The New York Times’ two-time Pulitzer award winning John Fisher Burns joined me today to discuss the Brussels’ attacks:
HH: I am joined by, well, our favorite guest, John Fisher Burns, longtime senior correspondent for the New York Times, two times a Pulitzer winner, a member of Great Britain’s wonderful community, and I’m sure someone who has been in and out of that Brussels airport, what, a hundred times, John Fisher Burns?
JB: Not that many, but with the times I have been in and out of it, it’s usually had to do with terrorism.
HH: Well, tell me what your reaction is, just as a member of the community of Europe today. I don’t know that there’s any getting this problem back in the bottle. It seems like it’s beyond control.
JB: Well, I think, I’m hoping, I think we’re all hoping, that the situation in Belgium is not entirely representative of the threat elsewhere. And that’s because the counterterrorism efforts in Belgium have been severely compromised for many, many years. It’s been a real worry for American, British, French and German counterterrorism officials, that Belgium has allowed this problem, particularly in Brussels itself, and Molenbeek, the predominantly Muslim enclave, to advance to the state that it has. So on the one hand, the fact that the events of last week, in the arrest of Abdeslam has led on to this kind of attack isn’t entirely a surprise, and is certainly due in some effect to failures by the Belgium counterterrorism police. And that’s certainly a view very strongly held in Paris as well, of course. And the French probably know more about that than anybody else in Europe.
HH: John Fisher Burns, I know you’ve got countless scores of friends in MI5 and MI6. Do they think that the European authorities can get ahead of this again and, because they made the arrest yesterday, and people might have thought now we can relax, but obviously, the terror networks kicked into high gear then.
JB: Well, look, there’s no underestimating this. I think there’s a widespread feeling that these kinds of attacks are very likely to recur elsewhere in Europe. But I think it’s worth remembering against the failures there have been, and Bataclan, in Paris, was certainly a major failure of the counterterrorist operation. There have been major successes. And to speak of the United Kingdom, I’m touching wood as I say this, there has been no major terrorist attack in the United Kingdom since the attacks on the subway system in what is called here 7/7, the seventh of July, 2005. And the images we’ve seen today from Brussels, of the attack on the subway, were very reminiscent of what we saw in London nine years ago, more than that now. And why was the difference? It could happen here, and Cameron, the Prime Minister, has repeatedly warned that it may happen here. But I, in my judgment, in large because of the very close cooperation between U.S. and U.K. counterterrorism officials, and because they are both on both sides of the Atlantic, they’re really up to their game. They’re extremely effective with very effective counterterrorist tools, particularly in the form of electronic surveillance. For that reason, I think it’s no coincidence that there hasn’t been a major attack in the United Kingdom. It doesn’t mean to say there won’t be. Our counterterrorist operations here, like almost everywhere else, are understaffed. But they’ve got a lot better. And they have in the United States as well, as you well know, since 9/11.
HH: John Fisher Burns, do you think that the attacks in both Paris and Brussels today will increase the likelihood of the Brexit? Do you think Great Britain will want to try as best it can to withdraw from the European mess?
JB: Well, one way of answering that is to say that if you were sitting where David Cameron is tonight, you have to be thinking that you’ve chosen the worst possible moment in possibly the last 30 years to hold a referendum on Europe given the migration crisis, the prospect that it may, the migration into southern Europe through Turkey could be of similar proportions this year to last year or even worse, that all of the remedies they’ve adopted may fail. So on the one hand, you’ve have the migration crisis, which presents to the eyes of many voters in Britain, and in a sense, Europe, is going to be in chaos for many years to come. Now you have related to that, of course, in some respects, these terrorist attacks. So we know already that from the polls that there is a large undecided vote on the Europe referendum, which is due on June 23rd. And these events, and particularly today’s events, last November’s events, are not going to help Cameron and his team in pushing for a remain. I think that all the, nonetheless, we may very well see a repeat of what happened the last time there was a referendum on Europe in Britain in 1975 when there were all kinds of prognostications that the vote would go against staying in Europe. And on the day, the vote was two to one in favor of staying in. I still think that’s likely, because the British people are by nature rather cautious, and I think that they may stick with the devil they know. But it’s going to be a more difficult fight for Cameron now than he would have thought when he decided two or three years ago that there should be a referendum to lance the boil of Europe.
HH: Yeah, you mentioned the British people being cautious, John Fisher Burns. My wife and I have been enjoying Foyle’s War, which was on many years ago, but we’ve just gotten around to watching it. And it is the absolute personification of the cautious Brit. So you’re absolutely right on that. Let me ask you about American politics while I have you. Donald Trump questioned NATO yesterday. What do you make of that? And how do you think that plays in Europe or in Great Britain generally?
JB: Well, you know, to find allies for Donald Trump on that issue, you’d have to go to some very strange places in British politics. The only major figure in British politics who has questioned the validity of NATO in recent years has been the very left wing leader of the Labour Party, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbin. So I think it was, of course, people are running out of surprise where Donald Trump is concerned, as to what he may say next. But there wouldn’t be a lot of resonance in Europe for an American presidency that diminished the value of NATO. NATO is widely recognized, I believe, but broadly across the spectrum in all of the countries belonging to NATO in Europe, as having protected the freedoms of Europe now since 1949. I think it would be a grave, grave reluctance to see America withdrawing or downscaling its role in NATO.
HH: How is Mr. Trump playing on Fleet Street, John Fisher Burns? You know, I wish I could see, or have more time, to just survey the covers of your tabloids when he speaks.
JB: Well, of course, in some elements of the press here, there’s a kind of comic book approach. He makes, of course, he makes good copy. He makes, he makes news almost every time he speaks. But how is he being received over here? I think to be frank with you, very poorly, even amongst those people who broadly speaking share some of his concerns. There are many people in the United Kingdom who are concerned about the scale of immigration, particularly of Muslim immigration into the country. But you have to go a long way to the far right to find people who talk about closing the doors against all Muslim immigration, or even think about it. So there’s a lot of coverage. It’s not, in the main, favorable. And I suppose there is a feeling, a hope, that if Mr. Trump is the nominee, that he will move back to the center rather rapidly before the general election.
HH: And let me close by asking you, given your long experience in Iraq and the Middle East generally, Vladimir Putin announced his withdrawal from Syria. He’s a chess player, obviously. What do you make of his in and now-announced exit in Syria?
JB: It’s so difficult to know what Putin’s objectives are. And I’m not at all sure that Putin is secure in his seat in Moscow, as some Western governments appear to believe. He obviously has played a fairly deft hand in Syria, in a sense, that he has regained a great deal of influence in Damascus. He has steadied the Assad government. On the other hand, he’s shown himself again to be ruthless and untrustworthy. And I think you know, there’s a general feeling here of concern about Russia on a level that there hasn’t been since the height of the Cold War.
HH: John Fisher Burns, it’s always great to talk to you. Thanks for spending some time with us late tonight. When I move to my new hours in the morning, John, then it’ll be easier for me to grab you when I’m 6-9 in the morning, and then it’ll just be 9-Noon, and it’ll be easy for you before your morning tea.
JB: I don’t envy you those 6AM starts.
HH: Oh, that’ll be fine for me if I get to talk to you more often, John Fisher Burns of the New York Times. Thank you.
End of interview.