A Peter Burleigh will succeed Timothy Roemer at the end of June as the US Ambassador to India. Interim ambassador until he is confirmed by the US Senate, Burleigh will bring to India not just 33 years spent as a career diplomat but in postings this side of the globe: in west and south Asia.
Burleigh was posted in New Delhi from April to July 2009 as charge d’affair in the US Embassy New Delhi, the period Delhi was ambassador-less. David Mulford had returned home and Timothy Roemer was yet to arrive. This time too, he will be interim ambassador until he is confirmed. This has happened to him several times during his career: he was nearly US Ambassador in Baghdad; he was named as a stand-in for Bill Richardson as acting permanent representative in the United Nations to keep the seat warm for Richard Holbrooke who was being investigated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1997-1999).
This time, he is likely to stay on. Not the least because he, along with 358 former foreign service officers, endorsed Obama during the US presidential campaign and even took part in fund-raising for the president.
There are only a few US ambassadors who have come to India with high-level UN experience: Thomas Pickering, ambassador in 1992-93 came to India after representing US in the UN. There are none at all who have represented the US in India after the extensive South Asia experience Burleigh has had: Sri Lanka and Maldives and Nepal.
The warning for the unsuspecting is: Burleigh speaks fluent Hindi, Bengali, Nepali and Sinhalese.
In the UN, Burleigh was well liked because of his ability to laugh at himself. The New York Times reported that speaking at the 50th anniversary dinner of the United Nations Correspondents’ Association, he described how he had arrived at the function.
The invitation was addressed to his boss Bill Richardson. ‘’But I read on, and was truly heartened to read these words,’’ he said. ‘’ ‘In the event that Ambassador Richardson has moved on, as he inevitably will, to even greater things, we would be more than honored by the presence of the internationally acclaimed and respected diplomat Mr. Richard C. Holbrooke.’
’’If they can’t make it, please send that other guy. The one with the bow tie,’’’ said Burleigh.
Even in Delhi, Burleigh’s sartorial signature was his bow tie and he was happy to hand over to people, instructions on where to buy them. He has so many that he doesn’t know how many he has.
South Asia got into Burleigh’s blood when he served in the Peace Corps in the 1960 in Nepal. He returned as a Fulbright Fellow. He’s served two terms in Colombo.
In earlier postings, he was the State Department’s office director for Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. He was nominated by George Bush Sr as ambassador to Iraq, but Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 stymied this move.
Nevertheless, Burleigh was appointed as “ambassador” and as coordinator of the State’s Department’s counter-terrorism section. He helped evolve a policy to secure the release of US hostages from Lebanon and imposition of UN sanctions on Libya.
A pointer to his priorities as a diplomat and his working style is Burleigh’s admission that his “most difficult job” was as deputy assistant secretary (personnel) where he had to “balance advancement of US interests in an era of budget uncertainties, downsizing and controversy over diversity issues in the State Department.”
In a recent letter to the editor to an American newspaper, Burleigh, however, indicated that he was as hardnosed a diplomat as any other. Remarking on the widespread debate in the US that the air campaign in Afghanistan should be halted during Ramzan, Burleigh’s advice was: don’t do it.
“There was never a Ramadan lull during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, and there has never been such a pause in the Afghan people’s last two centuries of off-and on-again conflicts, both with would-be colonial rulers as well as among themselves.”
“There should be no quarter given to Osama bin Laden and his network of supporters, even to make a gesture to Muslims worldwide. If we succumb to pressure to have a pause for Ramadan, it will be doubly hard to restart the air campaign,” he wrote.