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John Burns Reflects On The Transition In Iraq, and Transition In Great Britain

Thursday, August 19, 2010

HH: We go across the pond to London, and we talk with John Burns, who is the bureau chief for the New York Times there. John, always a pleasure, welcome back, good to talk with you.

JB: It’s always good to talk to you, Hugh.

HH: It’s an enormously important day, symbolically, in Iraq, where you have spent so much of the last decade, John Burns. What are your thoughts on seeing the “last combat troops” withdraw from the American mission in Iraq?

JB: Well, I suspect like tens of millions of people in the United States, a tremendous sense of relief that it is actually the beginning of the end, or it appears to be. But that also has to be counterbalanced, as many of your listeners will know, with some concern, some considerable concern, for what may lie ahead as the last American troops, and there are still 50,000 non-combat troops in Iraq, begin to withdraw over the next, what is it, eighteen months ahead of President Obama’s December, 2011 deadline, because as we know, there are already early signs of a breakdown of such law and order as there is in Baghdad. There is a new assertiveness by the suicide bombers, by the al Qaeda insurgents, and we just have to hope that that does not continue on its current trajectory.

HH: Now what do you make, you write about this frequently at the At War blog, John Burns, but what do you make of the paralysis? Is that simply business as usual in the formation of the Iraq government? Or are we at a genuine impasse that imperils the future of the country?

JB: No, I think it’s the latter. I think it really does imperil the future of the country. If you cast your mind back to the period after the invasion, the first twelve months after the invasion, which as you know, took place in March/April of 2003, the United States then drew up a list of things that were essential to reconciliation between the contending ethnic and sectarian groups in Iraq, things, obviously, agreement on the political system, agreement on the shares of the oil wealth of Iraq, and so on. And here we are now, six years later, with none of those fundamental issues, and they include such things as the future of the city of Irbil, a major oil producing area in North Iraq that is contested between primarily the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. None of these things have been settled. So wide is the disagreement between the rival blocs that five months after an election, they still haven’t been able to form a new government. And the pressure that an American military presence has been able, has applied on them in the past to put together the, is it three, as I recall, governments that have ruled Iraq, nominally ruled Iraq since 2004 when it recovered its sovereignty, that pressure, of course, diminishes by the day as more and more troops come out.

HH: So how do you see this playing out? Is there a government within the government that is running the country? Or is it more like anarchy?

JB: Do you know, we had an excellent piece by Anthony Shadid, one of my colleagues the other day, which talked about a sense of chagrin within the ruling elite in Iraq about how little they have accomplished, a recognition that they really have fiddled whilst Rome has burned, and how they may come to be seen in time as having wasted, squandered the one opportunity that Iraq has had in its modern history to become something of a democratic civil society. And there’s a good deal of talk, as Shadid reports, about the possibility of power reverting to a strong man, somebody we don’t, we’ve not yet heard of, a hawk colonel, perhaps, lurking somewhere in what we used to call the Green Zone. And we can only hope that if that in fact is the ultimate outcome, that he will not be the murderous tyrant that Saddam Hussein was.

HH: Now is American conducting itself, John Burns, in your opinion, in the right way by continuing forward with its drawdown? Or ought we to be slowing down in the way that the Iraq political class has slowed down?

JB: Do you know, I think I’d take my guidance on that from Ryan Crocker, who was the last American ambassador there in my time before I left at the end of 2007, probably the most single experienced American Middle East diplomat of the last thirty years. And he said, in the Shadid piece, that he wasn’t losing a lot of sleep over that issue, whether or not the United States should be leaving or not, because the fact is, the United States is leaving, that it became in effect inevitable that it would leave. Even during the latter year or two of President Bush’s time, a trillion dollars, best part of spent, four and a half thousand American troops’ lives, an issue that became unbearably contentious in American politics. This was not something that could go on. So they were going to leave, and probably would have had to leave even if John McCain had won the presidency in the fight with President Obama in 2008. That’s not to say that it’s ultimately, in the view of history, going to be seen as the right decision. It could be that all will be lost, that everything that America attempted to achieve in Iraq will be washed away by violence yet unseen. We have to hope that the Iraqi people have learned some kind of lesson from the mayhem and violence of recent years, but it’s a very uncertain thing.

HH: John Burns, at the beginning of this conversation, you mentioned the spate of recent terrible bombings, sixty dead here, and thirty dead there, the kind of violence that we’re used to seeing in Pakistan, but Pakistan muddles through. Is, are your friends and your colleagues still there still able to communicate in appreciable improvement in quality of life over two years ago when the surge had originally ended? Or is it same old, same old for them?

JB: No, no, I think it’s quite evident that there have been real gains in that respect. Let’s look at electricity, for example. On the one, it’s a case of, you know, it’s a glass half-full or half-empty. It’s true that for many Iraqis, there is no more power available now than there was when American troops invaded. But what’s less reported is the fact that American investment, and Iraqi investment, too, has in fact increased the total amount of power available. What happened was that under American guidance, the pattern of Saddam Hussein of sharing that power on a highly prejudicial basis, in other words, reserving the power for the favored few, changed. As a result, for example, the power elites in Baghdad, which used to have power most of the day, if not 24 hours a day, now are back to having it three, four, five hours a day. But there have been real improvements. I mean, there’s a tremendous explosion of commercial activity in Iraq. There are mobile phones, there’s a huge array of television and radio stations and newspapers. There are real gains. Whether these will survive or not, is of course a moot point. But the thing that most Iraqis care about, more than their mobile phones, more than their television stations, is of course security. That, there have been real gains. Violence is down to a level of, what, 10% of what it was at the worst in 2005-2006, still significant, still punctured by these spectacular attacks such as we saw the other day. But their concern is that the trajectory has once again turned around, and that what we’ve seen in the last two or three months, and particularly in the last couple of weeks, could simply be a harbinger of something much worse to come.

– – – –

HH: There’s a revolution under way in the United Kingdom, really quite a remarkable attempt to cut government spending. Can you give our listeners some sense of the scale of the problem, and how aggressively the new coalition government is going at it, and how the public views the slashing?

JB: Well, it is extremely radical. It puts into the shade the sort of cutbacks that Margaret Thatcher, who was, as you know, a kind of archetypal fiscal conservative, initiated when she came to power in 1979, thirty years ago, driven, of course, by the necessity, as David Cameron, the prime minister now in office for a hundred days, has deemed it of getting control of the enormous deficit that was built up under the thirteen years of Labour government, and particularly since the banking crisis and the need the Labour government felt to pump hundreds of millions, of billions of dollars into the economy. What Cameron and his partners in this coalition government are aiming to do, and we won’t know all of the details until late October, is to reduce the budgets of most government departments by 25-40% over the life of the new parliament, that’s to say five years. We’re talking about extremely radical cuts.

HH: That’s massive, yeah.

JB: It is massive. And it stands in, of course, stark contrast to the Obama administration’s approach, which has been to hold off any serious deficit cutting until the recovery in the United States is secure. Indeed, President Obama wrote to many of the United States, nations that are allies of the United States a few weeks ago to warn them against overzealous cutting. In fact, primary on his list was none other than David Cameron. What they have agreed to do is agree to disagree. And Cameron has accompanied this, and this is what is perhaps just as interesting, by an extremely radical political and social agenda to try and, if you will, lift the dead weight of the state off of British national life. If I tell you that more than half, or roughly half, of all economic activity in the United Kingdom is accounted for by the state, that the country has, if not the highest, very close to the highest taxes in Europe, it has an enormous public sector workforce of about six million people, about a million of them recruited under the Labour government. Cameron is trying to reverse that. He’s saying this isn’t just a matter of cuts to reduce the deficit to half of what it is by the end of a five year parliament. This is an attempt to revive free enterprise, and to revive, just as importantly, volunteerism in British society. And to understand that, you’d have to know how much weaker is the community reflex, the community instinct in this country than it is in the United States. British friends of mine who go to the United States are always struck by the enormous strength of the community in America. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist here, but there is a much larger instinct to rely on the state to solve problems here than there is in the United States. Cameron wants to reverse that. It’s an extremely ambitious project, and it’s far from certain he can pull it off. If he pulls it off, he’ll turn out to be one of the great prime ministers in British history. If he doesn’t pull it off, then he will have seen to have been foolhardy.

HH: Now I read one piece where George Osbourne, the chancellor of the exchequer, their sort of uber-budget guy, is actually kind of a rock star with the public. Is that correct? Are they applauding him? This was by Sarah…

JB: Yeah, he’s a very improbable person to have attracted that kind of attention, but the early signs are that somewhat, I think, to the surprise of this new coalition government is that they have struck a chord with the public, that the British public does want the dead weight of the state reduced. The British public are not fools, that they understand, projecting from the analogy of the way they handle their own household expenses, that you simply cannot go on forever spending, as Mr. Cameron often reminds the public here, one in every four pounds that the government spends, is borrowed money. They’re borrowing money from children yet unborn, from the grandchildren, you might say, of people now alive to pay for welfare payments. They have an enormous weight of welfare dependency in this country, on a scale that would shock Americans who are quite familiar to this. And so Cameron has, I think, has caught, and his chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, Osbourne, have in fact struck a rich vein in the British consciousness. But there is, it needs to be said, a very, very strong resistance to this, led by the Labour party defeated in the May election.

HH: We’ll come right back and continue that conversation with John Burns of the New York Times after the break.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, earlier this week, I spent a long time with Ken Follett, in an interview that will air next month, and tomorrow, I’m spending a couple of hours with Peter Hitchens. You know, they’re from different ends of the British political spectrum, obviously, Ken Follett supporting Ed Balls, and I don’t know, Peter Hitchens singing the eulogy for Great Britain. What do, do they represent a generalized attitude that decline is endemic and permanent, that’s the Hitchens view, or is there some optimism in the country that it can actually revive and excel?

JB: That’s a very complicated question. I mean, if we cast our mind back to Mrs. Thatcher, she of course declared resolutely that Britain did not have to accept its post-war decline, and she was remarkably effective over her eleven years in office in reversing that decline. Mr. Cameron has taken a somewhat different view. He’s said we have to be realistic about the role that we can play in the world. He says, for example, of the special relationship that Britain has with the United States, that one of its attractive features is that it allows Britain to punch about its weight. But he says we must be realistic as to who we are. I think that the British mood is somewhere caught in the middle of all this. I think people believe that Britain can do better. They think, we believe that it’s not necessary that Britain’s manufacturing industries decline and virtually disappear. This country, as you know, was the site of the start of the industrial revolution, and its manufacturing industries have declined enormously. But there are some signs of revival there, and I don’t think people in Britain are resolved to become a minor player on the world scene. I think they intend, as they have been over the last several hundred years, to be a principal player, and they believe that they have the capacity to do that.

HH: And who do you think is going to lead Labour, and it’s always important to have a good person across the aisle to push the other people to do well. Who’s going to lead Labour?

JB: Well, it looks like it’s going to be one of the brothers Miliband, either the former foreign secretary, foreign minister David Miliband, the older brother, or his younger brother, Ed. And they are, I won’t say probable parts, but they are, they represent significantly different factions within the Labour party. My own guess is that David Miliband, who belonged to the Blairite wing of the Labour party, that’s to say he was a close associate of Tony Blair, who is fondly remembered, I think, by many Americans. I think that he will win, but I think it needs to be said of all of them, all five of the present contenders, that they show a great deal of attachment to fighting the battles of the past, greatly to the advantage of Cameron and Osbourne. If the Labour party were to elect a new leader who really grappled with the real situation now facing the United Kingdom, I think he could face, Cameron would face a real challenge. But at the moment, the way that those contenders, including David Miliband, are performing, they’re performing, of course, for the votes of the Labour party, not of the public as a whole. And that draws them to the left. And my sense of it is that this country is, for the time being at least, and probably for a season or two, is exhausted with left wing politics, and looks for something much more pragmatic.

HH: And I mentioned I’m interviewing Peter Hitchens tomorrow about Rage Against God. Have you had a chance to read that yet?

JB: I have not, no.

HH: Okay, he talks about sort of the dreary underclass, this especially under 25 kind of youth lost in Great Britain. Does this alarm you, John Burns? Do you see it? Or is it something that is unseen by most people working in sort of the words’ world?

JB: No, it’s a reality. It’s a very, very distressing thing for anybody like myself who lived thirty or forty years outside the United Kingdom before the New York Times appointed me to this point as London bureau chief. I came, in effect, home to a country which I had guarded in my own mind, during my long travels in some of the farther and more blighted corners of the Earth. And it was a great shock to me to find, for example, the inner city hooliganism. We’re not talking here about people who are necessarily deprived as though it would be understood in the United States. We’re talking about ill-educated louts who lurk around city centers. My daughter came home last night from her job in the center of the city of Cambridge, which is fifty miles outside London, and described a group of these characters walking around in an upscale shopping plaza toward Midnight, and had come out of a bar with glasses in their hand, smashing windows, threatening passersby. And of course, the police made no response. It’s a very, it’s an absolutely frightening prospect. Cameron has programs to try and deal with this, but they’re only going to be felt in the long term. And in the medium term, I have to say, to me, personally, it’s a huge disappointment.

HH: You know, James Q. Wilson, former Harvard and UCLA sociologist, wrote The Broken Window theory. It sounds like Great Britain’s got to address this hooliganism as sort of a priority, otherwise, people just aren’t going to want to live there, John Burns.

JB: Well, there’s been the greatest flight of the middle class from Great Britain in the latter years of the Labour government’s rule in the country’s history, think about that, because of very large levels of immigration to the country, much of it from outside of the European Union, but some of it from the new members of the European Union. There’s been a net increase in the population. But the population is changing, and as I say, in the last couple of years, two or three years, more middle class, native-born Brits, have emigrated than ever before. And a lot of them, if you’d talk to them, will cite this kind of thing as a reason for that. Now Cameron is saying we don’t have to accept that. We can turn it around. But how long is the question, and a lot of people who are reaching retirement age say, you know, if it’s going to take fifteen or twenty years, that’s too long for me.

HH: John Burns, always a great pleasure to talk with you, thanks for spending some time and staying up late. I look forward to another chat soon, and giving us a little more depth of our understanding in the United Kingdom. Always a pleasure, thank you, John.

JB: Thank you, Hugh.

End of interview.

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