I talked with John Fisher Burns on the recent Paris attacks and reaction it will receive in Europe.
The audio: 11-17hhs-burns
HH: It’s perfect to go to John Fisher Burns, New York Times correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFisherBurns. Twice a Pulitzer award-winner, headed the bureau in Iraq for many years. Headed the bureau everywhere actually for the New York Times. John Burns, welcome back to the program, good to talk to you again.
JB: It’s a pleasure.
HH: I haven’t talked to you since actually in a couple months. What was your reaction after just getting over the shock of Paris upon reflection over the 72 hours?
JB: Well, of course we all were shocked by the brutality of it, but we should have in fact, expected it because governments all across Europe including the French government have been predicting it for some time that there would likely be an attack of this kind. And you see once again just how vulnerable our society are to this kind of attack.
HH: What is the level of concern in Great Britain? I watched the prime minister’s statements all weekend long, I’ve seen what he’s had to say, but is there a palpable increase of expectation of an attack?
JB: The British government has been warning for a very long time of an attack of this kind [as] very likely. They’ve taken actions this week which have suggested a kind of reset on this and a lot of other issues. They’ve decided to increase the manpower of key security and intelligence agencies by a about 2000, 2 billion pounds increasing counter-terrorism defenses and Mr. Cameron was back in the House of Commons today indicating that he has the mind to ask again what he was refused the last time he proposed it which was the Royal Air Force, Britain’s combat aircraft, which are stationed in the Middle East, the authorization to attack in Syria as well as in Iraq . At the moment they are limited to attacking in Iraq.
HH: Oh interesting. Do you think he’ll get that?
JB: As I sit here talking to you, I have television tuned in the background of England saying France in a soccer game in Wembley, which Mr. Cameron is attending as well as Prince William, who is second in line to the British throne. And it has served as a forum for a demonstration by the 80-odd thousand spectators, all but about 2,000 of them British or at least 2,000 French. A tremendous sense of solidarity which of course we’re seeing all across the world, a great structure, a secular structure, that winds across the roof of the stadium is lit with the colors of the French tricolor and the entire cast did to sing the “La Marseillaise,” and I think that’s giving people a lot of encouragement and a lot of determination to–
HH: That’s terrific, although it does involve watching soccer. I don’t if you’d be watching that anyway, John Fisher Burns, but I’m very glad it’s happening (laughs). I’m glad when West Point took the field carrying the French flag this Saturday with American football and I’m glad that you’re dedicated. I don’t if it’s a news job for you if you’re a fan, but good for you.
JB: (laughs) I’m a fan.
HH: (Laughs) Earlier today President Hollande called on the United States and Russia to join and maybe Great Britain will now join if the prime Minister gets his authority in a grand alliance to wipe out ISIS. After the break, I’ll ask you about Russia, but do you think the prime minister will have the votes if he goes to parliament? Will he make it a party loyalty test?
JB: I think it will be a close run for him and I don’t think he’ll go for it if that’s the way if it’s going to eventuate if Britain suggests it’s going to be close if nothing else they’ll go for it. I think he wants overwhelming affirmation of the kind that Tony Blair desire as we may now think got when he decided to go to war in Iraq back in 2003. He got a very large majority. It’s difficult to tell how the votes would go, but we have the official of the opposition, Mr. Corbin already indicating that he would not go for it and that might leave a split in the Labour Party, a deep split which might ultimately doom Mr. Corbin’s leadership because–
HH: Oh interesting.
JB: . . . Because of significant members of the Labour Party representation in Parliament who disagree with Mr. Corbin about Syria and disagree about widening the British bombing.
HH: What would the Scottish Independent party think about that, John Fisher Burns?
JB: Well, their issue [is that] they want to see, they’ve been on record on saying, a United Nations resolution, so they’re not totally against it and they are now a significant force in the British parliament. They have something along 50 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons.
HH: It’s important, I’m glad to hear at least they’re open to the idea. I’ll be right back, America with John Fisher Burns, long-time correspondent for the New York Times, stay tuned.
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HH: I’m joined from London by John Fisher Burns for over 40 years, was a correspondent for the New York Times. So, John Burns, France’s president said let’s get a grand alliance going, somewhat WW2-ish, France, America, Russia, and maybe Great Britain, but do we really want Putin involved in this? Doesn’t that mean we have to take the butcher Assad?
JB: That’s a very complicated issue. It seems to me our policy has been a little quixotic because we’ve been, on the one hand, trying to suppress and defeat so-called Islamic State and on the other hand pledged to the unseating of Mr. Assad and it seems to me Mr. Putin has exploited the contradictions in that policy and perhaps we’re now seeing in the wake of what happened in Paris and the shoot-down of the Russian airline in Sinai, a movement of all sides to some sort of a compromise, but having spent many years in that part of the world, seeing British, American, and other allied troops in combat, I’ve grown deeply skeptical about our ability to influence the outcome of a fair fight by military force including bombing being certain that we will, if we really want to eradicate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is going to lead to incremental use of ground troops. Special forces are already involved and I’m pretty certain that the public in Britain, like the public in United States after our experiences over the last decade, will remain pretty firmly opposed to that.
HH: John Fisher Burns, you’re one of the few people in the world who was actually there when the awakening happened, when al-Qaeda moved into western Iraq the first time, and then David Petraeus arrived with the surge troops. They killed and exterminated al-Qaeda and with the assistance of the local population after they had a taste of al-Qaeda. Do you believe, given your long experience in the region that Syrian and Iraqi Sunni Arabs would welcome the West’s assistance in expelling this tyrannical, fanatical regime?
JB: Well, we know that some of them would. It’s difficult to say that would be the majority view, but I think that what we can say is that the ultimate outcome for this is going to depend on the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria and indeed on other Sunni powers in the Middle East including especially Saudi Arabia and I’m inclined to think myself that just as we saw in David Petraeus’s time as commander in Iraq a change of attitude and change of life in the Iraqi Sunnis who had to belie themselves the rump of Sudan’s government, they belied themselves in the effect with al-Qaeda Islamic extremists and then grew tired of that and formed a temporary alliance with United States. I have a feeling that the outcome in Iraq and Syria is going to depend on the Sunni moderates, Sunni nationalists, in time, turning against the Islamic extremists and that’s going to be much more decisive than any deployment of Western military power.
HH: Now John Burns, if you talk to me about Great Britain and the European Union, there have been the free-flow of people, massive immigration flows, lots of refugee flows into Germany and some into France, and one of these killers obviously with the Syrian passport. Does this greatly advance the chances that the UK will actually skip out on the EU?
JB: Well, if you judge on the basis of what we’ve heard in the last 72 or so hours since the attacks in Paris, you’d have to say, yes. We heard the sound of doors and gates closing all over Europe. This seems to be an increasing likelihood that the Sherman Agreement – the open-borders agreement – on which Britain is not a partner will go, and it’s going to be very interesting to see whether or not the other major powers in Europe, particularly France and Germany become now, in the wake of what happened in Paris, more amiable to Cameron’s demands of Britain, in effect, we gain control of its own borders and of its immigration policy. You have to think that there will be an effect and it will be a major one, but it’s probably a little bit too soon and not the best time to make a judgment on that because emotions and political passions have been running so high.
HH: You called to mind a famous British foreign minister saying “the lights are going out all over Europe,” Lord Grey I believe it was, when WWI began. “The sound of doors and gates closing all over Europe,” can Europe really back away from immigration, is it even possible?
JB: Well, I wouldn’t say back away from it, but I think there’s going to be a reset, and we will for example, see it already in the UK, but we also see in Germany where some of the most powerful figures in Chancellor Merkel’s coalition have in her own party begun to turn away from her open-doors approach to admitting Syrian refugees and I think there’s got to be some medium to long-term questions about how long her commitment can stand in the face of what has happened. She hasn’t said a great deal in the last few days which gives us an indication of which way she’s going to turn, but it looks to me as though Germany is going to be a more restrictive than we might have thought only six to eight weeks ago.
HH: And so where do those people go? We have a minute to the break, what happens to them?
JB: Well, the German officials have become to talk about making, if people are allowed asylum, that it would be temporary even to Syrians and that they will have to eventually go home. They talk abut repatriating the majority of hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived in Germany this year who are not Syrians. Whether that’s practical or not, I don’t know. I don’t live in Germany and my sense of that is not very clear, but it’s certainly political reset going on all over Europe.
HH: One more segment coming up with John Fisher Burns. You ought to be following him on Twitter @JohnFisherBurns, and I’ll ask him about the Islamic State and did he see it coming when we return. Stay tuned.
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HH: 55 minutes after the hour, America, wrapping up today’s show. Thank you to Adam and Marlon, of course, Generalissimo, and to John Fisher Burns, my guest in London this evening. John Burns, you spent more time in Muslim countries than any Westerner I know, including Iraq, Afghanistan. I don’t know if you spent much time in Syria. Did you ever imagine the metastasis within radical Islam going this far that you would see – they basically would have killed all of Paris if they could’ve on Friday night.
JB: No, I think it would be foolish in the extreme to say that any of us foresaw that. We certainly saw the potential and the United States saw it starker in September 11th for extreme violence on the part of Islamists extremists, but this is has continued as long as it has and the extreme form of it has, I think to say that any of us foresaw that fifteen years ago would be futile.
HH: Christiana Poor on CNN over the weekend called it a “death cult” now. Did anyone ever use those terms during the long fight for Iraq of which you were in Baghdad all those years, the fear that al-Qaeda would metastasize as a death cult?
JB: I think it did come up at the time. I believe Musab al-Zaqari, he was an associate and al-Qaeda and Iraq who have been capable of extreme brutality, but I think we’re stuck with this unfortunately for a very long time because I think the origins of it go far beyond the current conflict in the Middle East and are rooted deep in the history of Islam and deep in the history of the Middle East and is not going to be settled by force of arms in any short period of time.
HH: Last quick question, does the prospect of Iran on the nuclear threshold unsettle you as much as it does me? To me, it’s even more worrisome than ISIS.
JB: I spent a good deal of time in Iran 15 years ago before the Iraq War and it struck me that there are moderate forces in Iran, including the relatively moderate president Khatami who have made very little headway in his attempts to rapprochement with the West and I think that we have to temper our fear that the lunatics of God in Iraq will carry us into some sort of nuclear catastrophe with a sense that Iran’s purger is a great country with a great history and that common sense will prevail.
HH: From your lips, John Fisher Burns, the “God’s Ears.” Thank you for joining me from London tonight. Follow John on Twitter @JohnFisherBurns and you will be smarter for it. I’ll be back tomorrow, America. Thanks for listening.
End of Interview