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New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns

Thursday, February 17, 2011

HH: Pleased to welcome back to the program John Burns, who is the bureau chief of the New York Times in London, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner. John Burns, I’ve got to start, I’ve been reading the Rumsfeld memoir to prepare for an interview with the former secretary of defense. Do you know that he singles you and Dexter Filkins out as journalists who got it right in Iraq.

JB: (laughing) I didn’t know that. The only time I’ve met him, which was a couple of years ago up at Aspen, he was very courteous and cordial towards me. He didn’t say anything about that. Then of course, it’s going to cause me all kinds of trouble.

HH: I know. It’s like a curse, isn’t it, to be complimented by Rummy?

JB: (laughing) Yeah, I’ll have to think about that one, but it’s, you know, it’s going to be a little bit of a monkey on my back, I think.

HH: I think so. You may be arrested somewhere. Now I want to get to the serious stuff, though, which is of course Egypt and the Middle East. As you watch this unfold, having spent so much time in the Arab world, and so many times near revolutionary moments, what do you think is happening?

JB: Well, I think that this has been coming for a long, long time. I think you find that virtually every American correspondent who has worked in the Middle East has been dismayed for many years at the support that Western government, and particularly the United States, has given to autocratic, corrupt, repressive regimes. It could last, and now we’re seeing the beginning of the consequences. We don’t know where all of this will go, but of course, there are well-grounded fears that it will not go well for the West and its friends.

HH: Now to set up our conversation, I want to play a clip of former President Jimmy Carter in Texas yesterday, talking about the Muslim Brotherhood. Cut number four:

JC: I’ve known members of the Muslim Brotherhood, because when I go to Egypt and other places, I try to meet with all the political people. And they have played a small role, they’re well organized. They have ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and also to Hamas, whose headquarters are in Syria and Damascus, but who also have ties with Gaza. They control Gaza. I think that the Muslim Brotherhood are not anything to be afraid of in the upcoming political situation or evolution that I see as most likely, because they will be subsumed in the overwhelming demonstration of desire for freedom and true democracy, and I would say a secular, or non-religious government that we saw in the demonstrations in the last three weeks. And although the Muslim Brotherhood might put together a party, public opinion polls that I have seen show that only about 15% of Egyptians would support the Muslim Brotherhood. So they’ll be one of many parties to run, and I don’t think there’s any likelihood at all of them prevailing and establishing Sharia or Islamic law that would prevent the demonstrators’ desire for peace and freedom to be realized.

HH: John Burns, how do you react to President Carter’s rather optimistic assessment?

JB: Well, Hugh, one has to be cautious when listening to President Carter, because he himself has played a historic role in the whole peace process in the Middle East, and he’s extremely well informed. That said, I’m inclined to think that there’s a slightly Pollyannaish element to all of that. It’s true that polls show that level of support. He’s talking about 15%. It varies across the Middle East for the Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations. But they are almost certainly one of the best organized groups, and as we’ve seen before, notably, of course, in Iran, when similar statements were made at the time of the fighting against the Shah, not by presidents of the United States, that’s for sure, but by people who were well respected for their opinions on the Middle East, and we know how that turned out. And it seems to me that there are a lot of reasons, probably too complex to go into right now, why the ground for democracy as we understand it in the Middle East is not particularly fertile. There are extremely strong passions running through those societies. We’ve seen some of them on our television screens in the last three weeks in Egypt. And those passions are easily marshaled by demagogic politicians.

HH: Forty seconds to the break. To your knowledge, Robin Wright wrote the wonderful book, Dreams And Shadows, in which she details that the Brotherhood simply doesn’t recognize Israel. Is there anything that you’ve seen that would lead us to conclude that they have changed their position towards Israel at all?

JB: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think that there are grave reasons for concern about this. And again, it’s something that I think the government of Israel, the Western governments that support Israel, should have seen coming, that the peace that there has been in the Middle East has always been extremely vulnerable.

HH: Hold that thought, John Burns of the New York Times. I’ll be right back.

– – – –

HH: As we were saying right before the break, John Burns, the peace in the Middle East has always been precarious. Mohammed Elbaradei said last week it’s not a peace between Israel and Egypt, it was a peace between Egypt and Hosni Mubarak. For a man who headed up an international organization, that certainly is contemptuous of international law, as least as the West understands it.

JB: Well, it is, and it’s very frightening, because Elbaradei, on almost any spectrum that you want to measure him, has been one of the more moderate voices in Egypt in the last three weeks. And if he’s saying that, then you have to really wonder where this is going to go.

HH: Now in terms of which country you view as most likely to be caught up in this, Bahrain has had demonstrations, Libya’s had demonstrations, there have been some demonstrations reported in Algeria, what do you see is the next of the 1848 of the 21st Century?

JB: Well, Algeria has to be fundamentally vulnerable, because we have to recall that there was, I have to reach for the year, but ten years or more ago, there was an election in Algeria which the Islamists were on their way to winning, which was voided by a military takeover, in effect. The fundamental underlying passions in Algeria have never been resolved. Radical Islamic groups are still there and in wait. And I could well imagine turmoil in the streets of Algiers. And indeed, you can imagine it in many, many Middle Eastern countries. One place we have to watch with grave concern, of course, is Jordan, where you have a king, a more moderate government, a more successful government, in many ways, but particularly important, small as Jordan is, sandwiched between Iraq and Israel, because it’s one of the pillars of the peace that there has been between the Arab states and Israel.

HH: Here is your colleague, David Brooks, extraordinarily well respected columnist at the New York Times, on Charlie Rose last night, talking about President Obama and his Egyptian policy, cut number three.

DB: I have to say with a few punctuated moments, I think they were behind continually. And I think, you know, when Secretary of State Clinton early on said Mubarak’s regime was safe, when Biden said he’s not a dictator, when they tried to hedge their bets with fine calibrations and nobody noticed except for themselves, that was unfortunate.

HH: John Burns, your assessment of your colleague’s assessment?

JB: Well, I think he’s absolutely bang on. You know, I haven’t spent a great deal of time in Egypt, but I have visited there, and you couldn’t set your feet on the soil of Egypt in recent years without having a feeling that this was a repressive government which was bound, ultimately, to be unseated with very adverse effects for the United States, which has poured, I haven’t seen the figures lately, but if we think of one and a half billion dollars of more of American aid going to Egypt since 1979, we’re talking about something in the order of what, $30-40 billion dollars, maybe closer to $50 billion dollars? There was very little to show for that in Egypt, other than expensive mansions, palaces built for the elite. And as we’re now beginning to discover, huge wealth accumulated by the Mubarak family and their acolytes in Switzerland, Britain and elsewhere. So you know, you didn’t have to be a Middle East expert by any means to know that we were standing on extremely fragile ground, and that this could redound to our great disadvantage.

HH: In light of all that has happened, how does the Bush doctrine’s application to Iraq appear, looking backwards now with the perfect hindsight of seeing revolutionary ferment where places did not change?

JB: Well, of course it’s one of the great ironies of the present situation, that for all of the turmoil and misery that there’s been in Iraq since 2003, that right now, the government of Iraq is looking somewhat more stable than almost any other government in the region, because as some Iraqis have been saying, we’ve had our revolution. And it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes, but it’s certainly correct, somewhat you might say, at least temporarily, the assessments you might make now, seven or eight years on, of what has happened in Iraq. Is Iraq going to prove to be one of the more stable governments in the Middle East? We’ll have to see.

HH: Now I want to close by talking about Prime Minister Cameron’s rather extraordinary speech on multiculturalism. We’ve got two minutes now, and then a couple of minutes after the break. First, tell people, John Burns, what he said, and the reaction to it.

JB: Well, it was a highly controversial and very risky speech for a British prime minister to make. This is a multicultural country now. There was, it was pretty obvious, there was very little disguised, that the community he was talking about and most concerned about, as a 2.5 estimated, 2.5 million Muslims in Britain, who by some measures have been the least successful community in integrating here. And of course, particular concern has to do with terrorism. And Cameron’s argument was that a policy of multiculturalism, which has encouraged communities not to integrate, so he says, which has, for example, left large numbers of second, and even third generation people here of mainly Pakistani descent, who cannot speech English, and who have not ventured far beyond their own communities and their own Mosques. And he says that of course that is a factor in turning some of those people, a minority to be sure, but still considerable numbers of people towards Islamic extremism and terrorism. He thinks it’s a failed policy. He thinks there should be much more emphasis on an integrated community. And of course, there are a lot of people, including quite a lot of people in the Muslim community, who agree with him.

HH: How does the government go about doing that, though, John Burns, a minute to the break?

JB: Well, there are many things that they can do. And in the first place, it’s going to be rather more a question of what they won’t do. They will discontinue, says Cameron, support, which is quite extensive, government monies going to Muslim institutions, including the Muslim Council of Great Britain, one of the larger and more powerful of them, that do not actively work for integration, and do not, as actively as Cameron would like, condemn terrorism.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, very quickly, there was a report in the London Times yesterday that David Petraeus was bowing out. I think it’s been knocked down. Have you confirmed that that was erroneous?

JB: Well, I just read that the Pentagon had said that it was erroneous, that there was no plan to replace him. But you have to remember that David Petraeus is now on his, I think, fifth assignment in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His health, as you know, began to falter. He had a brief run-in with suspected prostate cancer. He fainted in front of a Senate committee. And he’s got an absolutely exhausting job. He’s an extremely energetic man. And I read that, and I wondered, are we going to see a revival of speculation whether David Petraeus will be interested in going into politics. I’m not sure that he would be favored by many of his fellow generals to be chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. And who knows what he might do. But I don’t think that anybody could really complain if David Petraeus decided after the end of this year, having spent eighteen months as Afghan commander, if he did decide that he wanted to come home.

HH: And last question, John Burns, the David Cameron speech we referred to in the last segment, how has the reaction been to that across Great Britain?

JB: Curiously muted. There was a lot of bitter criticism of it from some of the Muslim groups, one of whom he had named in the speech. I thought there might be a more vigorous reaction, because there was one passage in the speech that was particularly volatile, if you will. He spoke about how it has been the habit not to condemn non-white men for saying things which if said by white men of similar extremist disposition, would have been condemned. That introduced, or came as close as any British prime minister has in many, many years, to introducing an explicitly ethnic or racial element to the speech. I don’t think David Cameron is a racist at all, but I could see in that the potential for a very, very vicious reaction. As it happens, there’s been a tremendous amount of news in Britain since he made this speech, mainly having to do with growing economic distress caused by the government’s austerity program. And so there hasn’t been the kind of reaction to that speech that you might otherwise imagine. And in any case, Cameron knew when he made the speech that he would have very broad support in the majority community in this country.

HH: John Burns, it is always a pleasure, thanks for spending some time with us tonight. I look forward to doing it again soon as the news does indeed continue to come amazingly fast from Great Britain. Thank you, John.

End of interview.

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