The US is set to send its top diplomat A Peter Burleigh to “temporarily” fill in for David Mulford as its ambassador to India. It has been over a month since Mulford returned to Washington after getting a one-month extension from US President Barack Obama.
Despite the presence of Steven J White, regarded by many as a competent deputy chief of mission of the US embassy, a temporary appointment is an indication that the US is against leaving such an important post vacant for too long. The longest duration the post remained vacant was for more than a year after the tenure of former ambassador Thomas R Pickering ended in March 1993, and his successor, Frank G Wisner, took over in July 1994.
Burleigh’s appointment also sheds light on the changing nature of US-India ties today. First, it is a recognition of India’s importance and the role it plays in US plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, Burleigh’s appointment, albeit “interim”, has political backing at the highest level. 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.
However, along with former US ambassadors to the UN, Bill Richardson and the current US special representative to Afghanistan-Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, Burleigh is among those diplomats who had also served in the Clinton administration.
In 1997, Burleigh was extracted from Sri Lanka, where he was an ambassador since 1995. He was then sent to the UN to replace Richardson as acting permanent representative and keep the seat warm for Holbrooke, whose confirmation was held up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He served at the UN between August 1997 and December 1999.
Now, his current posting to India has a similarity to his UN posting a decade ago since Burleigh is apparently being sent to Delhi on a “stopgap” arrangement.
Known for his behind-the-scenes diplomacy and a penchant to wear colourful bow ties and a habit of purchasing more ties when under stress, Burleigh has served in US embassies in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.
Burleigh is also a polyglot — he learnt Sinhalese while serving in Colombo as a young diplomat in the late 1960s, picked up Nepali as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, and he also knows Hindi and Bengali.
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 spoilt this move.
Nevertheless, Burleigh was appointed as “ambassador” and as coordinator of the State’s Department’s counter-terrorism section. He helped evolving 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.”
Despite his efficiency as a diplomat, Burleigh’s career record shows that long-term high-profile posting have been out of his grasp. After he made way for Holbrooke at the UN, the Senate shot down his confirmation as ambassador to the Philippines. He then went on to teach at the University of Miami.
It remains to be seen whether Burleigh’s third appointment to a high-level post — this time as “interim” ambassador to India — will turn out to be a charm and transform into a permanent posting.