Who Runs the State Department?

The U.S. decision last Thursday not to seek a seat on the new United Nations Human Rights Council followed a week of frantic backstage conflict. Beyond human rights, this was the overriding question: Does Nick Burns run the State Department? The outcome of the UN dispute indicates that he is not in absolute control but is mighty influential.

R. Nicholas Burns is a 50-year-old Senior Foreign Service Officer who was named under secretary for political affairs, third-ranking at State, to begin President Bush’s second term. Behind the scenes, he fought hard for the United States to take part in an organization it had just voted against on grounds it would not keep out the worst human rights abusers. (Cuba and China are expected to win Council seats soon.) With Bush’s political appointees in the national security apparatus opposing Burns, his failure was cloaked in language intended to trivialize the decision.

News accounts did not even mention Burns. He flies below the radar in controlling State Department policy on many issues beyond human rights. Inside the Bush administration, Burns is seen as guiding the nation’s course on Iran and Korea. His influence on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is so surprising that critics use the word Svengali.

As a career diplomat, Burns has worked for presidents of both parties. He was a special assistant to Bill Clinton, who in his second term named Burns the ambassador to Greece. He was ambassador to NATO in George W. Bush’s first term. Nevertheless, Burns has been regarded as a Democrat and is close to Richard Holbrooke, who would have been secretary of state if John Kerry had been elected president in 2004. Under Kerry, Burns would have the job he has now and would be promoting the same policies. The current multilateral approach to Iran and Korea is reflected in his going along with the UN majority on human rights.

The UN human rights issue is a spectacular example of Burns’s influence. The UN Human Rights Commission, disgraced and discredited as the instrument of anti-American rogue nations, is being replaced by the new 45-nation Council. Contending the new creation embodies no real reform, Ambassador John Bolton cast the U.S. vote against it. Elliott Abrams and other senior officials at the National Security Council (NSC) argued that U.S. participation would look ridiculous after that negative vote.

On March 31, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist turned what had been a sequestered argument into a public debate. He issued a statement claiming the Council “makes only superficial changes,” contending it “will not prevent serial human rights abusers from gaining membership and cannot be relied upon to monitor human rights abuses throughout the world.”

Although this was a presidential decision, the call clearly was the secretary of the state’s. Even after Frist’s intervention and the majority leader’s intention to pass a Senate resolution on the subject before the Easter recess, the word circulating in State Department corridors was that Burns probably would persuade Rice to accept the Council. Burns can be very persuasive. Last week, he talked Sen. Norm Coleman, the first-term Republican from Minnesota who has been a stalwart in exposing UN corruption, into giving the Council a chance to work.

Burns was too isolated on this issue to prevail. But the State Department’s explanation for the decision not to participate, given in unattributed statements to reporters, made it appear that course was taken because the U.S. candidate for the Council might lose. “It’s a question more of tactics than principle,” a “senior U.S. official” was quoted as saying in a Reuters dispatch. The same official then went on to say “we’ll probably run for a seat later on.”

That sounds like Nick Burns or at least someone who reflects his opinion. It is an absolute rejection of Frist’s arguments. When the decision was announced Thursday, Frist declared: “The administration’s decision to oppose U.S. membership on the new Council will uphold America’s credibility on the issue of human rights and deny the Council unwarranted legitimacy.” That does not sound like the State Department’s rationale for the UN decision, and that underlines the question of who really runs the State Department.