HH: Whenever anything of great significance happens in Iraq or Afghanistan, my thoughts immediate turn to John Fisher Burns, chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times based in its London bureau, because he of course served so many years in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and well as China, India and around the globe. And he joins me tonight from London. John Burns, welcome back, and a Happy New Year to you.
JB: And the same to you, Hugh.
HH: Your reaction to the early reports. Obviously, no one has the book, yet, of Robert Gates’ memoir.
JB: Well, I’ve seen quite a bit of Robert Gates over the years, and I have to say I admire him. I thought that he was, as his late career has strongly suggested, was somebody who truly earned the descriptive bipartisan. He served administrations of both parties. He’s a fundamentally decent man. And the book, as far as I can tell from the early reviews, seems to reflect much of that.
HH: I want to read to you three quotes that have come to us from various Washington Post sources today, and from your colleagues at the New York Times. This is from a book review in the Washington Post. “Gates recounts his thoughts during a tense 2011 meeting with Obama and General David Petraeus, then in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in the White House Situation Room, ‘as I sat there, I thought the President doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.’” Now that is from two and a half years ago, and it’s shocking, actually, to read it again, John Burns, 30 months later.
JB: Well, is it really? I think as you look at that passage, you’re probably seeing the accurate description of the President’s feelings at the time. And we have to remember that a year or two or three later, what we see is a United States that is out of Iraq, and that is close to heading for the exit from Afghanistan. We’ve got less than a year now. It will happen within this calendar year. And my feeling is to look at the national security side of the ledger that President Obama’s claim on the conscience of the American people may very well turn out to be that he did extract the United States from these two seemingly interminable wars, saving, ultimately, any more expenditure of blood and treasure on what have seemed in both cases to be bootless ventures. On the other hand, you have the narrator, Robert Gates, who was responsible for the direct oversight of those wars, and for protecting, amongst other things, the interest of the United States military, who had paid such a high price for it. So it seems to me that what you’re hearing there is the sounding of a bell that is probably substantially true.
HH: Yeah, it seems to me that Gates’ argument is why did you put us through this if you did not intend to win? And in many respects, it echoes John Kerry’s criticisms of the Vietnam war from the early 70s, that what about, you don’t want to be the last man to die for a cause nobody believes in. And I think it’s going to reverberate for a long time, John Burns. I always believed after he bought into the Afghan surge, he at least wanted to win in Afghanistan, but Gates is telling us no.
JB: Yeah, my memory runs back to the ’08 election campaign when I have to say, and I was more directly involved in all of this at that time, I was very surprised at how uncautioned Obama as a candidate appeared to have been about the war in Afghanistan, even as he was urging an end to the war in Iraq, which of course, he had opposed as a Senator. It surprised me that he was so uncautioned, and it struck me at the time, surprised me, because the situation in Afghanistan was already beginning to look very unpromising. And it struck me at the time that there’s a good deal of politics in that, in other words that his commitment in Afghanistan partly protected him from, on his right flank, against those who said that he was abandoning the cause in Iraq. And he was. I think we have to remember the political context in which he was operating after that election in his first term when opinion in Washington, if not in the country, was still pretty divided about both wars as a matter of fact, and he needed to establish himself as a credible figure in the national security field, where he had very little experience, hardly any at all. And like many of us, probably like you, like me, he was caught between the hope that it, the Afghan war could be turned around and the fear that it couldn’t be, and he ended up straddling the choices in a way that’s left him now open to the criticism that he didn’t really believe in his own policy.
HH: And caught between megaphones on all sides. One of the damning passages in the Gates memoir, Duty, is when he says of Vice President Joe Biden that the Vice President has, “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” John Burns, you’ve covered a lot of governments on a lot of continents. Has a former senior official ever said something that blunt about a continuing sitting number two in the government?
JB: Pretty rare, although I have to say, and it’s a little unlike the Bob Gates that I have met to play the man and not the ball. It’s not usually in his character to do that, and of course, those words kind of leapt off the page as I read them. On the other hand, it has to be said that a lack of conviction, of belief in Mr. Biden, at least in terms of his foreign policy credentials and convictions, was pretty widespread, at least in the, if you will, national security establishment, or can I say more precisely since it was, it was commanders in the field that I saw most of, amongst the generals charged with running these two wars.
HH: The way you put that is wonderful. It is the tendency of Gates to play the ball and not the man, and you’re surprised to see him play the man and not the ball. Doesn’t that tell us something about the depth of his, and I’ll use a strong word, disgust with the Vice President’s meddling?
JB: Well, it does, and as we talk, it reminds me that it was, as I recall, I’m subject to correction here, that General McChrystal’s remarks about the option then favored, and we’re talking now, what, three or four, five years ago? General McChrystal as commander was very disparaging about, without publicly naming him, about the Biden option, the option that Vice President Biden then favored of restricting American military operations in Afghanistan pursuit of the Taliban, and leave the other elements of the domestic insurgency alone. The commanders in the field felt that was utterly unrealistic, was a recipe for disaster, and McChrystal certainly let people know that that’s what he believed. And my feeling is that when he was finally summoned to the White House after the Rolling Stone article, in which he, or rather his officials had been so indiscrete about the President, that his known hostility to, or lack of belief in Vice President Biden was a factor in the decision that the President made to sack him.
HH: Interesting, interesting. Last question, John Burns, Hillary is also on the front page. In the book, Secretary Gates says Hillary told the President that her opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq had been political, because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. Of course, the night of Benghazi swirls in domestic political calculation, and in the demands of justice of those who were murdered there, people say warriors bled and Hillary fled, an Ambassador was assassinated and Hillary procrastinated. Do the two stories come together, her over-politicization in 2007, and then her political ducking of the issue in 2013?
JB: You know, I’m not an American, as you know. I do not have a vote in American elections. But I think we need to be cautious in condemning prominent political figures or administration figures for mixing their foreign policy with politics. It’s a reality. FDR of course, if we go back now 70 or more years, was very vexed over whether or not the United States should support Britain in the early stage of World War II to the degree to which it should. His hand, of course, was forced by Pearl Harbor.
HH: True, true.
JB: But he had a very clear eye to what was happening on the right wing of American politics at the time, with the America First movement. So I think I would be reluctant, personally, to be too critical of Hillary Clinton for being careful to see as a potential future presidential candidate that she protected her political interests, even as she was sworn to uphold the national security interests of the United States.
HH: Interesting. John Burns, always a great pleasure. Thanks for staying up late in London tonight, chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times.
End of interview.