right.

I found it impossible to be enthusiastic about serving Carter or Clinton, but my colleagues and I did so because of our conception of loyalty and professionalism. As a professional diplomat and Vietnam veteran, I found it deeply insulting to be accused (with many others), by satraps of the Reagan administration who had never served in the military — Perle, Gaffney, others — of “disloyalty” simply in order to delegitimize any disagreement with their particular views. I think you’re quite mistaken on this one, and you do a disservice to perpetuate the myth that the professional foreign service is not to be trusted and only the politically annointed can serve their country honorably.

Finally, this morning Sherry Cooper writes:

As a daily lurker, I was surprised to see your comments on Nicholas Burns. They made me wonder what your true purpose is.

Having watched Ambassador Burns in action daily throughout his entire assignment as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, I can state that he forcefully put forward the US positions including those on Afghanistan and Iraq. He spoke clearly, without nuance; much to the chagrin of those from France. I have the highest respect for the work he did in Brussels.

It must be said that I am a proud absentee voter from Florida and a true conservative. With a Yale graduate husband, I can speak with authority that both the State and CIA are riddled with pinko preverts. None the less, with the current President as a classmate; it must be said not all Yalies from the sixties are communists.

I ask myself; knowing and respecting Ambassador Burns as I do, and reading your remarks wherein you state you do not know him, what is your goal? Are you undermining him intentionally or unintentionally?

Even with his education in France, few men have ever made the French Ambassador sputter as Ambassador Burns did consistently during his time at NATO.

I should add that neither John nor I professed any personal knowledge of Undersecretary Burns in our posts. We merely linked to and quoted from the Sun’s provocative editorial and are happy to post these dissenting messages taking issue with it as well.

UPDATE: One more message:

I imagine this is a bit late, but as a conservative Republican, State Department employee, and twice-daily reader of Powerline, please allow me to add my endorsement of Ambassador Nick Burns’ professionalism. I honestly do not know what party he supports, but I have found him to be an energetic and imaginitive supporter of the Administration’s policy. At annual gatherings in Brussels of European-based embassy “political-military” officers, Ambassador Burns has been very eloquent in defending and clarifying US goals in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror in general. Burns has also gone out of his way to praise Secretary Rumsfeld before a crowd of State Department officers, many of whom would have eaten up a jab or two at the Secretary of Defense.

Maybe Ambassador Burns would have held the same position under a Kerry or other Democratic administration. The rumored number-two candidate for his job, Eric Edelman, also served under Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott, before working as a senior advisor to Vice President Cheney and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under Rumsfeld.

As to the general charge that the State Department is less in tune with the President than before, I would argue the contrary. All in all, the talent level of the Assistant Secretary and Under Secretary level has improved markedly under Secretary Rice. I would guess that the first Bush Administration contained far more Democratic party supporters in senior State positions. As only one example, with the current team, we have seen a marked decrease in policy battles with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

I hope the Sun will readdress this issue with improved perspective.

We are withholding the name and embassy of the writer at his request.


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