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New York Times London bureau chief John Burns on the McChrystal/Petraeus change in Afghanistan

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

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HH: What a great way to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s arrival in the United States than by talking with John Burns, New York Times bureau chief in the London bureau, two time Pulitzer Prize winner as well. Mr. Burns, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.

JB: Always a pleasure, Hugh.

HH: Now I must say, as the United States always welcomes anyone of royalty, she’s an amazing woman. As an Englishman, what do you think of your Queen?

JB: Well, I think it’s something that the overwhelming majority, 99.9% of people in this country, would say there is a source of enduring pride. She’s a remarkable person. I don’t think that you’d get anything like that percentage to say the same of many other members of the royal family, you know the story, the rather spotty story of the royal family over the last 25 years. But she has been impeccable.

HH: You know, I have finished Shawcross’ biography of her mother. Have you had a chance to read that yet, John Burns?

JB: I’ve read it at least at bookstands. I haven’t read the whole book.

HH: Well, it’s a remarkable family, and I know they’ve got their troubles, but she has lived quite a significant life, and has done so under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. So it’s always wonderful to see her get her due whether it’s in film or literature, et cetera. I don’t know, is her visit being covered very much within the British press?

JB: You know, it really isn’t, and that’s really kind of a sad thing. I think it’s like so many of us, you know, we take for granted something that is familiar and always there, and God knows, we’ll miss it when she is gone. I mean, we may hope that she will live like her mother did, past 100. She is 82 or 83, I’m not sure which.

HH: Neither am I.

JB: It’s a remarkable performance. She’s been the Queen of this country now since 1952. so what are we talking about, 58 years.

HH: Right.

JB: Something like 12 prime ministers, if I’m not mistaken.

HH: Right.

JB: Going back to Winston Churchill. She’s steady as a rock, and she’s one of the few sure things in an uncertain world.

HH: Now John Burns, one of the reasons I did want to catch up with you is because in the aftermath of Stanley McChrystal, the Pentagon has issued new guidelines on how our generals, and I assume all of NATO generals, will be interacting with the media. You set a standard through your long time in Iraq, and your tours in Afghanistan, et cetera, for openness and candor between the brass, et cetera. What did you make of this episode, and what do you fear is going to happen now between the media and the military as the long war rolls on?

JB: Well, I think it’s very unfortunate. I think it’s very unfortunate that America has lost the services of such an outstanding general. I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations. I think, you know, well, this will be debated down the years, the whole issue as to how it came about that Rolling Stone had that kind of access. My unease, if I can be completely frank about this, is that from my experience of traveling and talking to generals, McChrystal, Petraeus and many, many others over the past few years, is that the old on-the-record/off-the-record standard doesn’t really meet the case, which is to say that by the very nature of the time you spend with the generals, the same could be said to be true of the time that a reporter spends with anybody in the public eye. There are moments which just don’t fit that formula. There are long, informal periods traveling on helicopters over hostile territory with the generals chatting over their headset, bunking down for the night side by side on a piece of rough-hewn concrete. You build up a kind of trust. It’s not explicit, it’s just there. And my feeling is that it’s the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report. And I think that much of what we learned about General McChrystal, in what was really a very powerful Rolling Stone article, and the general feeling of unease and disrespect towards the administration in Washington, could have been done without directly quoting things that were said, and I would guess, in a very ambiguous kind of circumstance, mostly by the general’s aides, which they could not have, I think, reasonably expected to end up being quoted as saying. The same point could have been made without the use of quotations, which in my mind, were highly unlikely to have been understood to be on the record. Now there are big differences about this in our business. My own colleague, Frank Rich, at the New York Times, has argued exactly the contrary. And many people, many, many people, and no doubt there are some of them in the military, are saying that you know, General McChrystal crossed the line, that however these quotes came to appear in Rolling Stone, he in effect challenged the civil control of the military, and there’s hardly any more fundamental issue in the Constitution of the United States. So it’s a difficult issue, but it leaves me with some feelings of discomfort.

HH: How significant a victory does it represent to the Taliban? You know, if you can remove a warrior combatant, you’ve won a victory. What do you think about that, John Burns?

JB: Well, we know that the Taliban have of course greeted it as yet another sign of the disarray, confusion of the Western effort in Afghanistan. And of course, it is. I mean, the fact is, that one thing that Rolling Stone did get right was, in fact, it got many things right, the article is incontestably an important article. My issue is with precise quotes, but not with the general trend of the article. One thing they contestably got right is that this administration has been very divided. They have a policy on Afghanistan which has at its very core a fundamental division. Let’s surge, let’s send in an extra 30-31,000 troops, and then let’s start pulling them out by July of 2011. General Petraeus did a manful job before the Senate last week during his confirmation hearings of trying to square that circle. But many people who know anything about this war know that in the end, there’s a kind of a contradiction there. To say we’re going to go, not just double down, but triple the number of troops since January of 2009 when President Obama took office, from 30,000 to now close to 100,000, but then just about as soon as we’ve got all the troops in place, we’re going to start withdrawing them, that sends a very powerful message to the Taliban about, amongst other things, divisions within the administration, divisions within the alliance. Now this is very difficult. You know, I don’t know too many people who think that this is a winnable war. And it may well be that Vice President Biden and others who have argued for a much less aggressive assertive policy in Afghanistan are right. But then against that, you have to weigh the costs of withdrawing. It’s a devilishly difficult problem. And the Taliban know just how vexed our policy is. And of course, they will see General McChrystal’s sacking as simply another sign of it, which it is. That’s what really lay behind all of that, was that General McChrystal was ill at ease, he and his aides, with the basic policy of the administration.

HH: You know both General Petraeus and General McChrystal well. You’ve spent time with both of them. What is your assessment of the change that will now happen, with General Petraeus assuming command, if any, and what are your assessments of the prospects of Petraeus being able to replicate his success in Iraq in Afghanistan?

JB: Well, of course, what everyone makes of the firing of General McChrystal, who was an outstanding office, if not anywhere as accomplished in managing the difficult political relationship that the generals now have to have with Washington, the good news in all of this is that President Obama was able overnight, literally, or within a matter of an hour or so, to find in General Petraeus a replacement with whom nobody could argue. He is incontestably, as people on the Hill said, the great battle captain of our time as far as the United States is concerned. That’s not to say that he can win this thing. And you know, he’s been very frank. He’s been saying very much what he said when he arrived in Iraq. This is hard, but it’s not impossible.

HH: How is he different from McChrystal, John Burns?

JB: Well, I think in one important respect, which is plain to see from this unfortunate incident, and that is General Petraeus, as anybody who watched his testimony on the Hill, including his most recent testimony during confirmation hearings, knows that General Petraeus is extremely adept in handling the difficult public and political aspects of the job. I mean, my sense of it was that his performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing was impeccable. It’s quite plain that General McChrystal, and not just in this incident, but in another one in which I was involved last autumn when he was also seen as challenging the president, did not have that skill. He has many other skills, war fighting skills. But that particular skill was lacking. So in that sense, you know, the United States is extremely fortunate to be able to have found in General Petraeus somebody who was willing to take, which has commonly been said, what amounts to a demotion to go from CentCom commander to being the field commander in Afghanistan. And my sense is that if NATO can prevail in Afghanistan, if, and the odds seem to be very much against it, General Petraeus is probably the general who can accomplish it.

HH: And we are very fortunate to have caught up with you, John Burns from the New York Times, London bureau chief. Thank you.

End of interview.

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