Career diplomat William J. Burns
, the State Department's second-in-command who's best known for leading secret talks with Iran and warning in vain of the dangers of invading Iraq, will step down in October after a diplomatic career that spanned more than three decades, U.S. officials announced Friday
Burns repeatedly has delayed his retirement by request and still has until next fall before exiting the Foreign Service, leaving time for him to step in to help should international negotiations on Iran's nuclear program hit a snag before a July deadline. He led a team that conducted back-channel negotiations with Iran that led to the current nuclear negotiations and other signs of a thaw in the long-frozen relations between Washington and Tehran.
"I have relied on him for candid advice and sensitive diplomatic missions," President Barack Obama said Friday of Burns in a statement released by the White House. "He has been a skilled adviser, consummate diplomat, and inspiration to generations of public servants."
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a separate statement
that recounted Burns' myriad postings through the years, from "Moscow to Amman," as well as senior-level positions in Washington. Kerry noted that Burns was only the second career Foreign Service member to rise to the No. 2 slot at State.
"It's not just where he's served. It's who he is and what he's done," Kerry said in the statement. "This guy is the real deal. Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends."
A successor for Mr. Burns has yet to be chosen. But the candidates are likely to include Antony Blinken, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary of state who is leading the American team in the formal nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Other possible candidates include Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a career Foreign Service officer who serves as the State Department counselor; Michele Flournoy, a former senior policy official at the Pentagon; and R. Nicholas Burns, a former ranking State Department official.
In the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell tasked Burns and other veteran Middle East hands with outlining the potential pitfalls of an American intervention. As the NYT reported:
“We were all supporting the president’s decision,” Mr. Powell said, referring to Mr. Bush’s decision to use force. “But we felt that we had an obligation to point out some of the problems one might run into.”
David D. Pearce, who currently serves as ambassador to Greece but who worked for Mr. Burns at the time, drafted much of the memo. Ryan C. Crocker, who later served as ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Mr. Burns also helped prepare the document.
Called the “Perfect Storm,” the memo highlighted the risk that an American intervention might unleash sectarian tensions, but the document had little effect on Mr. Bush’s calculations.