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The New York Times’ John Burns On Iraq

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I interviewed the New York Times’ John Burns in the last hour of yesterday’s program. Burns is presently the paper’s London bureau chief. For the previous five years he was bureau chief in Baghdad, where his wife remains on assignment for the Times. The transcript is here. The podcast is here. Read or listen to the whole thing, but here are some key excerpts:

HH: What do you understand to be conditions in the country generally now, compared to when you left?

JB: Well, of course, it’s compared to what? If you compare the situation in Iraq to 90% of the countries in the world, it’s still a very violent and threatening place. But if you compare it to the Iraq of sixteen months or so ago, when General Petraeus took over the military command and the surge began, things have improved very greatly.

HH: And give us some sort of metrics by which you would measure that improvement.

JB: Well, the most important metric that comes to mind that’s recent, and it’s been in every American newspaper, I would imagine, in the last 24 or 48 hours, is that in the month of May, just concluded, was the lowest number of American troops killed, I think I’m right in saying, in the entire sweep of the war since the second phase of the war began in the spring of 2004, March of 2004. That’s when the United States knew that it was going into a second phase of war in Iraq, after of course the first phase, the invasion. Only 19 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq in May. Now that’s 19 families across the United States who have been absolutely devastated, and one has to be very careful how you address this problem. But if you compare it with the worst months of the war, for example, November, 2004, when there were 137 U.S. soldiers killed, if you compare it even with the sort of figures that were being reported in the early months of the surge, when those figures were well up into the 60s, 70s and 80s a month, it’s a remarkable turnaround. The levels of violence across Iraq, depending on the metric that you use, are very sharply down. They’re particularly, sharply down in Baghdad, where my wife tells me that it’s now a very rare occurrence, something that was a very common occurrence at our bureau on the east banks of the Tigris in Baghdad, to hear a suicide car or truck bombing. You could almost time the day by the early morning suicide bombings that were going on there as recently as a year ago. Now, thank God, it’s become a rare event.


HH: Now let me ask you, next segment, I want to talk about the United States and its politics in Iraq, and I also want to talk about the UK. But just as John Burns, are you an optimist about Iraq as we sit here talking at the beginning of the summer of 2008, John Burns?

JB: Well, I think like most fair-minded people, I’m a lot more optimistic than I was a year ago, and I can see the potential for it going very wrong again. But I do think that there is the prospect now, if this is deftly handled, for a soft as opposed to a hard landing to the United States in Iraq. It won’t be victory, they won’t be throwing flowers at American soldiers again, but there is now the possibility that with careful navigation, the United States could draw its troops down and bring them home, not quickly, over a period of years, and that this will prove not to have been quite the disaster that a year ago it seemed likely to be. But it could equally well turn around, and it could yet again, it could become a situation promising nothing but catastrophe for the United States. Very difficult to tell, but certainly, there’s a great deal more grounds for optimism now than there was twelve or sixteen months ago.

HH: Are there reasonable prospects that in the intermediate term, nobody knows the long term, that there might be a stable Iraq that is free, and at least in that region’s terms, and if not an ally of the United States, certainly a partner on some things such that it’s a contributor to stability and to the war on terror, John Burns?

JB: That’s very difficult to say, what the trajectory of a future Iraqi government will be. My own guess is that it will not be a democracy. That, as you know, is a very rare and almost unseen thing in the Arab world. There’s likely to be a strongman there. I think in the view of all that has happened, any credible government of Iraq will have to be fairly wary of the United States. In years to come, I think the United States could live with that. But yes, I think it’s quite possible that you could have an Iraq that is not overtly hostile to the United States, and could eventually, with its oil wealth, once again become a stable state exercising an influence for stability in the region. That, of course, is, right now, is too far forward a thing to predict, but it’s not impossible.


And of course, you know, the fact that the Iraq issue has, is no longer listed as the principal issue, or even perhaps the second issue in the presidential campaign, speaks for itself. Why? Because Americans have seen that things have improved substantially there. But it seems to me, listening to people talk across America, that there is a view emerging which could eventually be a more consensual view. We need to get out, we need to get out as soon as we can, but we need to get out in a way that’s consistent with American dignity and honor, and the maintenance of the credibility of American power in the world. It’s not impossible in view of the situation on the ground in Iraq right now that some kind of formula like that could be found by the next president.

HH: And do you see that formula requiring a period of three or four or five years? Or are you talking about twelve to eighteen months? There, it really is difficult to find out where people feel is an appropriate long term extension of American power here. What do you think?

JB: Of course, that’s the really tough question, how quick. I would guess somewhere in the region of three to five years. If it were five years, that’s to say the whole of the term of the new president, the United States by then would have been in Iraq ten or eleven years. The generals have always said that the average length of counterinsurgency undertakings in the modern world has been about twelve years, I think I’m correct in saying. So that would be, I would think not less than three, and hopefully not more than five. And it seems to me that whoever is president, and John McCain has recently spoken himself about his desire within the course of his first term to bring this war to an end for the United States, whoever is president is going to try and set a target of getting those troops home by the end of that first term.

HH: Do you think that we have fairly well avoided, or that the Iraqis have fairly well avoided the prospect of genocide at this point, John Burns?

JB: You know, it’s much less talked about, but I don’t think that you can completely, if I can use a phrase civil war instead of genocide, I don’t think you can completely dismiss that as a possibility. If the things that have gone right in the last year, the trajectory turned around, and those things started to go wrong again, I think you could find a fairly rapid descent back into the kind of perfectly dreadful situation that Iraqis faced in 2005 and 2006. I think the odds of that happening, the odds against that happening are improving, but you can’t dismiss it.


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