The world’s greatest living foreign correspondent, John Fisher Burns, now retired from the New York Times, joined me this morning:
HH: Joined now by the world’s greatest living foreign correspondent, John Fisher Burns, now retired from the New York Times, where he is a Pulitzer Prize winner twice. He was the foreign bureau editor in many, many places, including Iraq for many years, in Afghanistan, and China, and many other places. And I’m quite sure, John, that this morning, you’ve been in France so often, I don’t know if you’ve been to Nice often, but your heart must be heavy.
JB: It is indeed. I know Nice very well from my frequent trips to the Monaco Grand Prix, which occurs just down the coast from there. It’s appalling, absolutely appalling. Of course, in terms of total numbers of dead, it doesn’t, it isn’t to compare with what happened on 9/11, but there’s much else that is similar to 9/11 in the mundanity of this. What happened to those 80 or 90 people who died on the Promenade des Anglais, we all know could happen to any one of us.
HH: Now John, last night, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on CNN with Anderson Cooper. I want to play a little bit of what she had to say, and then talk about the perplexity with which all Western leaders, not just the Secretary, but all Western leaders are dealing with this, cut number 13:
HRC: Well, I think it’s clear we are at war with these terrorists groups and what they represent. It’s a different kind of war, and we need to be smart about how we wage it and win it. So I think we have to look at all possible approaches to doing just that.
AC: When you say we’re at war, I mean, are we, who are we at war with? Are we at war against, I mean, radical jihadists, radical Islam? Who are we at war against?
HRC: We’re at war against radical jihadists who use Islam to recruit and radicalize others in order to pursue their evil agenda. It’s not so important what we call these people as to what we do about them.
HH: So John Fisher Burns, this seems to be the default position of people afraid of offending Islam, which is deeply offended itself by those who kill in its name. You know, the Grand Mufti denounced this today. What is it with Western leaders that they can’t bear to say a large portion of Islam has been hijacked by Salafist radicals?
JB: Well, of course, if you’re in a position of authority in a country, and this can speak of most Western countries now that has a large domestic Muslim population, it’s understandable that tread carefully on this issue, because while it’s true that the Muslim communities in many of these countries have probably not been sufficiently active and aggressive in trying to deal with radicalism in their own ranks, it’s also true that the majority of Muslims, to speak of the country which I know best now in the United Kingdom, but I have no doubt it’s also true elsewhere across the Western world, including the United States, will condemn attacks of this kind, the majority of Muslims, the vast majority, with the same kind of intensity that the rest of us would.
HH: That’s absolutely true. It will happen today, and it happens everywhere. I just find it amazing that our Western leaders are halting in saying the problem is ISIS, the caliphate is in Raqqa with branches in Sirte, Libya, and Mosul and other places, and we have to go and kill them. Isn’t that, well, let me put it in the form of a question. Do you think they, this will continue until the caliphate is destroyed?
JB: Well, I’m not sure that destroying the caliphate is an achievable objective, at least in any acceptable time frame. Remember, we used to have the objective of destroying al Qaeda, and what we’ve seen is an endless metastasis of Islamic extremism. So the underlying causes of this are going to be very difficult to eradicate. But I do think that the use of the word war by Hillary Clinton, by Sarkozy, President, former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy last night, and I believe, though I have to check this, also by Francois Hollande, the present president of France, is quite significant, because it does suggest that there’s a general recognition now that we’re going to have to take much more radical measures to confront the threat of Islamic extremism at home and abroad. And it was notable that Francois Hollande said last night that he was, there were two measures he mentioned immediately, within a couple of hours of the attack in Nice. He said France would strengthen its borders, strengthen its borders against infiltration, one assumed, by Islamic extremists. And it would also strengthen its efforts in Syria and Iraq. So I think we’re going to see all Western governments getting a lot tougher. Whatever they say about this not having anything to do with the Muslim faith, which of course, you know, is something you would expect them to say, I think there’s going to be a lot tougher action across the board, and as a Brit, struggling as so many of us are dealing with the aftermath of Brexit, the first thought that comes to my mind is that we’re going to see in Continental Europe much more attention to the integrity of borders, which brings Continental Europe inevitably closer to the position that caused our Brexit vote in the first place, which was that millions of people in this country wanted our borders managed, controlled, again. They don’t want to eliminate immigration. They want it controlled. Now for reasons similar, and in some cases, dissimilar, you’re seeing countries across Europe, including France and Germany, saying we have to get control of our borders.
HH: I’ve got to say, I’m very happy that the person leading Great Britain right now is Theresa May, because she has deep experience from the Home Office in the domestic threat. She will, I think, personally superintend MI6, your foreign intelligence service. Is that your understanding as well, John Fisher Burns?
JB: Formally, it will be overseen by Boris Johnson, the new Foreign Secretary. But in effect, the real control over our security agencies always rests with the Prime Minister.
HH: And what is your assessment of her?
JB: Well, she’s been an impressive Home Secretary. Some people say she’s the best Home Secretary, a job she held for six years, since the Second World War. She’s tough, but she’s also, and this has been something of a surprise, I think, to many of us, she’s proving to be rather radical, not least in the way that she’s reconstructed the government in what now was described in a word commonly used yesterday as the new cabinet was unveiled, a brutal, a brutal reordering of the upper levels of government, sacking eight, nine, ten ministers, including several very senior ministers. So I think we’re going to have to get used to the fact that we’ve got a very different and very, very tough prime minister, which in all the circumstances, I mean, what happened in Nice last night, and the continuing and rising threat of Islamic extremism, and the problems that the UK is going to have in re-managing its international position as a result of Brexit, is going to be very welcome. I think we’ve got a very different kind of government, and a very different kind of prime minister.
HH: And I welcome it. I think part of this turn is going to be towards transparency regarding the nature of the threat, the extent of the threat, and candor as to its source. And again, I am very careful not to lump all of Islam into an attack on Islam. I’ll talk about Newt Gingrich’s rather wild statement last night on Fox News that was unconstitutional as it was surprisingly absurd. Nevertheless…from Newt, who normally is kind of smart, but I nevertheless come back to transparency and what happened. I believe you were in Iraq during the surge, were you not, John Fisher Burns?
JB: I was. I was.
HH: By the end of that, order had been restored in Anbar, such that one of my former producers was a Marine in Ramadi in 2011 who said you could jog without body armor there. It is possible to win this conflict, but the West has to do it, and they have to find their correct Arab allies, and their correct allies throughout the Islamic world. Do you think that recognition is dawning again? Do you believe that?
JB: I think there are a whole range of measures, domestic and external. I’m rather more interested myself and concerned about domestic measures, as I think many people in France are, by the way. A Parliamentary commission in France last week found what it described as failures, serious failures, in intelligence and security in what they called a global manner. It didn’t mean worldwide, it meant across the peace. And they’re suggesting that French intelligence and security be reorganized along the American model with having a single director of national intelligence, for example, because with 230 people killed in what is it, barely 18 months in France, it’s pretty evident that their intelligence, I don’t want to be glib or smug about this, but it’s happened in France three times. We haven’t seen the same pattern, yet, thank God, in Germany, in Italy or in the United Kingdom. And to speak of the United Kingdom, which I do know quite well, the security services here, they’re not faultless, but they’ve been extremely successful in anticipating, uncovering plots, arresting people and putting them into prison for a very long period of time. So I think there are a whole range of domestic measures that can be taken across the board in Western countries which can deal with this, and they’re probably the more important ones, because I don’t think that we’re going to be able to bomb Islamic extremism into submission anytime soon. We’ve been bombing Islamic extremism one way or another now since before 9/11.
HH: Yeah, an air campaign does not work. It’s that simple. It will not end it. But I’m glad to say Theresa May was in charge of those efforts that you just credited, and greatly so, for keeping Great Britain relatively safe as opposed to the European situation, and increasingly in the United States. One minute left, John Fisher Burns, you know, we are in the 4th quarter of our time. Do you think this goes on for 50 years, 100 years? Is it a generational struggle?
JB: Well, it’s not going to be short, that’s for sure. I think it’s going to be a problem that my children and perhaps even their children are going to have to deal with. So I think it’s a decades-long problem. But that doesn’t mean to say that we are not capable of taking actions now which contain the threat. Eliminating it is another matter. But one very important part of this is going to be making sure that we have inclusive policies towards the Muslims who already live in Western countries, and strike at the roots of alienation.
HH: John Fisher Burns, formerly chief foreign correspondent of the New York Times, it is always good to talk to you. Follow John on Twitter @JohnFisherBurns.
End of interview.