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New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns on Libya and the London riots

Saturday, August 27, 2011

HH: So happy to be talking now with John Burns, who is the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner. John Burns, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, I hope you’re having a good summer.

JB: Always a pleasure.

HH: John, let me start by asking you about Libya. You wrote a piece a couple of days ago examining the parallels between Qaddafi and Hussein, and their falls. How did people react to that, because it got me thinking that there are some pretty astonishing parallels here.

JB: There are, and they’re not really so surprising that they should be, for first of all, you could as well say that many dictators falling behave in similar ways, just as they behave in similar ways when they’re in power. But of course, they come from similar cultures, these two, and have governed or misgoverned in very similar ways. So I think we can make some sorts of projections. But one large difference, I think, is that Saddam, although he might have been considered to have been clinically insane by some, seemed to me to be a coolly rational character, what I saw of him, what I experienced of him at first, and in the trial that led to his execution. Qaddafi, on the other hand, also a man I’ve experienced at first hand, is a different character. He is delusional, I was going to say borderline delusional, but I think that in recent years, he’s shown himself to be, you know, pretty fully delusional. And so how do we estimate what somebody who is not fully rational might do? We may reason ourselves to certain conclusions, but he’s such a quirky, erratic character that he could do almost anything.

HH: You know, when you remembered the looting that followed the fall of Baghdad in 2003, I haven’t seen that, yet, in Libya, but then again, I don’t know if people are covering it, or if it’s even got the sort of demographic density that would allow that kind of pandemonium to happen. What do you understand to be the situation on the ground, John Burns?

JB: That’s a very, it is a very interesting difference. You’re quite right. It’s very stark. I was in Baghdad in those hectic and miserable days after the American troops arrived in Baghdad, miserable as they turned out to be, where the jubilation was so quickly followed by widespread public disorder, reprisal killings, and of course, massive looting. That has not occurred in this case, and it’s difficult to tell exactly why that is. I don’t think it’s because the populace are not as mad with the government, as angry and as embittered as they were in Iraq. I think that they are as embittered, and I think they are for very similar reasons. Who knows? Could it be that this was a popular uprising that overthrew Qaddafi, whereas in the United States…in the case of Iraq, it was an American invasion. So there has been some sort of expiation of all of that anger in the act of rebellion, and in the satisfaction that comes from actually overthrowing the tyrant. Could it be, and here I’m really into sort of psychobabble, because it’s not something that I think I fully comprehend, could it be that the fact that the Libyan people, of course with NATO’s help, have overthrown this brutal dictator, could in some way be feeding into the less disorderly aftermath? And who knows if it will remain less disorderly. It could yet, of course, go in directions we haven’t seen yet.

HH: In your piece, you suggest that David Cameron and others are committed to avoiding the mistakes of Iraq, that they’re almost using the Iraq model to plan out a different post-war scenario in Libya. How well thought out is that, to try and plan in one Arab country what did not or did work in another Arab country?

JB: Well, of course, it’s a noble aspiration, but you know, as they say of war, no plan lasts beyond the first bullet, and I suspect this is going to be true in Libya. You know, it has been common in recent years to say that the disorder and conflict that ensued in Iraq was as a result of no effective attempt by the Bush administration to engage in nation building. My sense of that, and as you know, I experienced it at first hand for quite a few years, was that for all the faults of the Bush administration in the months and years that followed the invasion, it might not have made any difference, that the, if you will, the fissiparous tendencies in Iraq were so great, stemming from history, and from the brutality of Saddam, that even an effective plan on the part of the Bush administration, and well implemented, might not have stopped it. That’s to say that in Libya, yes, perhaps, they start out with, they’ve got, if you will, the Iraq example before them now, of what not to do. But even if they do everything that they say will do, it seems to me fast and sure that they will…

HH: Absolutely not…I’ll be right back with John Burns of the New York Times.

– – – –

HH: We were talking about Libya when we went to break, and their chances for a decent transition to a new government. John Burns, before we turn to the unrest in the United Kingdom, what is your guess about Syria? Does Bashar Assad simply mow down people until he survives? Or is he, in your opinion, going to go the way of Qaddafi and Hussein?

JB: I think you’d have to assume that he will go. He will go, probably at high cost to the Syrian people. But I think that the forces that have been unleashed across the Arab world, and in Syria, you know, we have seen in the last few weeks and months, are going to overwhelm him sooner or later. And I think he’s simply making his own end all the more miserable, and pushing the price for the Syrian people up extremely high. But it’s hard to imagine, from what we’ve seen, that Syria will settle down and accept another thirty years of Assad.

HH: Now Mr. Burns, I want to turn to Great Britain, because ever since the unrest started there, I’ve been wanting to ask you whether or not it was well reported across the world, and whether or not we really understand what happened. There’s always a tendency with civil unrest to watch the pictures and say my gosh, London is burning. What happened? Were you surprised by what happened?

JB: Well, I think anybody who said they weren’t surprised would be, frankly, being dishonest. The severity of this, how quickly it spread, was a big shock to this country. But as we look at it in the aftermath, there were certain things that were observable, very observable, to somebody like myself who have spent thirty or forty years traveling the world for the New York Times and came back to my native country to my new job as the London Bureau Chief two or three years ago, that actually made for very combustible elements. Broadly speaking, the debate here is between those on the liberal left who say this was a cry, a violent cry coming from people who have suffered social deprivation, and those on the center-right, Mr. Cameron amongst them, who say that that is not the case, and that it sprung out of what he describes as a demoralized nation, emphasized DE-moralized, meaning a country which in many respects, and for a very long time, has allowed aspects of its public life, if you will, to be further and further removed from any of the old truths, the old gods. And now this is a fairly characteristic Conservative argument that has considerable appeal, and might indeed be the grounds, I think, for a general election in Britain, perhaps earlier than 2015 when the next one is scheduled, perhaps much earlier, in which the Conservative Party will argue, as Cameron has, for a reintroduction of responsibility and discipline across the whole range of social life in Britain. And the people to the left of Cameron will argue that it’s a failure, much more like the failure that they say in the United States, where the riots, which tore apart American cities over the last thirty or forty years, sprung more evidently from social deprivation. It’s an active debate.

HH: You know, John Burns, I was in Los Angeles when the 1992 riots occurred, covering them for PBS here. And the whole city was shocked. The state was shocked. And the possibility of it recurring was almost immediately dismissed because of the systemic nature of the damage done, and the appalling cost. Do you think that it’s possible that these things will start again in London? Or has the same kind of shock been administered around Great Britain?

JB: Well, it’s a bit risky to say this, but I, my own sense is that they probably will not happen again. First of all, I think there were pretty serious errors of policing here, which allowed this thing to gain momentum. And I think if it had been properly policed from the outset, and let it be said if it wasn’t, it was largely because the police here have been very inhibited by years of public inquiries and, if you will, crackdowns on the police for being too heavy-handed in handling public protests. I think a lesson’s been learned from that. If you will, the Bill Bratton message, it’s, and as you may know, Bill Bratton…

HH: Yes.

JB: …clearly took people in Los Angeles, at one time, was being touted as the head of Scotland Yard by Mr. Cameron. That’s not going to occur, but he is going to have a voice in what happens here. And I think one of the lessons they will have learned is use large amounts of police and reinforcements, and move quickly and firmly, exactly the opposite of what they did here for the first 72 hours, which allowed this to spread and become mass disorder and looting, and to get back to your original point, yes, there was a racial element to it. But it was observable in the areas I know of, that at least half or more of the people who were doing the looting were not from ethnic minorities, and were pretty evidently not from the most socially deprived classes. These were people who simply were part of what David Cameron has described as the take-what-you-can society.

HH: So how has Cameron emerged from what has been a summer of great consequence, both home and abroad?

JB: He’s still liable in the phone hacking scandal, which has gripped this country for much of the summer. But Libya, he’s come out of Libya, or is coming out of Libya with pretty high marks, he and Sarkozy took the lead in the NATO intervention, which made the Libyan revolution possible, the success of the Libyan revolution possible. And so the new template, if you will, for foreign Western intervention in situations like this, no boots on the ground, do it from the air…so he gets a lot of credit from that. And I think he sounded to me, in the wake of the riots, like somebody, a man who’d found his voice, and that after five years of rather unconvincingly trying to pretend he’s not a conservative in the classic traditional mode, he seems to have found a position on this where which he seems very convinced. And he might be abandoned by his partners, the Liberal Democrats, who are coalition partners in the British government. If that were to happen because of the kind of…he’s pledged a wholesale review of every aspect of social policy in this country. And it almost certainly is going to be a review which is going to push to the right, not to the left. He may lose the Liberal Democrats in that. That might cause a general election, which in my view, Cameron, barring any unforeseen developments, would at this stage be likely to win.

HH: John Burns, it’s always bracing. Thanks for making time for us tonight from London. I look forward to our next conversation soon.

End of interview.

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