The New York Times’ John Burns: “The Possibility Of As Many As A Million Iraqis Dying.”
The transcript of my interview with the New York Times’ John Burns is here. (I taped it Friday.) The audio for the two-hour broadcast will be here later. Some key excerpts:
HH: One of the arguments for those favoring a timeline for withdrawal that’s written in stone is that it will oblige the Iraqi political class to get serious about such things as the oil revenue division. Do you believe that’s an accurate argument?
JB: Well, you would think it would be so, wouldn’t you, that the threat of withdrawal of American troops, and the risk of a slide into catastrophic levels of violence, much higher than we’ve already seen, would impel the Iraqi leadership to move forward. But there’s a conundrum here. There’s a paradox. That’s to say the more that the Democrats in the Congress lead the push for an early withdrawal, the more Iraqi political leaders, particularly the Shiite political leaders, but the Sunnis as well, and the Kurds, are inclined to think that this is going to be settled, eventually, in an outright civil war, in consequence of which they are very, very unlikely or reluctant, at present, to make major concessions. They’re much more inclined to kind of hunker down. So in effect, the threats from Washington about a withdrawal, which we might have hoped would have brought about greater political cooperation in face of the threat that would ensue from that to the entire political establishment here, has had, as best we can gauge it, much more the opposite effect, of an effect that persuading people well, if the Americans are going, there’s absolutely no…and we’re going to have to settle this by a civil war, why should we make concessions on that matter right now?[# More #] For example, to give you only one isolated exception, why should the Shiite leadership, in their view, make major concessions about widening the entry point for former Baathists into the government, into the senior levels of the military leadership, that’s to say bringing in high ranking Sunnis into the government and the army and the police, who themselves, the Sunnis, are in the main former stalwarts of Saddam’s regime. Why would the Shiites do that if they believe that in the end, they’re going to have to fight a civil war? This is not to reprove people in the Congress who think that the United States has spent enough blood and treasure here. It’s just a reality that that’s the way this debate seems to be being read by many Iraqi politicians.
HH: Would a, John Burns, a contrary approach yield the also counterintuitive result that if Congress and the United States said we’re there for two or three more years at this level, would that assist the political settlement, in your view, coming about?
JB: Unfortunately, I think the answer to that is probably not, and that’s something that General Casey and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker now, General Petraeus’ partner, if you will, are very wary of. They understand that there has to be something of a fire lit under the feet of the Iraqi leaders. It’s a paradox, it’s a conundrum, which is almost impossible to resolve. Now I think the last thing that you need is an Iraqi leadership which is already inclined to passivity on the matters, the questions that seem to matter most in terms of a national reconciliation here, the last thing they need is to be told, in effect, the deadline has been moved back three years. I would guess the way, if you will, to vector all of this would be to find some sort of solution, indeed it was the benchmark solution, which would say to them if you come together and you work on these benchmarks, then you will continue to have our support. But it seems to me that the mood in Congress has moved beyond that. The mood in Congress, as I read it from here, at least those who are leading the push for the withdrawal, are not much interested anymore in incremental progress by the Iraqi government. They’ve come to the conclusion that this war is lost, that no foreseeable movement by the Iraqi leaders will be enough to justify the continued investment of lives and dollars here by the United States, and that it’s time to pull out. And of course, you can make a strong argument to that effect.
HH: Now you’ve reported some very tough places, Sarajevo, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and after the liberation from the Taliban, and you’ve won Pulitzers for that. When you say cataclysmic civil war, what do you mean in terms of what you’ve seen before? What kind of violence do you imagine would break out after precipitous withdrawal?
JB: Well, let’s look at what’s happened already as a benchmark. Nobody really knows how many people have died here, but I would guess that in terms of the civilian population, it’s probably not less than 100-150,000, and it could be higher than that. I don’t think it’s as high as the 700,000 that some estimates have suggested, but I think it’s, and I know for a fact, that the sort of figures that were being discussed amongst senior American officials here, as a potential, should there be an early withdrawal and a progress to an all-out civil war, they’re talking about the possibility of as many as a million Iraqis dying. Now of course, that is suppositional. It’s entirely hypothetical. How could we possibly know? But I think you couldn’t rule out that possibility. And the question then arises, catastrophic as the effect on Iraq and the region would be, you know, what would be the effect on American credibility in the world, American power in the world, and America’s sense of itself? These are extremely difficult issues to resolve, and I can’t say, sitting here in Baghdad, that I have any particular wisdom about what the right course would be. And fortunately, as a reporter, I’m not paid money to offer that kind of wisdom, only to observe what I see. And there are days when I thank God that I’m not sitting in the United States Senate or the United States House of Representatives, with the responsibility of putting the ballot in the box on this.
HH: No, I was asking when al Qaeda was in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, they obviously developed potential and capabilities and operational abilities that resulted in 9/11. If they anchored themselves in a lawless Iraq, would their lethality towards the United States be even greater or lesser than it was when they were in Taliban Afghanistan?
JB: I would say it would probably be greater, and for these reasons. Let’s remember that the Afghanistan, that was a sanctuary for al Qaeda and bin Laden, is a very, very underdeveloped, I dare say primitive country. Iraq is not. Iraq is a country that had and potentially still has a major industrial base, it has among Middle Eastern countries one of the most highly educated corps of scientists and engineers, people who were on their way, certainly in the early 1990’s, to developing nuclear weapons, even if that program, as we now know, fell by the wayside after the first Gulf War. Many of these people have left, but would some of them come back? You would then have to add to that the fact that this is an oil country, which even in the situation of a civil war, is exporting billions of dollars of oil to the world, and could potentially export much more. So I would say add to that the question of geography. We’re a thousand miles closer here in Baghdad to Western Europe and the United States than Mr. bin Laden and his followers were when they were in Afghanistan. So I think yes, it could be a serious problem. Whether that problem can be overcome in any foreseeable or acceptable period of time here, I don’t know. If we knew the answer to that, we’d be well on our way to deciding whether or not it’s worth staying here. But I think to deny that there is such a problem, or even simply to blame it on the Bush administration…[call dropped and resumed ona different question]
The combination of Burns’ assessments, and those of Michael O’Hanlon, Ken Pollack and many other fair observers of the war completely undercuts the demands by the anti-war hysterics for a timetable for withdrawal. The prospect of a genocide with a million Iraqis dead and a secure base for an even more lethal al Qaeda should be enough to end the debate until such time as General Petraeus reports, and if he sees progress, until such time as he concludes there is no way to avoid the genocide. Abandoning Iraq to the butchers of al Qaeda or the fanatics of Iran and the radical Shia militias would be unconscionable, especially given the solid indications of momentum on behalf of the Coaltion and Iraqi government forces..