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New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns on British Austerity and Afghanistan Outlook

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HH: Joined now by John F. Burns, London Bureau Chief of the New York Times. Mr. Burns, always a pleasure, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

JB: Always a pleasure, as you say, Hugh.

HH: John, let me ask you, David Cameron is in the States, and has been creating quite a lot of press, obviously. It’s a big deal when the prime minister of Great Britain comes to the United States. How much interest in this particular visit is there in Great Britain?

JB: A lot, a lot of interest. It’s very interesting, you know, that the default setting for many Brits is a kind of…there’s no hostility to the United States, but there is quite commonly a feeling, a sort of stand-off feeling that when a British prime minister goes to the White House, all of a sudden, you kind of see things more clearly. There’s a terrific interest in it. It’s been front page news here. The trip to the basketball game in Dayton, the White House state dinner and who was there, the quips between the President and the prime minister outside the Oval Office in the Rose Garden, all this has gotten absolutely blanket coverage. It’s a big story.

HH: Yeah, it’s kind of the reverse of Tony Blair and George W. Bush in that Tony Blair was Labour, and Bush was a Republican. Now, you’ve got a Democrat, and you’ve got a Conservative. But there is quite a lot of surprise, I would say, among center-right voters at the extent to which David Cameron has been effusive in his praise of Obama. Is that coming through, John Burns, in Great Britain?

JB: It is. There’s been some commentary on that here, because David Cameron, of course, is the leader of the capital C Conservative Party. But in American terms, he is a liberal, which means that there is not much clear blue water between David Cameron and Barack Obama on a whole range of issues. There’s another factor in all of this, which is that the strength of the relationship between Britain and the United States, obviously something that’s grown out of history, the fact that we speak a common language, we have a common culture is always going to be stronger than ideology.

HH: Now how about the idea that both are somewhat weak incumbents? And I will not characterize, because I just don’t know how David Cameron is faring right now in British politics. But President Obama is a fairly weak incumbent president heading into reelection, looking at the electoral map. What is David Cameron’s standing with the public right now in Great Britain?

JB: He’s doing relatively well. The polls show that his personal standing is quite high. I dare say higher than the personal standing of the President as reflected in opinion polls. The fact that his government has done some very radical things, the best known of which, of course, is the very sharp budget cuts that he’s made, and yet his personal standing has held up, and that the Conservative Party continues to be pretty well level playing with the opposition Labour Party in polls, is really quite remarkable two years into a five year parliamentary term. You would think this would be the son of, his popularity would be sinking right now. He’s up against, Cameron’s up against a rather weak and divided opposition. And I think the country, Britain, in its majority, has understood the need for some pretty tough medicine on the economic front. So all in all, he’s doing really quite well. And as matters stand right now, he would be an odds-on favorite for reelection when the election comes in 2015.

HH: Oh, that’s interesting. Now what about the Liberals, his junior partner in the grand coalition? How are they faring in the public eye?

JB: In the public opinion polls, they’ve not done very well. And indeed, in the rank and file of the Liberal Democratic Party, there’s great, great dissatisfaction with the fact that their leader, Nick Clegg, who’s the deputy prime minister, has signed onto the austerity program, to radical changes in the British welfare system, and in the way in which the socialized medical system, the National Health Service, is run. And of course, grave dissent in the party, and their standing in the opinion polls, has gone down from the high teens in the last election in 2010, to single digits right now. Clegg’s view is they’ve got to stay the course, and trust that the public will see that they did the responsible thing when the next election comes. But it’s a far from sure thing, so there are many liberal Democrats who are beginning to get very nervous.

HH: After the break, I’ll talk to you about foreign policy, John Burns. But with a minute to the break, what, if someone just parachuted into Great Britain today who was there five years ago, would they notice anything different in the way that the government is interacting with people?

JB: Oh, absolutely. The fact that there’s been a 20% across the board cut over the four years that ended in 2015 in the budgets of virtually all government departments except the military, foreign aid, and health. It’s having a real effect. A lot of public servants are losing their jobs, there’s very high unemployment, historically speaking, in the private sector. So yes, you’d see a lot of difference. But you know, we’ve seen in Britain before…

HH: Hold onto that thought, John. I’ll be right back with John Burns, Bureau Chief of the New York Times in London.

– – – –

HH: When we went to break, John, you were talking about the enormous changes underway in Great Britain. And I don’t doubt that public servants are losing their jobs, because 20% is 20%. But would the average, say, patient at the health service notice anything different? Would the average student in the public school system, understood the way Americans would understand that, paid for by the government, would they notice anything?

JB: I think in respect to the health system and the public education system, not yet. A lot of the changes that are going to take place still lie ahead. One place where it would be felt is in the higher education system, which has been largely state-funded in Britain. The new government has imposed a tuition level which is not as high as American colleges, but it’s getting there, nine thousand pounds. We’re talking about $15,000 dollars a year for tuition. This is pretty stiff by British standards. So I’m talking to you tonight from my home town, Cambridge, in England. And if you went around the streets of Cambridge talking to the students here, you’d find some pretty acerbic comments about the increasing costs in higher education. But in the public education system, in the hospitals, so far there hasn’t been an enormous impact as far as the students or the patients are concerned.

HH: Is there anything in the U.K. to resemble the Occupy movement in the United States, John Burns?

JB: There was. There was an exact replication of that in the city of London, in the financial district of London, and there was a tent city set up, as it happens, right on the edge of the heart of the city of London on the forecourt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Sir Christopher Wren domed cathedral, which is one of the iconic buildings in London. But the city of London corporation, that’s to say the financial districts, or governing body, went to the courts. They won orders for the eviction of these folks, and a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of the night, they were evicted. I’m glad, happy to say, that there was no violence, and that the Occupy London, as they called it, group, basically resigned at that time. They say their campaign will continue, but the occupation of public space in the city of London has ended.

HH: Now John Burns, in terms of the students that you have around you in Cambridge this evening, are they feeling optimistic about the future? And in reality, is their future in the U.K. as optimistic as, say, yours was when you came out of university?

JB: Well, if you talk about the students of Cambridge University, you’re talking about a special group. Cambridge and Oxford are to be compared with Harvard and Yale. So their employment prospects are probably better. But even they, the Cambridge students, the Oxford students, are finding it more difficult to get jobs on graduation. Obviously, the city of London, the financial district, has shrunk radically. The public services are shrinking. So jobs are difficult. And youth unemployment is pretty high, I think I’m right in saying, that youth measured as 16-25 year olds, the unemployment is something in the region of 20%, which is the highest level it’s been in about thirty years. So yes, they’re feeling the chill. Are they optimistic? No, I would say that would be a wrong thing to say. I think that on the whole, the mood of young people, and the mood of the country as a whole, is not presently optimistic. They’ve been told by the Cameron government, and by people who take the measure of the city of London, that this austerity, this bleakness, is going to last for quite a few years. It probably won’t be over in five, or possibly even ten years. If you’re 18 years old, that’s a pretty stiff medicine to take down.

HH: It is. That is. Now looking abroad, you wrote a story, you co-authored a story earlier this week that there would be no room between David Cameron and President Obama in leaning on Israel not to strike at Iran. And I’m curious about that, John Burns. Does David Cameron’s government not see the threat that looms if Iran gets a hold of it? Or are they believing that Iran’s not going to get a hold of it, therefore it’s premature? What is their motive for lassitude?

JB: Well, I spoke with Mr. Cameron the other night before he left. Obviously, for reasons I don’t need to enter into, this is a very, very tough issue for the president of the United States, the prime minister of Great Britain, to deal with. And the British government’s view, and it’s held very strongly, is that there’s quite a long way to go in tightening the sanctions. As Mr. Cameron said when I met him, he said, “Who would have believed a year ago that we would get Europe,” that’s the 27 nation-states of the European Union, “to agree on a an embargo on Iranian oil?” They feel there’s quite a long way to go in tightening financial sanctions, particularly sanctions that forbid people to deal with the Iranian Central Bank. And they also feel, on the basis of British and American intelligence briefings, that Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei, the Iranian leaders, are still some way away from acquiring the ability to build a bomb, and still further away from actually building a bomb. In other words, they believe they have some time. Cameron seems to think from, I would take the impression from my conversation with him that it’s in, that period of time is measured in a number of years, but only a few years. He didn’t say, but obviously because that’s a very sensitive issue. But I got the impression that they were talking about possibly a year, two years, three years, in which the…

HH: John Burns, I’m curious, though, given the historic relationship between Great Britain and Israel, Balfour declaration and all that, what sort of margin of error is Great Britain willing to indulge Israel in? Do they want them to walk right up to the edge of a nuclear capacity? Or are they willing to say look, never again, we understand that?

JB: Do you know, I think they’re between a devil and a hard place on this. I think there’s a firm determination that Israel, and in fact, the world not be confronted with a nuclear-armed Iran. On the other hand, they also think that an Israeli unilateral attack on Iran would A) not be certain to end the Iranian nuclear program, and B) would be virtually certain to result in an explosion of Iranian-inspired terrorist attacks across Europe and elsewhere. So they’re hoping against hope, really, that there will be some kind of negotiable solution to this, that internal political dynamics in Iran will take care of this. And I see, I think they look beyond all of this to the bring. That is to say the point at which a military strike, either by Israel or by the West, that which would involve of course the United States and the United Kingdom, would become inevitable. They’re looking upon that with absolute dread.

– – – –

HH: I didn’t want to lose time, John Burns, without asking you, given the number of years you spent in Kabul, your assessment of the spiral, I mean, just these horrific events of the last few months in Afghanistan. Is this unfolding in an inevitable fashion?

JB: Do you know, and I speak as one who, like I think many people in the Western world, felt that the American-led military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11 was absolutely justified and absolutely inevitable. But I’ve had for some time a very dark feeling that we are getting ourselves further and further into a situation that is similar to that, that the Soviets had in Afghanistan by 1987, that’s to say eight or nine years into their occupation of Afghanistan. We’re now ten years into the NATO occupation, or at least NATO military action in Afghanistan. And it seems to me harder and harder to maintain what looks like a fiction about being able to exit Afghanistan within the next two to three years, leaving behind a government that can sustain itself. It just doesn’t seem probable to me. That’s what the Soviets hoped to be able to do. The government that was established under their occupation lasted, against the odds, for two or three years before it collapsed. And it just seems to me, and I say this with great, great regret, that it seems highly improbable that we will be able to exit Afghanistan and then look back and be able to say mission accomplished. I think it’s much more likely that the sands of Afghanistan will eventually cover all that we’ve attempted to accomplish there.

HH: Well then, rather than end on that gloomy note, let me at least get a progress report on the London Games. Do they appear to be going well?

JB: Well, I have to say in the face of quite a lot of skepticism, it looks like they’re going to come in on time, on budget, as they say, that’s to say on a highly adjusted budget. It’s a lot of money that the British taxpayers are being asked to put into these Games. We’re talking about the best part of $15-20 billion dollars at a time when dollars are very short.

HH: Wow.

JB: Pounds are very short. But I drive into London frequently past the Games site. All the facilities are finished well ahead of time. They are holding events in them. And everybody’s holding their breath a little bit, especially about the security issue, because they have 25,000 police, military and other security people ready to be deployed. People are holding their breath and hoping that this will be a spectacular success. And what a tremendous fill up it would be to British self-confidence and optimism, the same thing we talked about a few minutes ago, if it did in fact work.

HH: Well, fingers crossed and prayers lifted up, John Burns, for that success. Great to talk to you as always from the New York Times, one of our favorite guests, John Burns.

End of interview.


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