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The Secret Mission of William J. Burns

By       Message James Wall     Permalink
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"He is smart and savvy, and he understands not just where policy should move, but how to navigate the distance between Washington and capitals around the world. I worked with Bill really closely from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I'm even more privileged to work with him now every single day. He has an innate knack for issues and relationships that's unsurpassed."

Israeli leaders are accustomed to working with U.S. presidents and their diplomats, who are expected to represent Israel's best interests. William J. Burns does not fit that mode. He has been described as a man with a "brilliant mind, unflappable demeanor and flair for self-effacement in a field where titanic egos often clash make him the fastest-rising career diplomat of his generation."

That accolade came from Time magazine writer David Van Biema, in a 1994 profile of Burns he wrote for the magazine's list of 50 people under-40 who will make a difference.

Burns is a U.S. diplomat who has distressed Benjamin Netanyahu by working, initially in secret, to hammer out an agreement that is designed to relieve the suffering of the Iranian people, and curb the further spread of nuclear weapons. He did not do this to distress Netanyahu, but to save him from further humiliating himself and his nation.

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One final word on William J. Burns from Shilbey Telhami, a Middle East expert with the University of Maryland:

"Bill Burns is probably and arguably the most respected and effective U.S. diplomat. Period. He is universally acclaimed in the region and within the department and by Republican and Democratic administrations."

Who is Shilbey Telhami, this academic and author, who sings the praises of William J. Burns?

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Here is an insight that should help us understand Telhami, who is the author of The World Through Arab Eyes. Before the Israeli-Palestine peace talks were resumed, Telhami wrote an essay on peace in the Middle East for Brookings He begins:

"As Secretary of State John Kerry continues to give much time and effort to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, with plans to convene negotiations in Washington this week, his critics have come from right and left: With all the pressing issues, why is Mr. Kerry focused on this one?

"Critics miss the point: No issue is more central for Arab perceptions of the United States -- even as Arabs are focused on their immediate local and national priorities.

"America has little influence in the events unfolding in the Arab world, from Egypt to Syria. More centrally, Arab perceptions of Washington are less dependent on short-term American policy and more a product of deep-seated Arab mistrust that ties everything the United States does to helping Israel and controlling oil."

Shilbey Telhami has Arab *street cred. When did we last hear someone with authentic Arab street cred sing the praises of an American Deputy Secretary of State? These are, indeed, remarkable times.

In the picture at top, U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the Diplomatic Corps holiday reception at the State Department in Washington on December 19, 2012.The picture appeared on an Atlantic blog. It was taken by Yuri Gripas for Reuters.

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*Street cred: Commanding a level of respect in an urban environment due to experience in or knowledge of issues affecting those environments. As in: He's been through it all. His street cred is undeniable.

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James Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Many sources have influenced Jim's writings over (more...)

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