New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns on Last Night’s Debate
HH: If I can get debate reaction from one person anywhere in the world, I’m so pleased to welcome John Burns, the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, two time Pulitzer winner from London. John, welcome back, and I know we’ve got a very short period of time, so I’ll just turn it over to you. What were your thoughts upon watching and thinking about last night’s debate between President Obama and Governor Romney?
JB: Well, of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed all around the world, people suddenly have woken up to the fact that there’s a contest going on. I think that most people sort of sleptwalked, if that’s the right word, through the early months of this campaign, thinking that it was a mismatch. And now they’ve woken up to the fact that it may not be.
HH: Let me play for you Governor Romney’s high point, at least as it’s understood by people watching it here who are pro-Romney. This was from last night’s debate:
MR: Mr. President, the reason I called it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East, and you flew to Egypt, and to Saudi Arabia, and to Turkey and Iraq. And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region. But you went to the other nations, and by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion, America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
HH: John Burns, what did you make of that?
JB: Oh, boy. What did I make of that? You know, there’s no easy answer to that, and not just because I really want to remain impartial in all of this. But if you’ve lived through the events in the Middle East over the last decade or more, if you’re honest, you have to be very conflicted as to the issue that is at the heart of that question. Has America liberated peoples in the Middle East, acted to help liberate them? Defended Israel? Yes, of course it has. What are we going to make now of the intervention in Iraq or Libya? I’m inclined to say what Chou En Lai, the Chinese premier, said about the French revolution on the 200th anniversary. He said it’s too early to…when asked whether it was a good or a bad thing, he said it’s too early to tell.
HH: Did they notice, when Mitt Romney said to the President they noticed that you skipped Israel, is that true? Do the adversaries of the United States notice, or the allies who wonder about things, when a president doesn’t go somewhere?
JB: Do you know, I haven’t covered it more than intermittently in my career the Israeli conflict. But certainly, it would be noticed in Israel. And yes, given the whole situation is so febrile that I’ve no doubt that there was some pleasure taken, at least in the more militant quarters of the Middle East, over that. But do Arabs feel that President Obama has been less friendly to Israel? I really don’t think they do. I think you’d get a pretty studied look of puzzlement if you put that to most Arabs.
HH: There was also quite a lot of conversation about Afghanistan last night, and they both agreed that the United States will be gone in 2014, at the end of 2014. What did you make of that, John Burns? You’ve lived there, you know that war well, and you know what it means if we leave.
JB: Well, I think a lot of people who know Afghanistan well fear for what will happen when American troops leave. It’s pretty evident that the Afghan armed forces are nowhere near, and not certainly within two years, of being capable of defending that country on their own, on the one hand. On the other hand, if you know Afghanistan, you have to ask what benefit would be, at what cost would come to the United States and its allies, Britain principal among them, if they stayed on? I think many people feel, and it seems self-evident from the news in Afghanistan, that there is so much wrong there, that we’re not likely to be able to fix it in any acceptably brief period of time, and that if we determined that we were going to, it would cost us unacceptable amounts of treasure and blood, and there’s no certainty that we would be any better off than we are five years from now than we are now.
HH: John [Fisher] Burns, last question, the President spoke about the Navy last night, and I want to play this for you, knowing full well that you are from a country that was a great sea power, and then consciously chose to diminish its navy. Here’s what the President said last night.
BO: You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s what are our capabilities.
HH: What did you think of that, and I’m sorry I said John Frances, John Fisher Burns?
JB: Well, you keep wanting to draw me into highly controversial issues.
JB: And I’m absolutely resolved not to do that, but I will say this, that anybody who’s covered America’s foreign wars over the last 20 or 30 years is astonished at how technology has changed the way that those wars are fought. And only the most recent example of that, of course, has been the extraordinary role that has now been played controversially, of course, by drones, by our pilotless aircraft. So of course, you know, this is not 1914, but at the same time, there are plenty of people who know war better than I do who will say that in the end, it’s boots on the ground that matters, and that’s broadly the outlines of the debate about that.
HH: Was is a satisfactory debate, John Burns, with a minute left to you as someone who knows these issues so intimately?
JB: Look, I think what it did was it was very useful in illuminating what the issues are. And that’s got to be good. And of course, it’s a presidential election. The two candidates have to pain in very broad strokes. And of course, one might wish that there was, that some of the observations they made were more nuanced. But you know, my sense of it watching it was that they’d both done of lot of homework.
HH: John Burns, thanks for staying up late in London. I look forward to talking to you again soon after the election about what a reelected President Obama, or a President-Elect Mitt Romney does with this most complicated globe.
End of interview.