Undersecretary of State Decides to Step Down

With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listening, R. Nicholas Burns announces his resignation. He is leaving for personal reasons, officials said.
With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listening, R. Nicholas Burns announces his resignation. He is leaving for personal reasons, officials said. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

R. Nicholas Burns, one of the most high-profile diplomats at the State Department, is resigning and will be replaced by U.S. Ambassador to Moscow William J. Burns, the State Department said yesterday.

As undersecretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns dealt with many of the most controversial issues facing the Bush administration, including negotiations with India on its nuclear weapons program and the future of Kosovo. He is the top negotiator on Iran, spearheading the effort to break the deadlock on a U.N. resolution imposing new sanctions on Iran.

Nicholas Burns was so close to Rice that conservatives frequently said he was responsible for the pragmatic aspects of her diplomacy. "His influence on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is so surprising that critics use the word Svengali," columnist Robert D. Novak wrote in April 2006.

In an interview yesterday, Nicholas Burns said the United States is "on the verge of a strategic partnership" with India that could help stabilize South Asia. On Iran, he said Washington must contain Tehran and keep negotiations on the table. Both pivotal initiatives, however, have been long stalled.

Nicholas Burns, 51, is the latest of almost 20 top diplomats to depart over the past year. He is leaving for personal reasons and has not committed to another job, U.S. officials said.

"This is a very bittersweet time for us, . . ." Rice told reporters of Burns's departure. "He has decided that it's the right moment to go back to family concerns."

A foreign service officer since 1983, Nicholas Burns has served as ambassador to Greece and NATO, and as State Department spokesman. He has held top jobs under Republican and Democratic administrations. He worked on Russian affairs at the National Security Council under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton from 1990 to 1995. Although one of Rice's closest advisers, he was also spokesman for secretaries of state Madeleine K. Albright and Warren M. Christopher.

Nicholas Burns has cast an optimistic gloss on U.S. diplomacy. On a 2006 trip to Moscow, he told reporters that Rice's meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had gone smoothly, unaware that reporters had overheard a tense lunch conversation.

Nicholas Burns's official biography notes that he is a member of the "Red Sox nation." He will leave State in March but will stay on as a special envoy on India.

William Burns, his successor, is a former assistant secretary of state for the Near East and ambassador to Jordan. In 2002, he co-authored an internal memo with Ryan C. Crocker, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, titled "The Perfect Storm." It bluntly predicted that toppling Saddam Hussein could unleash sectarian and ethnic tensions, that the Sunni minority would not easily relinquish power, and that neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to influence events.

His replacement in Moscow is not expected to be announced immediately.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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