WASHINGTON -- 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.
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