Burns coup at State? Right.

The conservative, Moonie-owned Washington Times weekend magazine, Insight, has a bizarre story alleging that Condoleeza Rice is not really in charge of the State Department and that Nicholas Burns, the #3 at State, has usurped her role on Middle East policy:

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, a State Department Arabist and a critic of Israel, has emerged as the leading foreign policy official in the Bush administration.

Mr. Burns has by default become the most powerful figure in the State Department and responsible for day-to-day management of U.S. foreign policy. Officials said Mr. Burns was authorized by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in late 2005 to become the leading foreign policy administrator amid a sharp decline in support for President Bush.

"Nick Burns has everything Condi doesn't have—a firm sense of purpose, a political fighter and an Arab expert," an official said. "What Burns doesn't share with Condi is the president's agenda."

Officials said Ms. Rice has been preoccupied with recruiting domestic support for the Bush administration. They said she has spent much of her time at the White House advising the president and often serving as a buffer to senior members of the administration.

As a result, Mr. Burns, formally No. 3 in the State Department, has become the de facto director of U.S. foreign policy. Officials said his access to the president has sharply increased over the last four months and Mr. Burns has become a leading adviser to Mr. Bush on Europe and the Middle East.
Aside from the ominous tones about Burns being an "Arabist" (ooooh!) and a "critic of Israel" (boooo!) I was most amused by this:

"Condi has very little interest in the Middle East and regards her meetings with some leaders in the area with disdain," an official said. "In contrast, Burns relishes his contacts with Arab leaders."

Mr. Burns has also encouraged Mr. Bush to increase pressure on Israel in an effort to win Arab support for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Officials said the undersecretary has also helped reduce the president's ardor to enact regime change in Iran and Syria.

The ascent of Mr. Burns has come at the expense of the National Security Council, officials said. They said Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams has lost virtually all of his influence over U.S. policy. Mr. Abrams, who has been linked to the Bush family, has been an ardent supporter of Middle East democracy and Israel. He has urged an aggressive U.S. policy against Iran.

"The major theme that runs through briefings given by Burns is that virtually every conflict in the Middle East is either caused or exacerbated by the Arab-Israeli conflict," the official said. "Not surprisingly, the message to the president is that U.S. support for Israel causes problems for the administration."
Sounds like someone close to Abrams (perhaps one of the vilest of all Bush appointees) is trying to stir trouble for Burns.
According to the gossip here in Cairo, Rice's problem is not with the leaders she meets, but rather the "civil society" figures she tries to meet. Among the crowd chosen during her last visit was someone who should not have been there and spent the Secretary's valuable time expressing general platitudes and trying to appeal to Rice's born-again Christian side. The other guests were not amused. That being said, the meeting with Mubarak was not meant to be that easy-going either...
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.