The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal
“It’s clear from Burns that the execution of foreign policy requires a deep understanding of geopolitical history, a grasp of complex policies, a long strategic view, and almost endless patience and restraint.”
Diplomat Williams Burns’ memoir, The Back Channel, is much like the author himself: thorough, measured, articulate, and, above all, diplomatic. Burns began his career in the foreign service during President Reagan’s administration and retired as deputy secretary of state during President Obama’s second term. He picked as his areas of specialty the world’s trickiest locales: the Middle East and Russia.
Burns cut his teeth at the embassies in Jordan and Russia. His first ambassadorship took him back to Jordan, where he witnessed the last months of King Hussein’s life and the shifting of power from the king’s brother to his son, Prince Abdullah. Back in Washington, he worked as assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs under Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Burns clearly had the right stuff to advance quickly in the State Department. Interested in complex issues and patient with the process, he had an intellect and temperament that endeared him to bosses from Colin Powell to President Obama, who personally asked him to postpone retirement.
His book offers a policy-heavy, comprehensive look at the toughest challenges and biggest crises during his career, including the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the attack on Benghazi, the Iran nuclear deal, and Russia’s pivot to become a power player on the world stage.
Burns describes the momentum for the Iraq War as a runaway train. Led by Vice President Cheney, the core group at the top had made up their minds, and nothing would dissuade them—certainly not strongly worded memos, which was the Burns’ primary contribution. Burns wishes his efforts to steer the administration away from the war option had been stronger, calling this his biggest regret.
A career triumph was the Iran nuclear deal, which actually did involve a back channel to the Iranians through a contact in Oman. Taking place in secret under the direction of President Obama, the deal involved intense, person-to-person negotiations over many months. It reads like a case study in a diplomacy textbook.
The most interesting anecdotes deal with Vladimir Putin, with whom Burns had regular occasion to meet during his time in Russia and in his capacity at the State Department. Although Putin’s disdain for Hillary Clinton is now well known, Burns tells a story about a happier time at Putin’s dacha with Clinton and himself.
During a somewhat contentious meeting, Clinton asked Putin about his efforts to protect Siberian tigers. The question animated the usually steely Putin, who walked them down to his office to show them maps of his conservation work with tigers and polar bears. He even invited Clinton and her husband on his next trip.
After graciously promising to mention the invitation to her husband, Clinton offered Burns a dry assessment afterward in the car. “She smiled and said that neither she nor the former president would be spending their summer vacation with Putin near the Arctic Circle.”
Burns’ front row seat at so many pivotal events in American foreign policy has an almost Forrest Gump quality. He was in the situation room when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, and he flew from Benghazi back to Washington with the remains of Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Unfortunately, his portrayal of events often lacks compelling details. In the case of the bin Laden mission, he fails to describe his colleagues’ mood or reactions as they watched the drama unfold in the Situation Room. We learn only that Admiral Bill McCraven announced over the line, “E-KIA,” enemy killed in action. Even in retirement, Burns apparently keeps his diplomatic cover, remaining the soul of discretion.
Of diplomacy, Burns writes, “It is among the oldest of professions but also the most misunderstood, and the most unsatisfying to describe.” In some ways, the book bears out the unsatisfying part. However, it succeeds in conveying the art and science of statecraft in very real terms. The book is filled with excerpts from real memos, briefs, and emails Burns wrote to his superiors.
By the time Burns gets to President Trump, his opinions about the current president are foregone conclusions. Diplomacy is anathema to Trump. His administration lacks the sense of history, the good judgment, the strategy, or the patience to do the job.
It’s clear from Burns that the execution of foreign policy requires a deep understanding of geopolitical history, a grasp of complex policies, a long strategic view, and almost endless patience and restraint. American diplomacy has taken hits from major missteps like the Iraq War and President Trump’s gutting of the State Department. Whether an increasingly impatient America, fueled by real-time reporting and the 24-hour news cycle, can preserve our rich diplomatic tradition remains to be seen.