The Second Diplomatic Life of William Burns

by Ken Weisbrode

One of the less noticed but more notable aspects of the dramatic NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan was the secret journey by the U.S. Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, to Kabul to negotiate the details of the withdrawal with a leader of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar.

It was not the first time that the head of an intelligence organization has engaged in semi-public or private diplomacy, but it may suggest the establishment, or re-establishment, of a norm, at least in a part of the world where a nominal Western retreat has already led to a complicated and critical realignment and contestation of regional interests and policies of nearly all the world’s nuclear powers.

Burns is a retired American diplomat who rose quickly to the top of his profession. He retired during the Obama administration, but returned to join the Biden administration at CIA. Many people applauded that appointment, not only because it appeared to mark a break with a tradition of directors from or closely aligned with the Defense Department, but also because Burns has a reputation as a competent, wise, and honest public servant. It has not been unusual to hear people speak of a new era of foreign policy in which diplomacy (or, to be precise, diplomacy understood somehow as an alternative to the use of military force) is the first and best “tool in the toolbox.” U.S. foreign service officers in particular must have been pleased that one of their own was appointed to head this important part of the bureaucracy.

Whether Burns’ appointment and his actions since signify any of that will be left for later historians to judge. For now it also helps to note that neither appointments nor actions exist in a vacuum. The principal officials who advised the president on the Afghanistan withdrawal – namely, the Secretaries of State and Defense (Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, respectively), and the National Security Adviser (Jake Sullivan) – have all been criticized heavily in the press for executing the policy with flawed or insufficient planning, and precipitating so much chaos. Finding out whether any of them advised the president to take a different course of action will also have to wait for later. For now, one can say that the advisers all share something in common: none is a political heavyweight with his own public base. All three were plucked from the middle tier of the bureaucracy after having proven their loyalty in previous service, either directly to Biden or to people he knows and trusts.

Unlike Barack Obama’s vaunted “team of rivals,” this is a team of surrogates or subordinates. They are not necessarily yes-men with no backbone, but were probably chosen because they already share Biden’s views and think in the same way he does.[1]

For a head of state and government to serve as his own foreign minister is usually a mistake. It brings to mind Abraham Lincoln’s famous line about a person who chooses to serve as his own lawyer. Whether or not that’s true in Biden’s case, the lineup does suggest why it made sense to send Burns to Kabul, because, as it happens, he’s the senior official with the most diplomatic experience on the ground. The fact that he’s also now the head of the CIA is neither here nor there.

But is it? Burns isn’t the only one in this situation. The head of MI6 in the UK, Richard Moore, is also a former diplomat and is doing much the same. And there are probably others. So it is right to ask whether a covert takeover of diplomacy is now underway, or whether, at the same time, there is a diplomatic takeover of intelligence with a shadow docket taking the place of normal policy-making. Put differently, there may be underway a redefinition of secret diplomacy from being regular diplomacy’s auxiliary to being its substitute. Whereas spies once had diplomatic cover, today diplomats have espionage cover, or something like it.

That is one of several policy mantras that Joe Biden’s decision has apparently flipped on its head: Another is that a civilian evacuation should precede, not follow, a military evacuation. Still another is that a strategic and diplomatic commitment should be matched with, and not vitiate, a political and practical commitment. And yet another is that the announcement of a decision should follow, not precede, the intelligence assessment and contingency planning necessary to make that decision. And finally, another, with a twist, is that diplomatic covenants should be open but sometimes are better secretly arrived at. The publicizing of Burns’ visit to Kabul suggests that from now on we’ll be hearing about secret covenants openly arrived at.

It’s hard to say what Burns would say to this but his well-received 2019 memoir, The Back Channel, offers some hints, starting, obviously, with the title, which refers to Burns’ participation along with Jake Sullivan in secret talks with Iran to begin a process that would culminate in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action back during the Obama administration. In the book Burns is keen to state and restate the need for restraint in exercising power, and makes frequent reference to the diplomatic “tool.” It is a frustrating memoir, not for the few times that Burns admits his errors of judgment or execution, but for the several other times where he conveys the loyal – too loyal, perhaps – impression that there was no real alternative policy course to the one that was followed. It’s not always clear whether he is speaking about the course of declaratory policy, actual policy, or both.

For some clarification one may turn to an exchange on H-Diplo between Burns and the political scientist James Lebovic.

In order to illustrate Burns “problemati[c]” tendency to “overstat[e] the U.S. capability to manage the future and overcome the past,” Lebovic gives the now infamous example of Barack Obama’s empty “red line” threat to Bashar al-Assad over the use of chemical weapons. Burns’ suggestion that “a willingness to take more risks against the Assad regime after the Syrian civil war began in 2011 would have sent a strong signal to Iran, and cushioned the disquieting effect of the nuclear deal for the Saudis and our other traditional friends” is inconsistent, Lebovic claims, with Burns’ verdict that the Obama administration was too glib about demanding that Assad step down. Not so. With both references – the latter before, and the former after, the worsening of the civil war in Syria – Burns demonstrates the Obama administration’s failure to align the means and ends of policy, not to mention the failure of the president to have the courage of his convictions.

Then to correct what he calls Lebovic’s “misreading of the book’s argument,” Burns qualifies a number of assertions illustrating the line (perhaps the fine line) diplomats draw between being able to “recognize the limits of agency” and being careful “not to miss moments when American leadership can help shape (but rarely determine) outcomes.” Yet several of these assertions devolve into a caricature of second-guessing on the one hand and resignation on the other.

For example, with regard to a country he knows well, Russia, Burns claims that “it is hard to imagine how a different set of policy choices would have entirely mitigated Russia’s post-Cold War sense of loss and indignity.” Well no, not entirely. But there were a number of different, mitigating, and important steps the United States and its allies might have taken along the way. Or, with regard to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, Burns states that “[i]t is hard to imagine… that the U.S. could have done anything to keep… Mubarak in place or to have prevented the chaos that followed.” Well, maybe, but the U.S. government could have been better placed for coping with the effects of political demands which it had been advocating for some time in private and in public – so that when change began in Egypt, the U.S. president was not making up policy live on television and denouncing his own emissary (Frank Wisner). Finally, turning back to Syria, Burns notes that “a more coherent combination of ends and means and reacting sooner and more strongly to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons may have given the United States more diplomatic leverage and modestly enhanced the changes for a negotiated transition” (his emphasis). Well again, yes, maybe. But by then the aim of policy was conflict termination, not conflict prevention, as it had been when Obama had insisted that Assad must go the way of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar al-Qaddafi – in three other instances where diplomatic malpractice was followed by much blood and chaos.

In re-imagining the complex, interwoven record of ends and means, one more incident stands out. As late as March 2011, Russia did not oppose a UN Security Council resolution for the limited use of force in Libya with the aim of preventing an atrocity. NATO’s subsequent intervention resulting in the murder of Qaddafi, which was accompanied by gloating by the U.S. Secretary of State and others, almost certainly undermined any possibility of effective multilateral diplomacy in preventing, and then mitigating, so devastating a civil war in Syria – which hardly pales against any violence that may have been prevented in Benghazi or elsewhere in Libya (or, for that matter, what took place in Libya since Qaddafi’s overthrow).

Burns’ book is full of hindsight, most of it valuable and nearly all of it told with an appealing tone of humility. But in defining diplomacy as a mere “tool,” Burns takes humility a step too far. The best lesson his book offers is that diplomacy must encompass not so much modesty, even secrecy, but rather statecraft. Familiar examples of such diplomacy include the Marshall Plan, the negotiations that led to the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, and the event with which Burns begins his memoir – the Madrid Conference in 1991 – had it been followed up with more lasting and successful efforts to construct a Middle Eastern regional security community. When diplomacy takes its strategic vocation seriously, even boldly – starting with a clear and consistent articulation of ends and means – the results can and often do speak for themselves. That will be less likely to happen if diplomacy resorts more frequently to the world of shadows.

[1] I am grateful to E. Wayne Merry for sharing this observation.