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Rice aide, an architect of U.S. diplomacy, resigns

State's No. 3 helped transform policy in dealings with Iran, India and Kosovo -- where efforts falter.

January 19, 2008|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A top architect of the Bush administration's policy of greater diplomatic engagement announced his resignation Friday amid signs that U.S. efforts on key issues have been losing momentum.

R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official and one of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's closest aides, said he would leave his post in March for personal reasons.

Appearing next to Rice at the State Department, Burns said his decision to leave the foreign service was "just about the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. But I do so with the conviction that after 26 years in government service it's time for me to meet my obligations to my wife and three daughters and it's time to pursue other ventures outside the government."

Burns was a key member of the State Department inner circle that helped Rice formulate the strategy that began moving U.S. policy toward diplomatic conciliation beginning in 2005, after Bush's first term, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan marked a hard-line U.S. stance toward adversaries.

As the undersecretary of State for political affairs, Burns led U.S. efforts to use inducements and deterrents to deal with Iran's nuclear programs. He also pushed for completion of a groundbreaking U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, and tried to defuse the brewing crisis over Kosovo's drive to break away from Serbia.

But U.S. efforts on Iran have lost international credibility, and the nuclear deal with India has been obstructed by politics in that country. Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians and Serbs are at an impasse, and some observers fear a violent upheaval there.

Philip D. Zelikow, a former top Rice aide who left at the end of 2006, said that Burns believes he has accomplished a lot already and "isn't feeling a lot of policy frustrations that are motivating him to leave."

Zelikow, who has known Burns for more than 20 years, said Burns' departure would be "a great loss," but that after 26 years, "he's entitled to a rest."

In an interview, Burns said he believes progress on implementing the deal with India and an agreement on Kosovo can be made before he leaves. Iran, however, "is going to be a challenge for the United States for a long time to come," he said.

Asked whether he might consider joining the next presidential administration, he said, "I fully expect this will be a long-term move" to the private sector.

Conservatives have seen Burns as a symbol of what they consider a dangerous drift by the administration toward a policy of appeasement.

Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute and a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), called Burns a skilled diplomat who "represented the dominance of the foreign service establishment that has characterized the second Bush term and Secretary Rice's tenure at the State Department."

She said it would be unfair for her to speculate on why Burns was leaving, but acknowledged that the prospects were not good for "a serious foreign policy success in the final months of the Bush administration."

Burns held top diplomatic jobs for both Republican and Democratic administrations. He was a senior aide for Russia policy under former President Clinton, a National Security Council aide under the former President Bush, and a spokesman for secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright.

Burns said there was no truth to reports that he was interested in running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from his home state of Massachusetts. Four-term Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry, who lost the 2004 presidential election, is seeking reelection this year.

Burns has had a punishing schedule conducting behind-the-scenes diplomacy, but has also relished serving as a spokesman for U.S. policy.

His replacement, William J. Burns -- no relation -- is the U.S. ambassador to Russia and was previously assistant secretary of State for the Middle East. William Burns is highly regarded and well liked within the department, but prefers to operate out of the public spotlight.

"Nick loves the limelight; Bill hates it," said Bulent Aliriza, a foreign policy specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Because of Nicholas Burns' skill at explaining U.S. goals, Aliriza said, "I'm sure Rice is going to feel his loss big time."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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