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New York Times’ John F. Burns on Iraq’s past, present and future, as he sees it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008
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HH: A special hour as we return to a conversation that we always enjoy having here with John F. Burns. He is currently the London bureau chief of the New York Times. But if you’ve listened, you know that he is twice a Pulitzer Prize winner for the New York Times. He’s been their bureau chief all over the world, including India, Beijing, Moscow, and most recently, for many years, in Baghdad, Iraq. Mr. Burns, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Great to speak with you.

JB: It’s a great pleasure, Hugh.

HH: John, you left Iraq in the fall of 2007, and you haven’t been back, it’s my understanding. How have you been keeping track of events over there? And are you still in touch on a fairly regular basis with your colleagues in the Times bureau there?

JB: Well, an indirect way of answering that would be to say that leaving the war is a great deal more difficult than committing to it over the five years that I was in Iraq. And the withdrawal is difficult, and so part of what soothes one in a situation like that is to stay in touch with people. And my wife remains in Baghdad, continues to work at the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, so I keep in touch.

HH: What do you understand to be conditions in the country generally now, compared to when you left?

JB: Well, of course, it’s compared to what? If you compare the situation in Iraq to 90% of the countries in the world, it’s still a very violent and threatening place. But if you compare it to the Iraq of sixteen months or so ago, when General Petraeus took over the military command and the surge began, things have improved very greatly.

HH: And give us some sort of metrics by which you would measure that improvement.

JB: Well, the most important metric that comes to mind that’s recent, and it’s been in every American newspaper, I would imagine, in the last 24 or 48 hours, is that in the month of May, just concluded, was the lowest number of American troops killed, I think I’m right in saying, in the entire sweep of the war since the second phase of the war began in the spring of 2004, March of 2004. That’s when the United States knew that it was going into a second phase of war in Iraq, after of course the first phase, the invasion. Only 19 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq in May. Now that’s 19 families across the United States who have been absolutely devastated, and one has to be very careful how you address this problem. But if you compare it with the worst months of the war, for example, November, 2004, when there were 137 U.S. soldiers killed, if you compare it even with the sort of figures that were being reported in the early months of the surge, when those figures were well up into the 60s, 70s and 80s a month, it’s a remarkable turnaround. The levels of violence across Iraq, depending on the metric that you use, are very sharply down. They’re particularly, sharply down in Baghdad, where my wife tells me that it’s now a very rare occurrence, something that was a very common occurrence at our bureau on the east banks of the Tigris in Baghdad, to hear a suicide car or truck bombing. You could almost time the day by the early morning suicide bombings that were going on there as recently as a year ago. Now, thank God, it’s become a rare event.

HH: Are your colleagues, not just your wife, but all your colleagues, and not just at the New York Times, but in the media, enjoying what they consider to be a measurable improvement in their ability to report, and in the quality of their daily existence?

JB: Well, they still have to be very careful. I’d like to say that the New York Times remained adventurous and enterprising in its reporting throughout the most difficult times of the war, but we were, there’s no doubt about it, there’s no point of pretending otherwise, pretty constrained by the risks that leaving our compound and going out across the city of Baghdad, and into Iraq, entailed. Those risks are down, but it’s very hard to measure that, of course, You know, you only have to be unlucky once for it to be a complete disaster. So we’re not lowering our guard. Our guard is still high, I mean, both in literal and metaphorical terms. We protect ourselves pretty well when we leave our compound, because the risk of kidnap or ambush is still there, although the figures for those things have also gone down very seriously. But if you compare the kind of journalism that you can do in Iraq to the kind of journalism that you can do in Los Angeles, of course, they’re two very different things.

HH: In terms of the observable, such as quality and quantity of food, electricity availability on a fairly continuous basis, medical care, entrepreneurial openings, how’s Baghdad feel now compared to three years ago?

JB: Well again, what I can tell you about that is second hand, and I think you have to look at each individual thing you’ve mentioned discreetly. Enterprise, from everything I hear, and from what I saw myself before I left Iraq, is thriving. The markets are busy, the roads leading out of Iraq are heavy with traffic in both directions. You have to remember that Iraq is now earning vastly more money, as are all oil producing countries, from its oil. Saddam Hussein, I’m taking a risk here with the figures, but my recollection is that Saddam Hussein had very few years when he earned more than about $25 billion dollars in oil revenues, and that was when there was no war. Those revenues now are up in the $60-70 billion dollar range for a year. This is naturally feeding its way back into the economy. But if you talk about things like electricity and medical care, those things were so devastated by the last four years of warfare in Iraq, that it’s going to take a very long time to have a measurable difference. I think there are improvements, but they’re incremental improvements. And from everything that I hear, from my wife and my colleagues who are still there, and everything that I read, there’s still very widespread dissatisfaction among Iraqis about the paucity of government services. And amongst those, of course, are the generation of electrical power and medical services and education are very high on the list.

HH: I’m talking with John Burns, London bureau chief of the New York Times, five years a veteran of the war in Iraq, where he served as bureau chief for the New York Times. Mr. Burns, stepping back and recalling the time when the surge got underway, and you have a very extensive relationship with David Petraeus, and from our previous conversations, I know you admire him quite a lot. Did you give him any chance to have achieved what has been achieved there? Or is this what you expected would happen?

JB: You know, I don’t think…as speaking for myself, I was pretty skeptical, as I think most of us were. We had seen four years in which the situation at every turn that we hoped for a turn for the better appeared to turn for the worse. It’s now commonplace in Washington, D.C., to say that the war was well on its way to being lost by December by 2006. And so you know, if you’d been a betting man, you’d have had to say that the odds were heavily against the kind of success that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have had there. And it’s not alone, of course, the fact that they’ve had an additional 30,000 American troops, which are now in the process of being withdrawn. But other factors, all of which, if you will, one connected to the other, but the fact that the Sunni awakening, the turning, if you will, of very important elements in the Sunni community that had been either tacitly or overtly in support of the insurgency, who have now turned around and are working with the Coalition forces, the Americans and the Iraqis. That’s had a remarkable effect, as have had the ceasefire by Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite militia leader. There are many factors here, but however you measure it, the fact is that an enterprise which was attended by a great deal of skepticism when it began, a great deal of skepticism in Washington, D.C., in the Congress as you’ll recall, has had a remarkable success, which remains, as I think the phrase that General Petraeus used on the Hill a few weeks ago, it’s fragile and reversible. I think you need to put that into context. The American military command is being extremely cautious in what it has to say about these improved metrics in Iraq, because after all, and General Petraeus is on his third tour in Iraq, as are many of the commanders, as are many of the troops, they’ve seen situations before where things turned briefly for the better only to get worse. And they’re very wary of the possibility that this could happen again. And the most recent example of this was the announcement that 19 American troops were killed in May, as I say, the lowest since March of 2004. And I noted that the American military command, in releasing those statistics, was very careful to say that we’re not going to claim any great significance for this, because we have seen, and this is the American military command speaking themselves, we’ve seen before how these figures have gone down from 100 or more a month to the high 30s-low 40s in a month, only to reverse again and get worse. So they’re being extremely cautious, as you would imagine they would be.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, last week I had Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker on, and I don’t know if you know Lawrence Wright. I assume that…

JB: I do indeed.

HH: Yes, and so we talked about his most recent New Yorker piece, The Rebellion Within, the sort of struggle for the soul of al Qaeda. And I think a lot of it, he believes, and I believe, is because the Anbar awakening has sort of shattered al Qaeda’s confidence in itself, and is causing many, many good things to happen around the globe. What’s your assessment about the effect on al Qaeda of the strategic blow struck them in Anbar?

JB: You know, that is really a very difficult thing to hazard an opinion on, because al Qaeda, as you know, is a kind of holding company. It’s very difficult to tell what the resonance of al Qaeda’s declining fortunes in Iraq will be on al Qaeda elsewhere. There’s not much sign that al Qaeda’s activities, for example, in Afghanistan and Pakistan have diminished lately, even as their fortunes in Iraq have deteriorated so badly. But there’s no question that they are on the back foot in Iraq, and that the principal factor in that is that the Sunni community has, in very important dimensions, turned against al Qaeda.

HH: Have you had a chance to read Michael Yon’s new book, A Moment Of Truth In Iraq yet?

JB: I have not.

HH: He makes the argument that the deep brutality and cruelty of al Qaeda, and he details it in such a revolting way because he saw it happen for so long, as you did, had the effect of immunizing Anbar Sunnis against a recurrence of al Qaeda. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to have peace in Iraq, but that they really have, threw away their opportunity, if there ever was one there. What do you make of that, John Burns? Are they such bad people that they sow the seeds of permanent rejection wherever they have a period of time in which to nest?

JB: You know, I think the answer to that has to be pretty emphatically yes. My experience in 35 or 40 years reporting around the world is whilst there are many cultural differences among the nation of the Earth, ordinary people are pretty much the same everywhere. Nobody likes to live in the midst of a kind of mindless bloodshed that al Qaeda has visited on Iraq. And even in the worst times, when we sat around our dinner table at the New York Times compound in Baghdad, and we used to remind ourselves that there was a phenomenon at work that would be very hard to gauge, how powerful it was, or how powerful it could become. And that’s the exhaustion of the ordinary people with the conflict. It happened in Lebanon, not as decisively as one would wish, as we can see from current events in Lebanon, but their civil war, which lasted fifteen years, when it did wind down, it had a great deal to do with the fact that the people of Lebanon were completely exhausted. They wanted an end to it. And you could certainly see that beginning to happen in Iraq two years ago. And I’ve no doubt that the success that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and others have had in the last year has had something to do with that. And it gives one hope that whilst some of the other phenomenon are involved here could turn around, that that could be very decisive. If in fact the people of Iraq have decided that they’ve seen enough of this, then they have it in their hands, of course, to bring this to an end.

HH: What did you see when you were there, and what have you heard since you’ve left about the professionalism of the Iraqi military, and their ability to maintain the sort of professionalism that prevents yet another strongman along the lines of so many strongmen we’ve seen in that region emerging?

JB: Very difficult thing to say. I think there’s no doubt from some of the things that have happened lately, that it is a very mixed picture. There are Iraqi military units, I think it’s best to talk discreetly here about the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police. The Iraqi Police is a whole different and much less promising issue. But the Iraqi Army has on occasion, and particularly when they are fighting alongside the Americans, have done quite well. At other times, they’ve done very poorly. The attempt to retake the streets of Basra from the Shiite militias, as you know a few weeks ago, very quickly ran into trouble. American troops were summoned, the 82nd Airborne, and limited the amount of damage. And now there’s reports that large parts of Basra are back under government control. The Iraqis are tough people. If they’re properly led, properly equipped, properly fed and properly paid, and if they believe that they are on the winning side, the Iraqis will fight. They’ll fight for themselves. They won’t fight for us, they’ll fight for themselves. They’re capable of doing this, and I think there are some signs now that things are really getting better. And certainly when you talk to American officers returned from the war, they have their frustrations, but they very quickly close you down if you suggest that the Iraqis don’t want to fight, because they’ll tell you many, many a story of how brave and resourceful the Iraqis that they have fought with have been.

HH: Now what do you make of Prime Minister Maliki and his government, and their trajectory of competence?

JB: Very difficult to say. These are people who have never had any experience of governing. They’re mostly people who lived in exile for 20, 30 years. They’re a fairly motley crew. They’ve been deeply scarred and traumatized by what happened under Saddam Hussein. They were not, in short, people who were well-equipped to assume the government of a troubled nation like Iraq. But they, too, are on a learning curve, and are doing better. And there are some people in that government who are corrupt, venal, inefficient, and there are others who aren’t. So it’s a very mixed picture. But the most encouraging single thing that has happened in that respect, of course, in recent weeks, is the decision of Prime Minister Maliki, at last, far too late, to take on the militias, the Shiite militias, and in particular, Muqtada al-Sadr, who let’s remember, was the political figure, al-Sadr, who put Maliki in his job. It was Sadr’s votes in the parliament that put Maliki in the prime ministership. So for Maliki to have turned around now and have gone after Sadr the way he did in Basra, and currently in Sadr City, is a remarkable change.

HH: And what are you hearing about the Sadr city initiative? Is that…critics of the war say oh, that’s just Sadr holding back, and proponents of continued support for Iraq say no, Maliki has broken his back. What do you hear, John Burns?

JB: Very difficult to say. Muqtada al-Sadr is an extremely cunning fellow. He has moved between politics and insurgency with tremendous deftness. At the moment, he’s on the back foot after taking quite a pummeling in Basra, and in Sadr City, and he’s switched back to his political mode, and has been prominent, for example, in demanding that the Iraqi government, Maliki’s government, not sign a new bases agreement with the American forces, which the United States very much, very badly wants to be reached fairly rapidly in the coming weeks. So you can’t count Sadr out, and you can be sure of one thing, that if he gets the chance, he’ll have his men in black pajamas back on the streets, I shouldn’t say black pajamas, that’s Vietnam, but these black-shirted followers will be back on the streets. They still are there.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, when we went to break, we were talking about Sadr and his militia, and his desire to get them, you never can count them out. He is so deeply identified with Iran. While you were there, and since you have left, have you been able to discern what Iran’s objective is here? Do they really think they can have a satellite state with a nation that they were so brutally at war with for a decade?

JB: Well, they certainly see it as a historic opportunity for Shiism to push, militant Shiism to push westward. There’s no doubt about that. But there are different Irans, of course. There’s Ahmadinejad, and there are other Iranians who are much more realistic. And as I think I’ve said to you before, if you look at the Iraqi Shiite community, it’s crucial to remember that the vast, overwhelming majority of them are Arabs. They are not Persians. And nationalism is a real thing in Iraq. And whatever the Iranians’ intentions may be, my feeling has been, and evidenced by everything I was ever told by Shiites in Iraq, that the Iranians could very quickly overreach themselves. The Iraqis are proud of their nation, they want it to be a self-standing, independent state. They do not wish to be a Satrapi, if you will, of Iran, and I think if Iran had that in mind, I think it’s in for a major disappointment. But of course, what they mostly have in mind, I think, is to frustrate the United States, the great Satan. That’s been a very powerful force in everything that Iran has done in Iraq.

HH: There have been some intimations in the media that the grand Ayatollah Sistani has decided that it is time to move to eject the Americans from Iraq. Have you seen that? What do you make of those, nothing in writing, just reports and rumors and innuendo, and I don’t know how to assess it. What do you think, John?

JB: You know, you could…it’s a little bit like Chairman Mao in China during the cultural revolution. Cho En Lai used to say for everything that one group of people claim that Mao wants, there’s another group of people that can claim the opposite, because Mao, like Sistani, is so elusive. He doesn’t appear in public, he doesn’t make public statements, but very rarely. It’s extremely difficult to tell where at any one time he stands on these issues, so I wouldn’t hazard an opinion about that.

HH: Now let me ask you, next segment, I want to talk about the United States and its politics in Iraq, and I also want to talk about the UK. But just as John Burns, are you an optimist about Iraq as we sit here talking at the beginning of the summer of 2008, John Burns?

JB: Well, I think like most fair-minded people, I’m a lot more optimistic than I was a year ago, and I can see the potential for it going very wrong again. But I do think that there is the prospect now, if this is deftly handled, for a soft as opposed to a hard landing to the United States in Iraq. It won’t be victory, they won’t be throwing flowers at American soldiers again, but there is now the possibility that with careful navigation, the United States could draw its troops down and bring them home, not quickly, over a period of years, and that this will prove not to have been quite the disaster that a year ago it seemed likely to be. But it could equally well turn around, and it could yet again, it could become a situation promising nothing but catastrophe for the United States. Very difficult to tell, but certainly, there’s a great deal more grounds for optimism now than there was twelve or sixteen months ago.

HH: Are there reasonable prospects that in the intermediate term, nobody knows the long term, that there might be a stable Iraq that is free, and at least in that region’s terms, and if not an ally of the United States, certainly a partner on some things such that it’s a contributor to stability and to the war on terror, John Burns?

JB: That’s very difficult to say, what the trajectory of a future Iraqi government will be. My own guess is that it will not be a democracy. That, as you know, is a very rare and almost unseen thing in the Arab world. There’s likely to be a strongman there. I think in the view of all that has happened, any credible government of Iraq will have to be fairly wary of the United States. In years to come, I think the United States could live with that. But yes, I think it’s quite possible that you could have an Iraq that is not overtly hostile to the United States, and could eventually, with its oil wealth, once again become a stable state exercising an influence for stability in the region. That, of course, is, right now, is too far forward a thing to predict, but it’s not impossible.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Burns, you’ve spent a lot of time in the United States since transitioning from Iraq to the London bureau, and you’ve talked to a lot of people about Iraq. What’s your sense of the viability of Iraq policy in the United States? Is it too far politicized to ever get to a common sense approach that’s bipartisan here?

JB: You know, a foreign correspondent whose spent most of the last thirty years outside the United States is well advised to stay upwind of complex problems of American politics. But I can say this, that my sense, talking to audiences and individuals across the United States in recent months, is that there’s been something of a convergence of opinion that notwithstanding a presidential election which by its nature is likely to be a polarizing event on great issues of public policy like this, that there’s been a slow but perceptible move towards some kind of moderated position, that is to say a position which at least narrows the gap between those who want it out fast and those who wanted to stay the course. And of course, you know, the fact that the Iraq issue has, is no longer listed as the principal issue, or even perhaps the second issue in the presidential campaign, speaks for itself. Why? Because Americans have seen that things have improved substantially there. But it seems to me, listening to people talk across America, that there is a view emerging which could eventually be a more consensual view. We need to get out, we need to get out as soon as we can, but we need to get out in a way that’s consistent with American dignity and honor, and the maintenance of the credibility of American power in the world. It’s not impossible in view of the situation on the ground in Iraq right now that some kind of formula like that could be found by the next president.

HH: And do you see that formula requiring a period of three or four or five years? Or are you talking about twelve to eighteen months? There, it really is difficult to find out where people feel is an appropriate long term extension of American power here. What do you think?

JB: Of course, that’s the really tough question, how quick. I would guess somewhere in the region of three to five years. If it were five years, that’s to say the whole of the term of the new president, the United States by then would have been in Iraq ten or eleven years. The generals have always said that the average length of counterinsurgency undertakings in the modern world has been about twelve years, I think I’m correct in saying. So that would be, I would think not less than three, and hopefully not more than five. And it seems to me that whoever is president, and John McCain has recently spoken himself about his desire within the course of his first term to bring this war to an end for the United States, whoever is president is going to try and set a target of getting those troops home by the end of that first term.

HH: Do you think that we have fairly well avoided, or that the Iraqis have fairly well avoided the prospect of genocide at this point, John Burns?

JB: You know, it’s much less talked about, but I don’t think that you can completely, if I can use a phrase civil war instead of genocide, I don’t think you can completely dismiss that as a possibility. If the things that have gone right in the last year, the trajectory turned around, and those things started to go wrong again, I think you could find a fairly rapid descent back into the kind of perfectly dreadful situation that Iraqis faced in 2005 and 2006. I think the odds of that happening, the odds against that happening are improving, but you can’t dismiss it.

HH: Knowing what we know now, and seeing everything that we’ve seen happen, John Burns, do you think the United States ought to have invaded Iraq when they did?

JB: You know, I’m inclined to leave that, leave that to the historians, and history will surely deal with that question on the basis of what the outcome is, something we don’t yet know. But I will say that, and I can speak here for journalists, not for policy makers, that before anything like this ever happens again, I think we’re all going to have to pay a great deal of attention to history in a way that perhaps we didn’t sufficiently in the run up to this war. We need to be more cautioned. It may be that history will judge this thing to have been a disaster, in which case it will clearly judge that the decision to go in was the wrong thing to do. But if against all the odds, the United States manages to get home from Iraq for all the quite horrendous costs that it has faced in sustaining this war, with dignity, and leaving behind it something of a stable Iraq, perhaps history will make a kinder judgment.

HH: Do you find Iraqis wishing that we’d left Saddam in place, and just left them about their business, given the chaos that has followed? The difficulty to get here, do you think that they…

JB: You know, it’s…we certainly were hearing quite a lot of that in ’05 and ’06. But what I noticed was you heard that at times of tremendous stress in the aftermath of the most awful events, big suicide bombings, the things which were making headlines in the United States at that time. But if you talk to Iraqis when they were not in that distressed state, more calmly, the much more common view, I would have said the overwhelming view was they don’t like to be occupied, but they felt the United States, they needed the United States to stay long enough to return Iraq to some kind of equilibrium, some kind of stability. This is not rocket science. What would you expect Iraqis really to think in the face of the disasters that have befallen them in the wake of an American invasion, that they would feel unable themselves to restore the state to a state of stability. They would expect the United States would do it for them.

– – – –

HH: First of all, thanks again, John Burns, for spending this much time with us, very much appreciated. And I want to close by focusing on your current bureau. A few weeks ago, I had Liam Fox, shadow secretary of defense, in the studio for three hours. And we talked a lot about the jihadist pulse, whether it was quickening or slowing in London and the UK. What’s your assessment?

JB: Difficult to tell, but there’s no doubt that the United Kingdom has a serious domestic security problem, beginning with the fact that they have a very substantial population here, possibly as many as 2.5 million Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom are peace loving people who want to get on with their lives just the way everybody else does. But there is a radical fringe, and it’s not small, and virtually no day goes by, certainly no week goes by, without more evidence in court cases of some pretty dire things that might have happened had the British security forces, backed by American intelligence in many cases, not interceded to stop it happening. Now most recent case involving a group of young men, British young men, British born young men in the main, who wanted to knock down a dozen airliners over the Atlantic in a single stroke two or three years ago. The plot was discovered, and is now before the courts. So Britain has a problem with domestic Islamic jihadism in a way that the United States has not up until now faced.

HH: John Burns, let me close with this question. It’s ironic, you went from the center of the hot war against jihadism, not only in Iraq, you were in Afghanistan as well for many years. I think you’re now in the center of the cold war against it.

JB: (laughing)

HH: Do you think the West has an appreciation of the struggle that it’s in yet?

JB: Very hard to say, very hard to say. I think people in the United Kingdom are aware of it, because of course, they had, on a much smaller scale, they had their own 9/11 in July of 2005, with the attacks on the London transit system, followed very quickly by another failed attack on the London transit system, followed by this plot to knock down airliners, and a dozen or more other plots that have been discovered. So I think people in this country, in the United Kingdom, are pretty aware that there’s a serious long term problem. And the government, if they’re not aware, the government has not been slow in telling them that this is a problem that is a matter of a generation or more to solve, it’s not going to be easy, and that there’s, the government ministers involved in this invariably say that future attacks are not just likely, they’re certain.

HH: Wow. On that sober note, John Burns, thank you again, I look forward to talking with you, especially as we get closer to English elections, which seem to be inevitably going to go bad for some people that you may very well know, and I may know. So I look forward to that conversation, John Burns. Thanks.

End of interview.

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