State Department shuffle

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is leaving his post as Hillary Clinton's second-in-command to become the dean of the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, Obama administration officials announced Wednesday.

Veteran U.S. diplomat and current Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns will be nominated to succeed Steinberg as Deputy Secretary of State, officials said.

Burns—a former U.S envoy to Russia and Jordan who speaks Russian, Arabic, and French—is one of the State Department's most highly respected and well-liked diplomats. For the past four years, he has led U.S. diplomatic efforts in concert with the members of the so-called P5+1 group that's been seeking to curtail Iran's nuclear program. (P5+1 stands for the "permanent five" members of the UN Security Council—the United States, the UK, France, Russia and China—plus Germany.) Burns has also been the State Department's key liaison in managing U.S. strategic relationships with countries such as India.

As deputy secretary of state, Burns would represent the State Department and Secretary Clinton at the key deputies committee meetings at the White House—the inter-agency meetings held several times a week at the National Security Council where the U.S. government weighs and executes its most crucial policy decisions.

State Department officials said the fact Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promoted the well-liked career diplomat Burns to the key deputy spot "is a huge crowd-pleasing move," as one official put it. "Burns has managed to be both loved and respected for his savvy, intelligence, etc. Couldn't have happened to a better guy."

With Burns moving up the State hierarchy, the big speculative question within the diplomatic community is who will succeed Burns. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs—or "P," as it's known in State bureaucrat-ese -- is the top professional diplomatic post in the U.S. government. 

State Department officials note that the "P" slot normally is reserved for career Foreign Service officer or diplomats, as opposed to political appointees. A career diplomat with several challenging senior diplomatic assignments to his or her credit is viewed as a proven commodity; familiarity with the management protocols in the State Department diplomatic corps and employees is also viewed as a key credential. Probably a good third of the job is handling international diplomacy regarding Iran. Some Clinton associates say she would also like to appoint a woman for the job.

Knowledgeable officials say that top contenders include recently departed U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson--who had been slated to be U.S. Ambassador to Egypt--and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman, a career foreign service officer who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon. (Both Burns and Feltman accompanied Clinton on a trip to London earlier this week for an international conference on Libya, along with Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon.)

Other mentioned contenders are Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow, who has previously served as U.S. ambassador to Russia, South Korea and to NATO, and who is slated to become NATO Deputy Secretary-General in 2012; as well as Victoria "Toria" Nuland -- also a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and career foreign service officer who currently serves as U.S. Special Envoy for conventional forces in Europe, and who served previously as Principal Deputy National Security Advisor to then Vice President Dick Cheney.

Also mentioned: U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon, although his prior tenure in senior Latin American posts might render him something of a dark horse, since the job involves so many negotiations among the P5+1 group on Iran. Clinton is also fond of Dan Fried, a career foreign service officer and former Bush-era Assistant Secretary of State for Europe who has more recently been tasked during the Obama administration with the thankless job of negotiating where to place former Guantanamo Bay detainees.

If Clinton selects Patterson to succeed Burns, the Obama administration would have to scramble to identify a new nominee to be ambassador to Egypt--one of the most important diplomatic assignments for the administration at the moment. And one official said Patterson had preferred to take a challenging diplomatic assignment in the field and said the Egypt post is very important. That would be one among several prominent shifts that diplomatic officials are anticipating in the months ahead. For instance, the NSC's Dan Shapiro was recently nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Israel, making way for several department Middle East hands to move up.

Steinberg, a China expert, is a former Clinton White House Deputy National Security Advisor, former head of the Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Studies, and former public policy professor and dean at the University of Texas in Austin. When Clinton came to Foggy Bottom, she created a second Deputy Secretary of State position to try to boost budget and staffing for U.S. diplomacy and development operations. That second deputy post was first held by Jack Lew, who has since been named director of the Office of Management and Budget -- his second helm of the OMB post; it's now filled by Thomas Nides.

(Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William "Bill" J. Burns will be nominated to become Deputy Secretary of State, Obama administration officials said Wednesday: State Department)