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A Conversation With The New York Times’ John Burns

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Tomorrow I will air a long interview I conducted Friday with the New York Times’ John Burns, who was in Baghdad. It will take up most of the first two hours of the program.

I first interviewed Burns in February, and this past Friday we covered many of the same subjects as we did almost six months ago, including conditions in Baghdad and the road ahead. We also cover the success to date of the surge and the political paralysis of the government, and whether a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops would deepen or dissolve that paralysis.

I also ask Burns about General Petraeus, and whether the anti-war extreme (led by Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan) is justified in smearing the general’s reputation in advance of the September assessment:

HH: Now when General Petraeus returns in September to make his report, do you expect Petraeus to be completely candid with the American people about the good news and the bad news in Iraq?

JB: I think there’s no doubt that he’ll be candid. As a matter of fact, every time I’ve spoken to him about it, he talks about the need to be forthright, and as he puts it, he said we’re not going to be putting lipstick on a pig. I think that’s a fairly, that’s military jargon which most Americans will understand. David Petraeus is a man who’s had a remarkably distinguished military career, and he is very clear that he thinks his responsibilities lie not to the White House alone, but to the White House and the Congress conjointly, and through them to the American people. I don’t think that this is just a profession, a claim. I think he really intends that, and he’s been very careful not to make commitments at the moment as to what he’s going to say, though we may guess it. And I think he’s going to say that the surge is having its effects, it hasn’t turned the tide of the war, there’s been too little time for it, and I think he and Ambassador Crocker, who will be his partner in that September report, are going to say one thing very clearly, and that is a quick, early withdrawal of American troops of the kind that is being argued by Nancy Pelosi, for example, would very likely lead to catastrophic levels of violence here. And in that, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be saying something which is pretty broadly shared by people who live and work here, I have to say. The removal of American troops would very likely, we believe from all indications, lead to much higher, and indeed potentially cataclysmic levels of violence, beyond anything we’ve seen to date.

HH: Mr. Burns, some anti-war critics have begun to attack General Petraeus as being not credible and not trustworthy for a variety of reasons, one he gave me an interview, he’s given other people interviews that they consider to be partisan, whatever. Do you believe he’ll be as trustworthy as anyone else speaking on the war?

JB: I do. I can only speak for my own personal experience, and there definitely was in the, in the Vietnam war, there was a failure of senior generals and the joint chiefs of staff to speak frankly about the Vietnam war early enough. There has definitely been some Pollyannaish character to the reporting of some of the generals here over the past three or four years, although in my own view, knowing virtually all of those generals, I don’t think that that was out of fealty to the White House or Mr. Rumsfeld. It’s a difficult and complex question which we really don’t have time to discuss here. But to speak of General Petraeus in particular, General Petraeus is 54 years old. Let’s look at this just simply as a matter of career, beyond the matter of principle on which I think we could also say we could expect him to make a forthright report. At 54, General Petraeus is a young four star general, who could expect to have as much as ten more years in the military. And he has every reason to give a forthright and frank report on this. And he says, and he says this insistently, that he will give a forthright, straightforward report, and if the people in Washington don’t like it, then they can find somebody else who will give his forthright, straightforward report. He is not without options on a personal basis, General Petraeus, and I think he, from everything I’ve learned from him, sees both a professional, in the first place, and personal imperative to state the truth as he sees it about this war.

The transcript of the interview will be posted here after it airs, and the audio will be available here.


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