Foreign Policy Digital

Trump’s Iran Policy Is ‘Untethered to History’

Veteran diplomat William Burns on the U.S. president, Putin, Iraq, and the “militarization” of American diplomacy.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once referred to diplomacy as the “patient accumulation of partial successes.“ For over 30 years, this was the life of William Burns, a widely revered career diplomat. Burns served on the front lines of U.S. diplomacy through five presidential administrations. From his perch at the State Department he played a role in some of America’s greatest diplomatic triumphs and also some of its biggest follies, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the run-up to which Burns co-authored a memo presciently raising fears of a “Perfect Storm.”

In his new diplomatic memoir, The Back Channel, Burns expresses fears that the United States still has not learned the lessons of Iraq and what he calls the “militarization of diplomacy.” He reflects on a career that included stints as the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and to Russia, as the top State Department Middle East envoy during and after the 9/11 attacks, as a lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, and as deputy secretary of state—he was only the second career diplomat to occupy that senior a post.

Burns sat down with Foreign Policy recently for an extended interview. He talked about his bizarre run-ins with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the lead-up to the Iraq War, U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of diplomacy, and the dangerous atrophy of America’s diplomatic corps.

The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Your book argues for the urgent need to “renew diplomacy.” Who is your target audience for this plea?

William Burns: The hope, as I try to emphasize in the book, is to reach beyond the Washington policy community that’s interested in these issues. But I’m trying to reach a wider audience and bring diplomacy to life for other readers, because diplomacy does oftentimes operate in the back channels—out of sight and out of mind. I try to do that through my own experiences, what I got right and what I got wrong. But I also think that this is a critical moment for all of us as Americans to understand that diplomacy is more

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