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Bill Burns, a ‘diplomat’s diplomat’ retires


President Obama meets with William “Bill” Burns, Deputy Secretary of State (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Bill Burns, Deputy Secretary at the State Department and a career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador in Russia and Jordan, is retiring in October after more than three decades as a diplomat.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry offered high praise for the man who has served in Democratic and Republican administrations, and who most recently helped lead back channel conversations with Iran.

“Since I met Bill in Moscow in 2005, I have admired his skill and precision. Since I took office, I have relied on him for candid advice and sensitive diplomatic missions – he has been a skilled adviser, consummate diplomat, and inspiration to generations of public servants,” Obama said in a statement.

Kerry said Burns is on “the short list of American diplomatic legends.”

“Whenever I am thinking about future generations of Foreign Service officers, I tell people we need to build a system that builds the next Bill Burns,” Kerry said.

Burns, who first joined the foreign service in 1982 and holds the rare distinction of being only the second career diplomat to rise to deputy secretary, had planned to retire after Obama’s first term, but Kerry urged him to stay on to continue his negotiation efforts with Iran and to help him transition.

After Kerry had been on the job a year, Burns again planned to step down, but Obama personally asked Burns over lunch to stay on until fall 2014.

Kerry, describing Burns as a “diplomat’s diplomat” said he’ll continue to seek Burns’s counsel after he’s retired.

Burns became U.S. ambassador to Jordan in 1998 under President Bill Clinton — a post he held when King Hussein died and his son King Abdullah took over. He then became  U.S. ambassador to Russia in 2005 under President George W. Bush. He transitioned from that post to Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs at the end of Bush’s administration, a position he held through most of Obama’s first term. He became Deputy Secretary of State in 2011.

The collective reaction from the foreign policy community was that Burns’ leaving is a huge loss for U.S. diplomacy. The New York Times waged some guesses as who may replace him, naming Antony Blinken, Deputy National Security Adviser, and Wendy R. Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, as top contenders.

Colby Itkowitz is the lead anchor of the Inspired Life blog. She previously covered the quirks of national politics and the federal government.

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