Most journalists of stature within their craft consider John Fisher Burns the gold standard. He joined me this AM from the UK to discuss “all of the above”:
HH: One of the advantages of my new time spot in the morning drive in the East is that I can talk to my friends in Great Britain, and they are not actually staying up to Midnight. It’s the middle of the day. And one of those, of course, John Fisher Burns, two-time Pulitzer winner, formerly the chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times, probably the greatest war correspondent of our era. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFisherBurns. John, welcome, good morning to you, good to talk to you today.
JB: Good morning to you, Hugh.
HH: I have a lot of things to talk to you about, but I want to begin, I always start my day with the Times of London, and there is this horrific story this morning – Cubs Of Caliphate Kill Prisoners In ISIS Propaganda. And in the caliphate, they’re using six year old boys who are blonde and appear to be from the Caucuses to execute prisoners. It’s really horrific. When you were in the Middle East all those years, John, and in Afghanistan, weren’t children treasured? Were they politicized this way?
JB: I don’t remember every encountering anything like this. I mean, I think this is probably one of the worst instances of their brutality. But I don’t think there’s an obvious precedent for this.
HH: It just seems so absolutely horrific that everything I’ve read about the Middle East and talked to you over the years, and reading books about the war, no one, children, of course, are casualties of war, but no one purposefully turned them into little monsters. Let me ask you about the larger global issue – Turkey. And you know it’s complicated, the sick man of Europe, and it’s always around the edges. Today, both the New York Times and the Times of London have stories on fraying relations between NATO and Turkey. How much time have you spent there? And what do you think is going on in that country vis-à-vis its Western traditional allies?
JB: I haven’t spent a great deal of time in Turkey other than as a summer visitor to the glorious Aegean and Mediterranean coast. I spent a little bit of time working there in relationship to the stories in Iraq before the current conflagration in Syria. But of course, NATO’s relationship with Turkey has always been complicated because of the ways in which Turkey differs from other NATO countries, amongst which, of course, is that it’s an overwhelmingly Muslim country, that it is a country in the Middle East, that it is a country that is half in Asia and half in Europe.
HH: Does it strike you that this is a breach that is not repairable, that they’ve gone their own way? They’re at war now with ISIS, and most Americans think that’s a good thing. I’m not sure about Great Britain. But also, the accusations of American complicity in the coup and the increasing hostility to American traditional foreign policy makes me think maybe they are now unmoored and almost like India used to be in the non-aligned days, off on their own. They’re not jihadist in the way that ISIS is, but they’re not NATOish anymore.
JB: Yes, the picture looks discouraging in that respect, but anybody who spends any time in Turkey knows how different it is again from, it’s different from many of its NATO partners in some crucial ways. It’s also different from most other Middle Eastern countries, in the first place, because it’s not Arab. And there is, I think, a moderating influence at work now dormant, especially since the coup. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were yet another upheaval. Erdogan strikes me as being in a, running a fundamentally unstable government, which many, many Turks, as we know, feel as uncomfortable with as we do, probably more, because they have to endure its effects.
HH: Now John Fisher Burns, I want to take you to the domestic politics of Great Britain, which of course impact the United States and Europe. And it appears to me that Labour is in full-scale meltdown from what I read. And it appears to me that Theresa May, the new prime minister, is off to a very sure start, though there is quarreling between our friend, Liam Fox, a friend of the show, and Boris and everybody else. What’s your assessment of British politics, you know, a couple of months into the May years?
JB: Well, it’s all been so unexpectable, as you know with defeat of the Remain camp in the Brexit referendum, which was really not an expectable thing. I personally went down to my local betting shop and placed a rather large sum of money by my standards on a victory for the Remain camp by 10% or more.
HH: Oh, did you really? How interesting.
HH: You’re as good at this as I am (laughing)
JB: (laughing) Yeah, well, I should have learned from my previous investments on the day of the Grand National Horse Race that the betting shop is not a place for me. But I think we were very fortunate in the circumstances in having such a quick and assured transition to somebody who has given every appearance of having been ready for this job for quite a few years. I think Theresa May has made a very assured start. She’s proving to be quite different both in personality, but also in policy from David Cameron. And I think given the inherent instability of the present situation, which include, of course, the fact that there’s no clear path forward for Brexit at this point, and the meltdown in the Labour Party, which cannot be good, certainly not good for the Labour Party, but it’s not good for the country, either, to have its principal opposition party in such disarray and apparently headed on such a suicidal path. I think there are a lot of people, and not necessarily Tories alone, who are very reassured that we have such a safe pair of hands in Downing Street.
HH: Yeah, but I’m amazed that they’re not calling an election. A supporter of the government who was in Los Angeles last week told me that Brits are just tired of elections. They had the Scottish referendum, they had the national elections, they had Brexit, and they don’t want another vote. And Theresa May isn’t going to give them one, because they don’t want another one. Is that, do you agree with that assessment?
JB: Well, I think she is determined not to be or seem to be being an opportunist. There is serious work to be done. It’s not a very, I would have thought, inviting task that she has taken on, to try and find a way of navigating her way, the country’s way through the Brexit process. And as she said many times, this is a serious business, and that the people have only a year ago, a little over a year ago, elected the Conservative Party by a majority, albeit a narrow one, to govern the country. And I think she feels that in the country’s interest, but also in the Tory Party’s long term interest, it’s going to be important to be seen to doing, be doing the governing and finding a path, a narrow and winding path through this whole Brexit procedure.
HH: John Fisher Burns, I want to close by asking you about Donald Trump. Yesterday, I had a great pollster, PhD, Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics on talking about social desirability bias, and the shy Tory impact, meaning people don’t tell you that they’re voting for John Major and then they vote for John Major. What do you make, and I’m not going to our betting shop in Vegas to bet on Trump, because I have no idea, or bet against him. I have no idea what’s going on here given the polls. What do you make of Trump and the Trump phenomenon in the States, which you hold dear?
JB: I do hold it dear, and like many people, I’m a little puzzled. But I think that we have to recognize that the root causes of this, the Trump phenomenon, are not, are not peculiar to the United States. We’re seeing something of the same thing happening, deep political alienation, right across Europe, and possibly beyond. And where it’s going to lead to, it’s hard to tell. But it’s surely going to require a new approach to government, whoever wins the elections, on either side of the Atlantic.
HH: Now John, I think Paul Ryan is the leader of my party, and that Donald Trump is its nominee, and that the Republican Party is not going to become a nationalist party in the nature of the European nationalist parties. But does Trump strike you as prototypical of a European nationalist leader?
JB: That’s a difficult question, but I’ll answer a question you haven’t asked me. I remember a rather prominent figure on Wall Street telling me not long after I joined the New York Times over 40 years ago, and I had arrived from Canada where I had worked for ten years for another newspaper, and he said of Canada, perhaps unfairly, Canada is a great enough country to survive bad government. If that were true then of Canada, it’s certainly true of the United States, that the United States, which has many problems at the moment, the Trump phenomenon perhaps being one of them, will find a way to navigate through this rather unhappy period.
HH: John Fisher Burns, always a delight, a joy to talk to you in the morning. Thank you for getting time in your schedule for us. Come back early and often as we go towards a new era in Europe and a new era in Great Britain, and certainly a new era in the United States. John Fisher Burns, thanks.
End of interview.