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John Fisher Burns on Ebola, China, and ISIS

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Two time Pulitzer winner and chief foreign correspondent for the new York Times, John Burns, joined me to talk about the turmoil in Hong Kong and the Middle East.




HH: I am joined by John Fisher Burns, New York Times’ chief foreign correspondent from London, and John Burns, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

JB: Likewise, Hugh.

HH: I want to begin by, ten years ago, you were in Iraq beginning a long run as the Times’ bureau chief there. Flash forward ten years from now. Do you think that the great worry of then will be instability in China or the ISIS revolution that’s unfolding in front of our eyes? In other words, what ought we to be worrying about the most? Or is it even the Ebola story that’s big headlines today?

JB: I don’t think you can make a clear distinction between those two. It seems to me that both of them are long-running and probably insoluble conflicts, there will be repeated upheavals both in China and in the Middle East, and they’re going to shake our world.

HH: Well, that’s not optimistic. John Fisher Burns, weren’t you expelled from China back in the day?

JB: I was indeed.

HH: And so they’re still not very democracy-friendly, are they?

JB: No, and I don’t myself believe that the Community Party of China is capable of reforming itself and accepting anything like genuine democracy. I think that’s one reason why we in the West who have worried so much about the possibility of declining American power and a rising Chinese power, is China the next superpower? If there’s any comfort to be taken from these events currently unfolding in Hong Kong, it might be this, that the Chinese Communist Party might find itself increasingly confronted, and not just in Hong Kong, but in other places closer to the heartland of China. It will resist, the country will become an increasingly fractious place in which a lot of energy, political energy and economic energy is squandered, and I think that the Chinese hopes, and they were made quite clear when Mao died and was succeeded by Deng Xiaoping, the preface was not just to get rich, or even mainly to get rich, it was to restore China as the number one power in the world, as Deng Xiaoping told us it had been at the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th Century. So that is their goal, but I personally doubt whether they will achieve it, because they have not even begun, really, to address the principal political problem. What do you do as you get increasingly rich, your people become increasingly educated, and as we’ve seen in Hong Kong, increasingly unwilling to accept top-down government autocracy.

HH: Well you know, today the deputy secretary of Defense, Work, made statements that were express. He said if China gets into a shooting match with Japan, we will come to the aid of [Japan] in a military fashion. Of course, the George Washington’s over there, so that might be unavoidable. But do you find it odd that we even have to talk about such things?

JB: No, actually, I don’t. I think there is real potential for at least limited military conflict in the South China Sea in particular. Japan and China have never really liked each other very much, certainly not since the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and into the 1940s. Their disputes over the islands that lie between the Chinese mainland and the Japanese islands are extremely, they prompt extreme emotions on both sides. And you have the same thing, of course, in the Chinese challenge to the Philippine sovereignty over disputed islands to the south. And I think we’re going to see probably limited military conflict there. But the presence of the United States fleet in the Western Pacific will be a stabilizing factor, because one thing we can be sure of is that the Chinese government, it may be willing to repress, it may be willing to repress with a limited degree of violence, protests in Hong Kong, but I don’t think it wants to get into a shooting war with the United States.

HH: I’m talking with John Fisher Burns, who has won two Pulitzers for his reporting from around the world. And after the break, I’ll talk to him about the Middle East. But I want to stay focused on China where he was Beijing bureau chief for a long time. Even before iPhone 6 or iPhone 1, news seemed to travel in China very fast. In those years that I worked for Richard Nixon, that was always one of the things he would talk about, is that China communicated by means no one quite understood, and as a result, large movements happened, Falun Gong, all these other things happened quickly. Do you see the democracy movement rapidly expanding in China, the potential for that, and thus the fear with which the Chinese hierarchy is reacting to it?

JB: Yeah, I think not only do people like you and I see that, I think that the Chinese Communist Party sees that. And so far, the choice it seems to have made in its choice of new leaders for the next decade appears to be a hard line one, not to yield. But I think it’s worth remembering that the motor of Chinese history now for many centuries has been the peasant rebellions. And I think the word peasant needs to be adjusted in this context. But you might say popular uprisings that have overthrown the dynasties repeatedly up to and including, of course, the communist revolution that overthrew Chiang Kai Shek, who in turn had succeeded the last of the dynasties. So it seems to me that the Chinese Communist Party will react fiercely in defense of its authority. It will fail, and fail again. Mao used to say about imperialists make travel, fail, make travel again, fail again, until they’re doomed. This is the nature of all imperialists and capitalists, and they cannot go against it. They actually wrote that slogan on a great, big board behind the nose of Richard Nixon’s Air Force One as he pulled into the airport in Peking all those years ago. And they’re not, they’ve got a lot of their history wrong, but they, I think in that respect, they’re right, that in China, there will be growing and intense resistance to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party is not configured by its nature, by its history, by its inclination to yield to that. And China will be very much, I think, an inward looking nation over the next 30-40 years, and will not be seeking world domination. They’re not capable of seeking it.

HH: Well, that’s good news. Now last subject before the break and we’ll go to the Middle East. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in Africa covering it, but today’s news that Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital has a patient who contracted Ebola and got back to the United States somehow in isolation is troubling, And of course this is not going to be unusual. I’ve been saying for a long time, the first time an Ebola case showed up in Europe or the United States, there would be a panicked reaction. Are you following the Ebola epidemic closely, John Burns? And what…

JB: Well, I’m not, I wouldn’t say closely, but following it like anybody who reads newspapers and watches television broadcasts. Of course, it’s very disturbing. But I think it’s worth remembering that there’ve been several cases now, one of them here in the United Kingdom, another one at least in the United States, of Ebola victims who were brought home, medivacked home, and been given experimental treatments and they recovered. And I think that the, my sense is that the American medical system, and indeed the medical system here plus vigilance at our borders will probably contain this.

HH: Well, you just said something that was interesting, vigilance of our borders. And I don’t know if this was a potent issue in Great Britain before, but it certainly is here now in the United States, that the border vigilance is quite low. And when people fly in from Liberia, and that’s what the report is on this individual, is that he was in West Africa and he flew in from Liberia, it’s going to change, and he was asymptomatic, and he became symptomatic here, don’t you think that’s going to change things?

JB: I would think it is. I don’t know enough about the medicine to know whether symptoms would become readily detectable to a medical infection at the airport before a full-blown case of Ebola develops. I just don’t know that. But it seems to me that it’s well within the powers of the immigration service in the United States and here in the United Kingdom to watch very carefully for people arriving from places where Ebola is spreading.

HH: That’s very well said. When we come back from break, John Fisher Burns of the New York Times and I turn our attention to the Middle East where he served as the New York Times’ Baghdad chief of bureau for many, many years, winner of two Pulitzer prizes. And I didn’t even give you my congratulations on remaining the United Kingdom, John. I’m very glad that that happened. I gather, I don’t know if you’re allowed to take positions at the Times on such things, but I am.

JB: On this, I will. I will. My family came from there originally. I was up there last week actually to take a look at the Ryder Cup in the days before the Cup was played. And I can tell you that it’s, there was a great sense of relief.

HH: Well, it’s shared here, too.

—- – – – – –

HH: John Burns, I have just finished reading a book by a young academic at Princeton, Among The Ruins: Syria Past And Present. Christian Sahner, who wrote it, and that’s Sahner for the benefit of the audience, is a Rhodes Scholar who spent considerable time early in this decade in Syria before the civil war began, and then camping in Lebanon observing it. And it’s horrific. I mean, it’s absolutely the scenes he describes, and the destruction and the historical case for this having been almost inevitable, it’s a fascinating book. But in all those years that you were in Baghdad, did you ever imagine that the Assad regime would not only crumble, but that in its wake we’d have the 30 Years war from Germany moved to Syria?

JB: I wish I could tell you that journalists like myself who spent many years in Iraq up to and through and after the American invasion had lifted our eyes to the political horizon, and anticipated what has happened. I think the truth is that for much of the time, as most journalists do, we were so concentrated on what was happening inside Iraq, and to what was happening to the American attempts to build a civil society in Iraq, attempts which apparently now appear to be largely doomed, that we didn’t think long term. Perhaps we should have done. I will say this, though. It became more and more apparent as the American military occupation, if you want to call it that, and the years of it lengthened, that the U.S. military have been set an impossible task, in my view. It wasn’t their mistake, but rather history which ordained that they would not succeed in their mission. And that history centered mainly on the Shia-Sunni split in the Islamic world, which runs like a fracture right through the heart of Iraq. It was evident to me that that was the principal cause of the American failure in Iraq in the times I was there, and it’s the principal cause of what we see happening now. And it leads me to be deeply skeptical that the United States and the United Kingdom and their other partners in these latest military adventures in Iraq will be able to much influence, much less decide the outcome of events there.

HH: Now in the Sahner book, he describes Druze, Yazidis, Alawites, and then it comes back to Christians being displaced by the prophet and his successors, and then that split that you just talked about, Sunni-Shia. I don’t know how you ever put that region together given the irreconcilability of the belief systems there, and the quick repair to arms. Do you see that changing? You’ve been in the Arab and the Islamic world a lot of your professional career. Does that ever reform itself into the British or the American model? And we had our own violent paths, but we also had our own reformations.

JB: No, I think we in the West are going to have to think pretty seriously about any further attempts to transfer our political systems, which evolved over a thousand years, the American democracy over the last 230 years, which itself was an outgrowth of developments of, and belief and practice in Europe, that had and were already centuries old when the pilgrims set out for America. I think we’re going to have to examine or reexamine whether it was ever realistic to think that we could transfer those practices, that political system successfully to ground that is as unpromising and as stony in this respect as the Middle East.

HH: And John Fisher Burns, does that mean, though, that the United States and its allies not try to at least prevent the worst episodes, even if it doesn’t attempt to transplant institutions?

JB: No, no, and I think that the choices confronting the political leaders of the West, and particularly President Obama here at the present moment are absolutely devilish – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. We cannot deny help to the afflicted, especially because we put our hand into the hornet’s nest 11 years ago, and have some considerable responsibility for the chaos that has ensued. But I think we have to temper our actions by realism as to what we can accomplish. And my own sense of it is that we should do everything possible with our Special Forces to strike out against the worst of the so-called IS, to do what we can to help those poor hostages, to punish those people who engage in mass executions, beheadings and crucifixions. And let’s hope we don’t lose any air crew, because if we lose air crew over territory controlled by the so-called IS, we’re going to have a great tragedy, in my view. So to calibrate this correctly is an extremely difficult thing to do, and I’m not going to offer any easy solutions.

HH: Were you surprised by the English government’s decision to revisit its, the British government’s decision to revisit its non-participation, and in fact, begin to join in the air strikes for that reason?

JB: Well, you know, the special relationship is extremely important. I think that’s the first thing that has to be said. And I think the United Kingdom has been, in my view, I would say this, wouldn’t I, since I’m a U.K. citizen, America’s closes ally since during the two world wars and since, particularly in anything that has involved putting our military forces in harm’s way. And I think it would have been extremely difficult to narrow that support. But it needs to be said that the British parliament, which was very much divided over the original invasion into Iraq was very little divided over this decision, and was carried through the huge majority that David Cameron got last week in the House of Commons in support of air strikes in Iraq by principally, and I’m sure this has been true in the United States as well, by the wave of political revulsion over what’s happened to those poor hostages.

HH: And that’s going to continue. And in fact, the beheading in the United States on Friday and the sort of ghastly reaction in Australia has powered that, I think resolved, it may impact our elections. But what’s it done within the country with regards to the general feeling of insecurity in the United Kingdom? Is it as high as it is in the United States at this point, where consultants in the first two hours of the show were calling this the chaos election. People responding as they will, will figure it out in 35 days to this general sense of out of control?

JB: Well, I mean, I think we Brits have to remember that 3,000 people died on 9/11, a strike right at the heart of American democracy and American economy and the American system of beliefs. We had our own strike here in 2005, and there were, I forget the exact numbers now, but they were in the dozens rather than in the hundreds or the thousands. And I think that that probably goes some way to explain why there is concern about this, but it’s not a really heightened concern, notwithstanding the repeated warnings from the UK government…

HH: Interesting, interesting.

JB: …that there is a very serious threat.

HH: John Fisher Burns of the New York Times, it is always a great pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for staying up late to do that. Follow John Fisher Burns on Twitter @JohnFisherBurns.

End of interview.


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