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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

New York Times’ John Burns on Iraq and American media’s coverage of it.

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HH: John F. Burns is my guest. He is the foreign correspondent for the New York Times, widely recognized as a preeminent war reporter of his generation. He’s been with the New York Times since 1975. He is the recipient of two Pulitzers for his reporting from Sarajevo, as well as from Afghanistan under the Taliban…in fact, he holds the double-double, which is he’s reported from Afghanistan under the Taliban, and after their overthrow, and he’s reported from Iraq under Saddam, and after his overthrow. Mr. Burns, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

JB: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you, Hugh.

HH: I watched last night the interview you conducted with Charlie Rose, and I’m going to recommend everyone go see that. It was a fascinating conversation, a superb interview, but I’m going to assume a lot of stuff and go from there. But I think we should begin with your assessment of what would happen if America were to withdraw its forces from Iraq precipitously.

JB: Well, Hugh, I don’t, I try not to inject myself into the political debate in the United States, but I think that that’s pretty clear. The United States has not managed to bring equilibrium and stability to Iraq, but it seems to me very clear that if you withdrew, precipitously, American troops, that it would have a rapidly destabilizing effect, and that such counterbalance as there is to the rising tide of sectarian insurgent killing in Iraq would be removed, and the general expectation, I think, and I would imagine that this is understood, one would hope it would be quite widely, is that if American troops were withdrawn on an accelerated basis, there would likely be much greater mayhem than there already is.

HH: Can you give us some idea of the scope of mayhem you would predict, Mr. Burns?

JB: Well, let me put it to you this way, and I’ve said this before, so…one Iraqi I know well, who lives in an area of Baghdad known as Adamiya, Adamiya was the birthplace of the Baath Party in Iraq. It was the last place that Saddam appeared before he went underground, I recall, on April the 9th, 2003, with American troops already in Baghdad, your listeners may remember. Saddam appeared in Baath Party uniform, his green uniform, standing on top of a vehicle outside a Mosque. That was Adamiya. Adamiya is a Sunni stronghold on the East side of the river in Baghdad. That places it within two miles of the principal Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. My friend who lives in Adamiya said to me a few weeks ago, after a major suicide bombing in Sadr City which killed 225 people and injured three or four hundred, a multiple suicide bombing, that American troops moved in between Adamiya and Sadr City, that’s to say between the Shiite stronghold and the Sunni stronghold, anticipating that Shiite sectarian death squads might come out of Sadr City to avenge the killing of Shiites in this multiple suicide bombing, and attack Adamiya. So there were tanks and other American military units placed between Sadr City and Adamiya. My friend said to me, if the United Nations is correct in saying that 3,700 Iraqi civilians died in October, and that’s a morgue’s count. It may be an underestimate, we don’t know. But he said if it’s correct that 3,700 people died in October across Iraq, think about this. You take the American troops away in this situation, leaving Shiite death squads to move into Adamiya in force without any kind of protection, he said it won’t be 3,700 dead in a month, it’ll be 3,700 dead in the night in Adamiya. Now that may be an exaggeration, but it reflects the kind of fears that are quite widespread, amongst Sunnis in particular, but also to some extent amongst Shiites in Iraq, about the consequences of an American troop withdrawal.

HH: Your ’93 Pulitzer included a citation for your courageous and thorough coverage of the destruction of Sarajevo, and the barbarous killings in the war in Bosnia/Herzegovina. Would you expect, Mr. Burns, to see even worse scenes, and going on for longer than you saw in Bosnia/Herzegovina, if in fact the United States were to leave?

JB: Well, Hugh, you know, a big scale of killing in this war is something that is new to me and to many correspondents who have covered many of these regional wars in the last fifteen or twenty years. The brutality, the nature of the killing, the way the killings are carried out, the suicide bombings, and we experienced this personally, in a sense, that we have to find a way to survive in the middle of this, and we have had to adopt measures which by the standards of the major American media are extraordinary, simply to be able to operate in the middle of this. So if I’m asked for comparisons between Sarajevo and Iraq, all I can say is that this war seems a great deal more brutal and bloody than even that very unpleasant war in Bosnia. But I want to say, Hugh, and I’m sure we’ll get to this later on, the conundrum is this. If you leave, there’s all likelihood if the United States withdraws its forces in a precipitous manner, the likelihood is it seems to me that there will be a great deal more killing. If you stay, of course, the counterargument, which we can also recognize, based in Baghdad, if you stay, what if you cannot stabilize the situation, and American blood and treasure continues to have to be poured into this situation, then it comes down to in an end, a calculation which only the American people can make between, if you will, of the Iraqi interest and the American interest, the American interest in bringing the boys home, and saving for the casualties, or leaving the enormous strain that there is on the American taxpayer, now $400 billion dollars already spent, that’s an extremely difficult issue to resolve. It’s across at the very core of the political debate in the United States. We can recognize just how difficult that problem is, that if we’re…if I’m asked, as somebody who lives in Baghdad, and has been for five years, about the consequences, all I would say is if you’re going to do that, if you are going to pull back, you have to recognize that there is a very, very high price that’s going to be paid by Iraqis.

HH: Robert Kaplan, superb writer and reporter, has used the word genocide to predict an aftermath. Is that an overstatement, Mr. Burns?

JB: You know, these phrases, civil war, genocide, all of them carry an enormous kind of emotional baggage along with them. We’ve seen genocide in Iraq already. So we know that it’s a country that’s prone to it, that Saddam Hussein was on trial for genocide when he was hanged in the case of the killing of the Kurds in Northern Iraq in the second of his two trials. We know that there is that potential. Some of what’s happened already certainly has the kind of, it has the aura, if you will, it has the feel of genocide. What else is it when Sunni insurgents repeatedly drive trucks and other motor vehicles loaded with high explosives into Shiite marketplaces, Mosques, other gathering places, when they kill Shiite worshippers who are going as pilgrims to Najaf in large numbers? This to me has the look of genocide about it. When Shiite sectarian death squads try to avenge those killings by going into Sunni areas and rounding up at random hundreds of Sunnis, or hundreds of civilians, and asking the Shiites to identify themselves, releasing the Shiites, and then killing in industrial strength Sunnis who they’ve rounded up…

HH: It looks like genocide. I’ve got to go to break. John Burns of the New York Times is my guest. We’ll be right back.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, in reviewing the Charlie Rose interview, as well as the one you did with Bill Maher in March of 2006, I was struck by two statements. To Bill Maher, I’m paraphrasing, yes, the Americans made a whole bunch of mistakes in the occupation, but if we fail, it won’t be because of those mistakes, and to Charlie Rose, the statement that when Iraqis sit down and talk with you in calm situations, the vast majority of people still believe they are better off with Saddam, under Saddam. Nothing was possible, it was frozen. Those two statements are extraordinary. You don’t hear them very much. Can you expand on them?

JB: Yeah, I need to say something about opinion polling in Iraq, because opinion polls tend to tell you something different. But I think opinion polling in Iraq is extremely misleading, because opinion is intimidation led. It was under Saddam. If CNN posed a camera in the face of somebody on the street in Baghdad in the fall of 2002, when the war was looming, and they said are you with Saddam or are you with George Bush, well of course, 100% of all Iraqis who were asked that question said they were with Saddam. What else could they do? They didn’t…they were going to end up in Abu Ghraib on the end of a rope. Of course the situation changed somewhat, but any Iraqi who is asked now a question like do you regard American troops as occupation troops, do you want them out, is wise, given the fact that American troops may be in the neighborhood for 30 minutes, but the bad guys are in the neighborhood for 24 hours, it’s wise to give a heavily, carefully calibrated answer, which does nothing to upset the bad guys. So yes, I do believe, number one, that most Iraqis still believe that for all of the price they have paid, amidst all of this chaos, that the possibility of a different kind of future for the country that was opened by the arrival of American troops was net an advantage. Let’s look at what happened after the hanging of Saddam. There were protests, but they were not very widespread, they were not very protracted. Saddam had very little legacy left at the end. The problem was not Saddam. The problem is that the Sunni minority in Iraq has not reconciled to the loss of power. That explains a great deal about the war. It was a frozen society. It was an unbelievably brutal society. And most Iraqis, and this is beyond doubt, and I include in this Sunnis, yearned to be relieved of it. And when America did that for them, it was after many, many years of Iraqis attempting to overthrow Saddam, failing, and paying an incredible price for it. So I think that we’d have to remember that in making an assessment of what happened. As for what has happened since, and the American mistakes, when I said if it fails, it won’t be because of American mistakes, what did I mean by that? Of course, if there hadn’t been some of the mistakes that were made along the way, the situation might be somewhat better. But my sense of it is that if it fails, that history may say it was mission impossible from the beginning, which is to say that when you remove the carapace of terror that Saddam had imposed on that society, what was revealed underneath it was an extremely fractured society which had never resolved the question of power, political and economic power, and how it was going to be divided between the principal communities, mainly Sunni and Shiites. That’s the situation the United States inherited, it’s the situation which continues to fuel the violence there, and it may be that history will say that the china shop rule, the power rule, you break it, you own it, might have been well to consider beforehand, not because Iraqis didn’t want him overthrown, Saddam overthrown. They did want him, and there was scenes of liberation in the streets of Iraq afterward. But you know, this is an extremely complex, extremely violence-prone society, a society that has proven to be resistant to, not yet ready for, and maybe will not be ready for a very long time, for Jeffersonian democracy of the kind that the United States hopes to install there. We’ll have to see what history’s verdict is, but my sense is that Iraqis still, in the main, are happy at least that Saddam is gone, very unhappy about other things, but happy to see him gone.

HH: Do you…we’ve got a minute until our break, Mr. Burns. As this new operation goes forward in Baghdad, do you worry that the enemy will stage atrocities and blame the Americans for them, an attempt to set us up again in the court of public opinion?

JB: This is what the American commanders call a learning enemy. They’re very astute. I think that’s one of the possibilities, another possibility is that they will melt away, that with an American military build-up in Baghdad, they’ll simply go and cause trouble elsewhere, and there’s all kinds of potential for trouble, but there’s no doubt that if you can stabilize Baghdad, and I think more American troops will go at least some way towards that, that at least you have a stronger foothold from which you can then proceed to try and achieve something else.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, in conversation with Charlie Rose, you stated that you’d never been assigned a story so compelling as the Iraq situation. You mentioned Queen Mary’s lament that when she was dead, you will find Calais lying on my heart, and you implied that Baghdad would be on yours, and you said for your generation, I assumed of journalists, that this has been a defining moment. All of that is background. How has American journalism done in this war?

JB: I think it’s done very well. Let me just first of all give you some figures. In April, 2003, when American troops arrived in Baghdad, there were about 2,000 reporters in Iraq. We didn’t expect that to be sustained, but we also didn’t expect it to go as low as it has. I think there are less than 70, and my personal estimate is about 50 foreign media people left in Baghdad. Why? Because it is so dangerous, it is extremely hazardous. When you ask me how well American media has done, and I’d like to speak here now about all the American media, the principal newspapers and the principal television networks, I think they’ve done very well indeed. First of all, in order to meet these hazards, we’ve all had to take extraordinary procedures which are extremely expensive, not easy to do, at a time when to speak of print media revenues, it’s a tough time in American newspapering. And my newspaper, it’s not alone, but probably more so than any other newspaper, at a time of revenues which have been a little disappointing in recent years because of the changing landscape of American media, the rise of the internet, has not stinted to spend an enormous amount of money to cover this war, and to put the coverage of the war first. They made it possible for us by giving us the equipment that we need to do it, and I’m talking about armored cars, I’m talking about a guard force which is absolutely essential for it to be able to operate, and to allow us to construct a compound in Baghdad which is well protected, they’ve made it possible for us to cover the war, and not to sit inside the compound, sucking on our thumbs, but to go out every day and to try and range across Iraq to be able to tell American readers what’s going on. We’re not alone, it’s being done by other American media. The European media have largely disappeared, the French and Italian governments have actually forbidden their reporters to go back because of the kidnappings, and the costs incurred by those governments in buying back their kidnapped journalists, as much as $5 million dollars each. So yes, I think American media has done a pretty good job, and we need to be there, because this bears so heavily, not just on the future of Iraq and the future of the Middle East, but on the future of the United States.

HH: Are you aware of the work of Michael Yon and Bill Roggio?

JB: I’m not. Tell me about them.

HH: Well, they’re independents who are out embedded with troops in combat zones from Fallujah to Mosul and into Baghdad, etc.

JB: Yes, I’ve heard about them.

HH: So they’re freelance people, and I was wondering if they’d influenced you at all, or if you’d met them at all.

JB: No, I’ve heard about people who do this. I haven’t met them, and you know, it’s…this new media thing is something that we’re all struggling to cope with, and of course, they have a kind of, if you will, an independence and a free-wheeling way of doing things which I think is all for the good. I think more competition, more voices, more perspectives…bring it on. It’s good for all of us, and it keeps us on our toes.

HH: Now here’s a critique from James Q. Wilson, one of the preeminent academics of our time, formerly of Harvard and UCLA. This was from a speech he gave in Manhattan to the Manhattan Institute, reprinted in the Wall Street Journal. “Focusing every more sharply on the mostly bi-coastal, mostly liberal elites, and with their more conservative audience lost to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, mainstream outlets like the New York Times have become more nakedly partisan. And in the Iraq war, they have kept up a drumbeat of negativity that has had a big effect on elite and public opinion alike. Thanks to the power of these media organs, reduced but still enormous, many Americans are coming to see the Iraq war as Vietnam redux. Most of what I have said here is common knowledge, but it is common knowledge about a new period in American journalistic history.” Is Professor Wilson wrong, John Burns?

JB: Let me talk about the New York Times. It’s a very difficult concept for people who are critical of the East Coast, supposedly liberal media to understand, that you don’t judge the New York Times by our editorial page, and its opposition to the war, because there is a firewall, and it’s real, it’s real, between the editorial page and the news pages. And I can tell you that not only is there a lot of attention paid, and this is real, I know this. I run our operation in Baghdad, I talk to our editors, including our top editors all the time, to try and find a way in covering this war that is not partisan, that is neither liberal nor conservative, but simply tells the reader how we find it. And you’d be surprised how little criticism we get, judging by the e-mail traffic that flows on that score. But there is a confusion, that people read the editorial page, they read the strongly critical views that are expressed on the editorial page, and they assume that we all share that view, and I can tell you that amongst American reporters who cover this war, and including American reporters for the New York Times, there are a range of views from what we’d broadly be speaking, described as liberals and conservatives, but we try to keep those out of the paper, and our editors work hard to see that those views do stay out of the paper.

HH: Now Terry Moran of ABC on this program a couple of years ago, May of ’05, said to me, and I’m quoting, “There is, Hugh, I agree with you, a deep, anti-military bias in the media, one that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong. I think that there is…this is a hangover from Vietnam, and I think it’s very dangerous. That’s different from the media doing its job of challenging the exercise of power without fear or favor.” Do you see that anti-military bias in the media, John Burns?

JB: Let me just say I think that post-Vietnam, and post-Watergate, there was a widespread feeling amongst new generation of American journalists of, if you will, suspicion about the role of government, and the role of the military in general. But I can speak to you about how we correspondents at the New York Times feel about the American military in Iraq. We have covered the disasters. We’ve covered what happened at Abu Ghraib. We’ve covered what happened at Haditha. But I think I could say this on behalf of all of us who work at the New York Times, and who depends a great deal for our security on American forces, governments…there’s an old saying that countries get the kind of governments they deserve. Well, I would say that may be true also of the military. And the United States military that we encounter are wonderful. They’re magnificent. They’re extremely brave, that goes without saying. They make an enormous effort to perform a civic as well as military duty in Iraq. They are people of honor, and they’re people of whom America can be proud. And I say that without…in an unhyphenated, unqualified way, and I hope that that finds its way into the columns of the New York Times, in the way that we report on this war. America has a fine military, a fine Army, a fine Marine Corps and Navy, and whereas we experience, it, and they’re in an extremely difficult situation, what General Casey, the departing commander describes as a very convoluted situation from which there is no certain, safe, successful exit.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, first, thank you. I’m going to ask my producer afterwards to talk to you. I could spend three hours…we haven’t covered Sadr, we haven’t covered al-Douri, we haven’t covered Iran, and I think the public is hungry for the kind of reporting you do, and the information you give, and I very much appreciate the time. But I have two quick questions that go to subjects we’ve covered, and I just wanted to close out. Your new colleague at the New York Times, Thomas Edsall, has said that the ration in newsrooms, of which you’ve been around for thirty-plus years, is between 15-25:1, Democrat to Republican. Do you agree with that?

JB: I don’t, actually. It’s not my experience at the New York Times. And to tell you the truth, I have no idea how the executive editor at the New York Times votes, and it’s his business, and I wouldn’t ask him. I just don’t think that that’s the experience of what people who’ve come into the New York Times would feel. I really don’t. And I think a fair reading of the New York Times would represent that. I think what is fair to say is that the New York Times is published in New York City, and it reflects New York City, to some extent, and the perspectives of New York City. How that affects the answer to the question you’re asking I don’t know. But I don’t actually feel that. I’m a person who…you know, I’m a son of a senior military officer…

HH: Yes, I know. Born in the middle of the War, 1944.

JB: Yeah, and I felt very comfortable. I’ve been at the New York Times for 32 years, your listeners will have heard from me, they can judge as to whether I am a liberal or a conservative. I feel comfortable there, and I feel that I have been free for those 32 years to write the truth according as I see it.

HH: That’s the most powerful thing you could have said. I have one more question that goes to the American military you were, I think, appropriately praising. Objectively, from your conversations with them, not my opinion, your opinion, but what they think, what do they think of George W. Bush?

JB: My sense is, of course there are a range of opinions, as you would expect, especially with an army where in Iraq, which is 40% composed of reservists. My sense is that we don’t talk a lot about that, although I saw George W. Bush when he spoke to the troops in Baghdad in June, in the palace, and he got a response, an absolutely ecstatic response, and I could see how ebullient he was, how buoyed up he was after that, because I think it’s the kind of response he doesn’t get too often in the United States anymore. But what I can say is the American military in Iraq overwhelmingly believe in the mission that they’ve been given. They take it seriously, they know there’s a high price to be paid…

HH: Do they believe in Bush, though, Mr. Burns?

JB: Do they believe in Bush? You know, it’s not a question I spend a great deal of time asking them about, to tell you the truth. We talk about the mission, we talk about whether it can be accomplished or not. We don’t talk about American politics. I’m sure you would find that there are many people who do not support President Bush, just as there are many others who do. As to how that compares to the opinion at home, it’s really hard for me to say.

HH: Well, again, my very deep thanks. I hope you’ll come back so we can talk about Sadr, al-Douri, Iran, many other things. I appreciate your work, and thanks for spending time with us this afternoon, John Burns.

JB: Thank you.

End of interview.


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