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New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns on the escalating Middle East unrest

Friday, September 21, 2012

HH: This segment and next, I’m joined from London by the New York Times London Bureau Chief, and two time Pulitzer winner, John F. Burns. John Burns, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt show. It’s great to speak with you again.

JB: Yeah, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, Hugh.

HH: Well, I am, I want to get to what’s going in the world, but in your email as we set this up, you’re working on a story, this is counterintuitive, on Richard III?

JB: Yes. Let’s go back 500 years to a time that was in its way just as violent as our own.

HH: What’s new about Richard III?

JB: Well, I mean, anybody who has read the Shakespeare play, or seen the many movies that have been made on the basis of the Shakespeare play will know that Richard III was the most villainous of the English kings. All of this occurred more than 500 years ago. He was killed in battle in 1485, and he has stood forever after as an example of the dangers of concentrated power. He was a Manichean murderer. Well, guess what? There’s been a new archaeological dig. They think they found him. It will have to be tested by DNA and isotope analysis. And the people who have led this dig at the University of Lester, which is a town in English midlands, believe that this could prompt a reexamination of the role of Richard III, and we may now have to learn to love him.

HH: Oh, my goodness, because I can still remember quite clearly touring the Tower of London two decades ago, and being shown a few of the places where they think the murdered princes were interred by Richard III’s henchmen. So getting his reputation back on a pedestal is no mean feat, John Burns.

JB: Yeah, that would challenge those skills of public relations people who prosper in your neck of the woods out there in Los Angeles. It would test their strength to the utmost. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.

HH: When is your piece going to run on Richard III?

JB: Well, I hope it’s going to run over the weekend, but as you know, these things in our business, we’re never sure. But it will run over the next two or three days, I think.

HH: I look forward to seeing the whole piece. I’ll link it as it appears, and draw people’s attention to it. That’s fascinating. John Burns, the reason I thought of you today, I don’t know of any other foreign correspondent who has spent as much time as you have in countries that are quite obviously Islamic, and of course, in India with a huge Muslim population. Today, at least 19, maybe 20 and more are dead in Pakistan. Riots have swept across the Islamic world again. As you survey this cauldron, how much of this do you believe is related to the video? And how much of it to a resurgent, Salafist sort of wing of Islam coming to the fore again?

JB: You know, we can speculate as to what the precise and immediate prompt for all of this was. But I think we’ve learned over the last ten years since 9/11 that the causes of this anger, this mayhem across the Muslim world, and the Arab world in particular, are very deep and are not likely to relent, and are not, frankly, subject in my view to more than the most marginal influence from anything that the government of the United States does. There is a tremendous well of anger and frustration out there, and it’s going to take a long, long time to resolve. We are sort of like, you know, we’re standing on the edge of a volcano. And we’re wondering how we can deal with it. And the answer is we probably can’t.

HH: At the beginning of his tenure as president, President Obama went to Cairo and gave a very famous speech that Charles Krauthammer today declares the collapse of the Cairo doctrine. What do you make of his ability, at any point of his presidency, to influence these events? And what’s his standing in the Islamic world today as you survey it?

JB: Well, I think he probably stands, you know, insofar as these things can be measured at all, somewhat higher than some of his predecessors, and that the Cairo speech was, you know, raised great hopes and a new beginning. But I think that President Obama is up against the same elemental, fundamental forces of nature that have overwhelmed other American presidents. And I just don’t see how modulations of American policy are likely to change the nihilist view. And I just thank God that I’m not sitting in the State Department or the White House trying to figure a course through all of this.

HH: In light of the, as you say the volcano that we’re sitting on, what is, what do you expect the West to do? Just withdraw, sort of, east of Aden and hope for the best? Or to plunge in again with videos and speeches?

JB: You know, I think that it’s easier to determine what we can’t or shouldn’t do. I think that fortress America is no more of a solution now than it was back in 1939 when Europe was afire. America, because it is the world’s greatest power, because it remains for many, many people in this world, despite all of this, the great hope of many of the peoples in the world as I have discovered, has to remain engaged. But at the same time, I think there has to be a really modest assessment of what can be accomplished. And although I am not an American, I would think that amongst the principles that I would put very high at the list, at the top of the list, was to make sure that as few Americans as possible aren’t consumed by this personally after what happened to the American ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi after the deaths of, is it 5,000 or 6,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of which over the years I witnessed myself. I think that American can be understood if it says at this point the price is high. We’ve paid it for a very long time in blood and treasure, and we need to stay upwind of this to the extent that we can. And it’s a tremendously difficult equation to work. And as I say, thank God that you and I, Hugh, stand on the sidelines in the bleachers on this, and don’t have to make the very hard policy decisions.

HH: Now John Burns, it is, I know that Prince Harry catches a lot of attention in the tabs for a bunch of reason, but it is actually inspiring that he is in Afghanistan. And of course, the savage end of the civilization would like nothing better to kill him. But in your sense, is there part of the Islamic world that appreciates that a prince of the regime would journey and do what he could to bring peace to a region? Or is that a bygone era that we are foolish to believe in?

JB: No, I don’t think it’s foolish. We’ve witnessed here in Britain in the last few days images of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and her husband, Prince William, the heir but one to the throne of England, brother of Harry, having a tremendously successful tour in the Far East, mostly in Muslim countries. And there’s a paradox there that’s extremely hard to work out, but I can express it in one simple image. In my experiences over the years in Arab or Muslim countries, you have on the one hand the likelihood, the commonality of large numbers of people gathering outside the United States embassy in anger against America. And on the other hand, on other days, huge lineups that spread around the block of people from those same countries, and in some cases, one guesses, the same people lining up trying to get visas to go live in America. As I say, go figure.

HH: Well, against that backdrop, then, does American military power in any way affect the calculation? And if so, what do you make of our demilitarization, these vast cuts which are underway in the United States?

JB: Oh, yes. I think, I belong to a generation which grew to maturity in the wake of the Second World War. And a lesson that I’ve had reaffirmed again and again through my lifetime is that insofar as there is peace in the world, it depends very heavily on American power and the intelligence application of it, including military power. You only have to ask yourself what kind of a world would this be if that American military power became subordinate to the power of a new, rising power like China? I think it would be a pretty miserable world. As for the reductions, those reductions have taken place from a very high level. There’s no nation which has even a fraction of the military power of the United States. So at the moment, although I’m not a great expert on this, I would have thought that the sort of reductions that are going on are not such as to fundamentally change that equation. I think we’ll have to judge over the years what’s happening in China, because it’s absolutely no question that at least in Asia and the Pacific region, China intends to challenge America’s dominance. But I would say that the peace of that region, and the peace of the world will depend very heavily on the American taxpayer being willing to maintain American power.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, I want to talk about Israel and Iran, but for a moment, I gather you did not know Ambassador Stevens. But were you shocked that an ambassador in such a place was traveling with so light a guard?

JB: I was, but you know, I’ve learned over the years not to be too smart about this. I think the people who have to judge how, what sort of security somebody like Chris Stevens requires, have a really difficult job. On the one hand, an American ambassador who advances into a country in turmoil like Libya behind a wall of steel is not likely to be able to do his job very effectively. On the other hand, he needs to be protected. And we’ll have to wait and see what the investigations into what happened tell us. But I think it is a difficult, a very difficult decision to make.

HH: Now I’m interested if you see the international media as interested in the Benghazi slaughter as Americans are. There isn’t that much reporting here. The Independent has done some reporting in Great Britain, and your colleagues in the New York Times had a very big story on it yesterday. But is it of great interest in London and beyond as to what happened there?

JB: I think it is. I think it is. I mean, the media that I read most closely, the principal British newspapers, the BBC in particular, have paid a great deal of attention to this. Of course, Britain got out of Iraq, and was very happy to have done so. It’s still engaged in significant ways in Afghanistan, nearly 10,000 troops there. So there’s still a very considerable interest. And I have to say, and thank God for it, a tremendous sympathy for the United States in having taken up the mantle which, you know, those people who have some sensitivity to history will understand, was once Britain’s. It was only nearly a hundred years ago that it was Britain that was the imperial power in the world, and taking this kind of pummeling. And there are a lot of people here who feel very sympathetic about that. There are, of course, the usual cries from the left, but I think the principal reaction here is one of great sympathy, and within the limited means that Britain has these days, support.

HH: Now John Burns, I really want to ask you, in all these decades that you have lived in all these different places, you’ve had to develop a nose for war. And what is going on now between Iran and Israel and the statements of Benjamin Netanyahu, and the movement of ships into the Persian Gulf from a variety of nations, suggests big events are imminent. What’s your sense about this, and whether or not it will have to come to blows? And if so, when?

JB: Well, of course, we’re entering into a period, how long is it, now, two months, a little bit more than two months until the American presidential election, which is a very time, a time of very, very high risk, because you’d have to imagine that the principal Middle Eastern adversaries, Iran and Israel, will look at this two month period as a time when there are opportunities, if you will, to exploit. My own sense of this, and I haven’t spent a great time in Israel, is that the Israeli government will ultimately prove to be very sensibly cautious about this. I think it’s not something they want to go into alone. And dependent as Israel has been on the United States, it seems very hard for me, to me, to believe that Israel would defy repeated and insistent American pleas that they not take independent action on this. So if I had to bet, I would say that this thing will be finessed. Whether or not there is ultimately going to be a solution available, who knows? Who can calculate on what those mullahs in Iran may do?

HH: Now I know you had a cabinet shakeup. I read your story on it in Great Britain. Mr. Hague remained the Foreign Secretary, and so he is still the embodiment of the Cameron government foreign policy. What is their attitude about what is happening now with the meltdown in Syria, and the confrontation between Israel and Iran? Would they be a reliable ally of Israel is it did come to war or confrontation?

JB: Oh, yes. I think the matrix there is not very different. They would be, the British government policy, it’s pretty difficult to find even a sliver of difference, really, between the British government policy and the United States. I think Britain is taking the view that Israel would be very unwise to engage in independent military action, trying to discourage that, trying to make the argument that Iran may not be as close to having a deployable nuclear weapon as some of the more alarmist elements of Israeli public opinion think. So I don’t think that you’re going to find much blue water between the Cameron government and the Obama administration. I think there has been and will remain a principle of foreign policy here that Britain will support the United States and Israel in facing these challenges whilst urging caution, of course, because Britain can see, as Americans can, the really terrible potential consequences of a new conflict with Iran.

HH: Let me speak in the last couple of minutes, John Burns. 65 years ago, Great Britain was in fact the power in Pakistan as that country came into being. It is convulsed this weekend with enormous crowds, big violence, spinning, many fear, out of control. What, I know you’ve been there a lot. What’s your assessment of the near and the medium term for Pakistan, and what the United States and United Kingdom ought to be doing about that country?

JB: Well, that really is, and I’m sorry to use the cliché, the $64,000 dollar question. Things have been spiraling out of control in Pakistan for a very long time. And of course, we have to worry a great deal beyond the domestic consequences for the Pakistanis themselves, 150 million plus of them, the consequences for us of a country that has nuclear weapons just, you know, beginning to fall into chaos as Pakistan has done. And I don’t see, you know, I wish I could see some kind of solution to it. The solution is a very long term solution. The Pakistani people have to build a reliable state, they have to build it to a democratic state, which they haven’t done. They have to attend to poverty, education and so many other things, and we’re talking about 30 or 40 years the United States has poured tens of billions of dollars into Pakistan, particularly since 9/11. And it’s very hard to see any positive outcome from that. So I think that’s a really, really serious issue. We have on the one hand the problem with Iran, which could become nuclear. On the other hand, we have the problem with a country not so far east of [Iran], in fact, a neighboring country of Iran’s, that already has them, and is seized by this Islamic militancy. I find that very worrying indeed.

HH: John Burns, thanks for spending some time with us. We look forward to your piece on Richard III, and all of your pieces in the New York Times. It’s always a pleasure to catch up with you. Thanks for joining us this Friday evening.

JB: Thank you, Hugh.

End of interview.

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