Friday, January 18, 2008

Resignation of Bush Administration Moderate May Signal Shift in Policy Direction

On October 21st, 2007, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani resigned, allegedly because "he wanted to focus on 'other political activities." Larijani was a force of moderation and compromise within the Iranian foreign policy establishment, and had "faced increasing challenges from [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad," who favored a tougher approach.

Given the political context of Larijani's resignation, it was widely recognized as something other than a personal decision on the part of the nuclear negotiator. The New York Times described the "resignation" as
a signal "that officials here [in Iran] may have closed the door to any possible negotiated settlement in its standoff with the West." In other words, the resignation of a moderate who had faced pressure from more hawkish higher-ups was recognized as an indicator of a shift in the ideological power balance of the Iranian administration.

Burns with the Israeli Finance Minister in August, 2007
(Source: State Department)

Today, Nicholas Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, announced his resignation. According to Secretary of State Rice, Burns resigned because he "decided that it's the right moment to go back to family concerns." It has been clear for some time that Burns--along with Secretary of State Rice--has been locked in a battle over the direction of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Burns occupies a Larijani-like position within the administration, and his departure for "personal reasons" may signal a hawkish change in direction in the White House.

The split between Burns and some of his superiors was aptly described in 2006 by the New York Times, in an article on administration in-fighting over whether to negotiate with North Korea:
This is not a new debate by any stretch. Within the administration, a more hawkish wing that includes Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and John R. Bolton, the ambassador to the United Nations, has chafed against talks with any American foe, be it North Korea or Iran. Meanwhile, advocates of diplomacy, including R. Nicholas Burns and Philip D. Zelikow, two of Ms. Rice’s top lieutenants at the State Department, have sided with European allies in saying that the United States should engage its foes.
Steve Clemmons, Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, reported in an analysis of Burns' departure that this hostile dynamic has persisted throughout Burns' tenure:
Vice President Cheney's team did all it could to undermine Secretary of State Rice and her effective globe-trotting Under Secretary for Political Affairs [Nicholas Burns] in the diplomatic efforts... On nearly all of these subjects [i.e. North Korea, Iran, China, etc.], except perhaps Afghanistan, Nick Burns and Co. have been on one side of constructive efforts to stabilize global affairs and push forward positive "American global engagement" -- and Cheney's acolytes have been on another.
When one of the leading figures in a fierce administration policy battle decides that he will resign "for personal reasons," we ought to be suspicious. Moreover, Burns' announcement comes on the heels of a significant delay in the North Korea negotiations, which Cheney and his "acolytes" have always opposed. As a State Department spokesman put it, "North Korea has not yet met its commitments by providing a complete and correct declaration of its nuclear programs and [is] slowing down the process of disablement." While the extent and significance of North Korea's failure to declare is debatable, for critics of the deal this road-bump validates their initial mistrust of the North Korean leader. As John Bolton argued in a Wall Street Journal editorial, this issue provides the U.S. "an opportunity to extricate itself from this unwise and dangerous deal."

It is certainly possible that Nicholas Burns genuinely resigned because he wants to spend more time with his family. However, given his consistently adversarial relationship with the more hawkish members of the Bush administration and the recent events in North Korea, his resignation may actually signal a change in direction in the Bush administration. As someone who favors constructive diplomatic engagement, I sincerely hope that Burns did resign for personal reasons. As a student of politics, I fear that this resignation is attributable to forces far larger than Burns' family.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think your post is dead wrong. Before explaining myself, I should stress that I'm no fan of the Bush administration.

More the the point: 43 is pretty desperate for something he can look back as a major foreign policy successes -- in short, something he can call a legacy achievement. At the top of his list is some sort of post-surge political reconciliation in Iraq. Close behind is some sort of peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by year's end. He'd also like to close the US-India nuclear deal, which Nicholas Burns heavily promoted, and though things look anemic, the administration is hoping -- and will try for -- one last push. Waiting in the wings are some other surprising, controversial civil nuclear cooperation deals, the 123 agreements for which have been negotiated, but which are being held back for political reasons. The Iranian agenda of the OVP was deal a serious blow by the 2007 Iran NIE, but there are quite in the few in the admin who are happy for the time being to give Iran a pass on its noncompliant nuclear program.

Given all that, you pay absolutely no attention to whom is succeeding Nicholas Burns as USEC for P: William Burns, a career FSO who is the outgoing ambassador to Russia, and served previously as ASEC for NEA (the bureau for which takes a lead on State's Iraq policy) and ambassador to Jordan. With lots of Middle East experience, Wm. Burns has a CV to push 43's Israel/PA hopes from Foggy Bottom's seventh floor.

More to your point, Wm. Burns is moderate, with an approach to policy that John Bolton finds weak.

If OVP's David Addington or Norman Podhoretz or someone equivalent would have been appointed P, then that would have signaled a policy shift. Wm. Burns is a milquetoast compared to those hawks.

Max Postman said...

Anonymous is right that I paid "no attention" to the politis of N. Burns' successor. It does appear that W. Burns is far from a Bolton-ite, but that does not mean that we should consider the outgoing Undersecretary's resignation completely outside the context of the administration in-fighting that has dominated his tenure.

Even if the administration is appointing a new Undersecretary with similar views, Burns' resignation could still be attributable to his own frustration over conflicts with Cheney and Co. Indeed, as the International Herald Tribune points out, three undersecretaries and four assistant secretaries have recently resigned from the State Department. The reason for Burns' departure (and those of other high-level officials) will not be known for a long time (if ever), but I continue to suspect that this resignation and the high-level administration in-fighting over foreign policy are related.