In The Back Channel (Random House, Mar.), Burns, veteran of over four decades in the State Department, recounts his experiences and argues for the importance of diplomacy.
What were your goals for the book?
One of the main purposes of this book was to try to illuminate the back channels of diplomacy, because oftentimes diplomacy operates out of sight and out of mind, and for that reason its significance and value are not always understood as clearly as I think they should be. I was also trying to make it not a dry recitation of events, but to enliven it with personalities like Putin or Khaddafi; if you can’t get color out of them, you need to find a different profession.
Aside from declassified documents, what other tools did you use to help recall events?
I relied on schedules, calendars, and my own recollections, but I really tried to ground it as much as I possibly could in documents. Sometimes you can see things through the mist of decades and imagine them in ways that aren’t really rooted in reality. There’s always a tendency to make yourself look better than you deserve. So I tried to be honest and grounded in what I was thinking and reporting and advising at the time.
If you could have done one thing differently in your career, what would it have been?
During the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2003, I led the Middle East bureau in the State Department for Colin Powell. We tried hard to be honest about the very profound reservations we had about the course that we were on, but we were outmaneuvered by people in that administration who were quite determined to move down that path. I regret that I was not more candid or more effective in making that case, because I think that was one of the great unforced errors in American foreign policy.
This is, unsurprisingly, a fairly serious work, but you include some lighter moments from your Foreign Service career. What are some that you remember?
One misadventure that I write about was in the fairly early stages of the secret negotiations with the Iranians, when my colleague and friend Jake Sullivan and I were talking to the two senior Iranian negotiators in a hotel room at the Waldorf in New York. As we were waiting for them just outside the door of the hotel room in the hallway, we noticed that right across from the room’s door was a photograph of the Shah during his heyday visiting the Waldorf. We thought the Iranians would assume it was purposeful on our part, and so we desperately tried to take it off the wall, but it was firmly attached. We gave up and just opted for shooing them into the room as quickly as we could. As far as I could tell, they never noticed, but that was one of those almost Keystone-cop moments.