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White House and State Department Square Off Over Top Diplomatic Post

The race to succeed the nation’s No. 2 diplomat is pitting a senior White House official with close ties to the president but little experience at the State Department against a veteran Foggy Bottom hand respected within the department but unpopular on Capitol Hill. According to multiple State Department sources, the top contenders to replace ...

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The race to succeed the nation’s No. 2 diplomat is pitting a senior White House official with close ties to the president but little experience at the State Department against a veteran Foggy Bottom hand respected within the department but unpopular on Capitol Hill.

According to multiple State Department sources, the top contenders to replace Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns are Tony Blinken, the president’s deputy national security adviser, and Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. To a lesser extent, sources have also floated the possible appointment of Tom Shannon, the State Department’s counselor and a longtime foreign service officer.

Burns is scheduled to step down later this month, but a White House spokesperson declined to offer the name of his replacement. "No personnel announcements to make," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.

The exit of Burns, who was instrumental in leading secret back channel talks with Iran on its nuclear program, will leave a significant void if the United States extends negotiations on restraining Tehran’s nuclear capabilities beyond the current Nov. 24 deadline. Burns’s partner in those early talks, former deputy assistant to the president Jake Sullivan, announced his departure from the White House in August, although he agreed to stay on as a senior advisor on the Iran nuclear issue. Burns will also stay on for a limited number of weeks in November to wrap up his work on the talks. Sherman currently leads the negotiations, so her elevation could require the White House to tap someone new to lead the day-to-day talks, taking place in Vienna. 

Sherman, the fourth ranking official at the State Department, maintains respect within the building, but could have problems making it through the confirmation process. In her current post running the Iran talks, Sherman has repeatedly drawn fire from a bipartisan cavalry of hawkish, pro-Israel lawmakers who view the delicate diplomatic discussions as a fool’s errand.

"There’s a feeling that we already confirmed her once, and doing so again would not be easy," said one State Department official. 

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the negotiations in July, for instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called Sherman’s painstaking diplomatic work a "disaster."

"It’s not just an embarrassing diplomatic failure. This is a dangerous national security failure, in my opinion," he said.

Key Democrats such as Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have also been highly critical of the administration’s negotiations.

But many of Sherman’s current and former colleagues bristled at the idea that her efforts to neuter Iran’s nuclear program, one of the thorniest issues in the Middle East, would disqualify her for Burns’s position.

"It’s absurd that doing her job somehow constitutes a blemish, but that’s Congress," said a former State Department official.

"She takes her marching orders from the president and she’s executed those orders with tremendous aplomb," added Michael Breen, the executive director of the left-leaning Truman National Security Project. "I’d like to see how this turns out before we start assigning blame."

Blinken, the most likely pick for the nomination, wields immense power within the White House, especially on Syria policy. With close ties to the Clintons and Vice President Joe Biden, Blinken is widely viewed as a collegial and non-ideological consensus-builder in the Oval Office.

However, closeness to the White House can also breed suspicion from State Department rank-and-file, who’ve become alienated by the National Security Council’s increasing monopolization of U.S. foreign policy and want to see a foreign service officer appointed to the position.

"At the top of the State Department — where you have to understand how these programs and operations lead to coherent policy — wouldn’t you want someone with experience running these programs before?" said Robert Silverman, president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents foreign service officers. "Should the surgeon general be a doctor? Wouldn’t that be the best background?"

During the George W. Bush administration, Blinken worked as a senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, focusing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to that, he served in the Clinton administration as senior director of Europe at the National Security Council. In 1993, Blinken served as special assistant to the assistant secretary of state for European affairs.

Swapping Blinken for Burns, only the second career diplomat to rise to the position of deputy secretary, could disappoint diplomats hoping for a career foreign service officer to fill the role.

At the same time, Sherman herself is not a career foreign service officer — so her appointment could disappoint a large chunk of diplomats as well, but less so because her promotion would allow for the appointment of Tom Shannon to her job as undersecretary of state for political affairs.

"Right now it’s particularly important for this administration to show support for career people at the very top of their agencies," said Silverman. "There’s been a penetration of political appointees both in number and reach that’s unprecedented."

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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