NYT London bureau chief John Burns

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New York Times London bureau chief shares his thoughts on President Obama’s speech marking the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.


Tavis: President Obama speaking last night from the Oval Office as he marked the official end of combat operations in Iraq. For analysis tonight, pleased to be joined by John Burns, former Baghdad bureau chief for “The New York Times.” Now heads the paper’s London bureau. He joins us tonight from Cambridge, England. John, good to have you back on the program, sir.
John Burns: It’s a pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me ask you what you thought, first of all, of the president’s speech last night. Did he strike the right balance, the right tone? Was it pretty much what you expected?
Burns: I think he did, and I think whether you were for or against this war, there has to be a great sense of relief that that milestone has now been passed and there’s 16 months to go before the last of those American units rumble out of Iraq.
Tavis: “The New York Times” asked a number of its Iraqi correspondents, you chief among them, to offer their own expressions recently on their website, and you posted your own blog. For those who didn’t get a chance to read that, give me your sense of – let me ask you to juxtapose what you saw the president say last night with the feelings that you expressed in your blog, having covered this war for so long now.
Burns: Well, look, I was not amongst those who felt at the outset that it was plainly wrong to topple Saddam Hussein. I had lived and worked in Iraq before the American invasion. I had seen what a charnel house Saddam had made of Iraq.
I could see the miseries that the people of Iraq were enduring – endless brutality, endless violence. Although it was not my job as a reporter to be an advocate of policy, I did feel that getting rid of Saddam Hussein would vastly benefit the people of Iraq.
Of course, as I said in my blog piece today, those of us who were in Baghdad when Shock and Awe, when the first missiles struck, and watched it from the roof of a hotel across the Tigris River from what became the Green Zone, didn’t anticipate – we must be frank about this – the nightmare that was going to ensue.
Should we have anticipated it? Perhaps we should. But we’re not clairvoyants and I think that we were, most of us men and women in that band of reporters sitting on that 24th-story hotel roof watching those missiles fly in and destroy the heart of Saddam’s power, I think what was uppermost in our minds was that the misery of the Iraqi people was over.
I don’t think that many of us were convinced that the weapons of mass destruction argument was persuasive. Well, Saddam Hussein is gone; Saddam Hussein is dead and buried. America did bring an opportunity for Iraq to completely rebuild itself, an opportunity that has been in large measure, in my view, squandered, and the price that America has paid is high.
It is by my reckoning much, much too high already, and I think it’s time for those troops to come home.
Tavis: I’m glad you’re being so open about your blog piece, about your own expressions, and I say that knowing full well, as all the “New York Times” readers do, that you are a journalist par excellence and we appreciate what you bring to us every day in terms of the facts.
But to your point now about your own personal feelings, and again in your blog post on the “Times” website, when you talk about the fact that Saddam was toppled, he’s dead and buried, to use your phrase, that, in fact, is true. But it does raise for me at least a couple of questions, John; at least a couple of thoughts.
Number one, the Bush administration gave any number of reasons, and those reasons kept changing, they kept moving the line, as it were, for trying to justify and explain and rationalize why we were going into Iraq, as you know; you wrote this every day.
They kept changing reasons, number one. I find that troubling all these years later. But secondly, when you talk about the fact that Saddam is now dead and buried, he is, and you say, admittedly, that there was a high price that we had to pay. Was the price too high, and looking back on it now, what do we say to the American people about the shifting reasons for why we got in this mess in the first place?
Burns: Well, look, I think it would be an extraordinarily foolish person who would say that had that price sticker been posted plainly before the American troops came in, let’s think about the price – tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, 4,500 American troops killed, 34,000, 35,000 seriously wounded, $750 billion of the American taxpayers’ money.
Who could possibly say that if that price had been posted in advance this thing would have gone ahead? It wouldn’t have gone ahead. I think that needs to be candidly acknowledged.
At the same time, I think some qualifications need to be issued here because I’m not absolutely sure that the verdict of history will be quite so clear-cut as some opponents of this war are suggesting at this point. For example, let’s look at the issue of weapons of mass destruction that you alluded to.
I always felt that if they were going to do this, Britain and the United States and their allies could not rely on the weapons of mass destruction argument because it was beyond proof because there were so many uncertainties, as we now know, about that whole argument, and that the argument should have rested, if they wanted to make an argument for invasion, on the human rights argument about what was going on in Iraq, which was, in my experience, as bad as anything I’ve seen in a life spent very largely in miserable places.
As bad as anything I’ve seen anywhere outside of North Korea, where of course those miseries continue.
But just let’s look for a moment at the weapons of mass destruction argument. It’s not entirely – it was not entirely the falsehood that some of the critics say. Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction program. He didn’t dismantle it as he was required to after the first Gulf War. He did continue it for some years afterwards.
He did try to deceive and mislead the United Nations inspectors and some very respectable people, very respectable people working for the United Nations as inspectors, including David Kelly, who was the principal British inspector who subsequently committed suicide in 2004, believed that he probably did have weapons.
Indeed, Saddam told his interrogators after he was captured that he didn’t want even his own senior generals to know he didn’t have any, because he thought that as long as the notion persisted that he did have them, that might be the strongest dissuader to an invasion. That might be enough to persuade Blair and Bush not to do it.
So I think it’s a little bit more complicated than some people would say. At the same time, it needs to be said that there was a good deal less than candor in the way that the intelligence in support of that argument was presented.
Tavis: Since you mentioned, John, our principal ally in this so-called “coalition of the willing,” our principal ally, of course, the UK. It’s getting some conversation going over here now – Tony Blair, the former prime minister, his memoir is out. He does not back down.
I haven’t had a chance to read it yet in detail, I’ve been skimming it. He does not back down from his belief that the UK, that Britain did the right thing, lined up on the right side of this war against Iraq, this war against Saddam. Give me your top line on how that book and his statements are being reviewed over there.
Burns: Well, it’s the headlines of every newspaper here today. Tony Blair, rightly or wrongly, is a bit of a pariah in his own country. He is, to use that old biblical expression, he’s a prophet without honor in his own land.
As you know, he has been and I think still is rather popular in the United States. He’s even become quite wealthy, earning huge amounts of money speaking in the United States and acting as a consultant to American banks. The estimates in British newspapers about Tony Blair’s wealth run up to $30 million and beyond. He has a huge property portfolio and so on.
Many people would say why not? Bill Clinton made a lot of money when he came out of office, and so have many American presidents.
But the fact is that Tony Blair is a widely disparaged man in this country and I think the publishers probably believe that the prospects for that book are rather better in the United States than they are here in England.
Tavis: So back to the United States – now that the president has given this speech, what’s your sense of what happens next? He says, of course, that he wants now to focus, “Turn the page,” to quote him, to focus on the domestic agenda, and yet we see him now, that is to say the White House and I think rightly, but certainly aggressively engaging itself now in these peace talks between Israel and Palestine at the same time we’re trying to manage this war in Afghanistan.
The president says we’re going to start pulling down troops from that next year. How does he do all of this international stuff, as it were, at the same time?
Burns: I think those of us who believe in a benign provenance or a Lord God almighty better do a little bit of time on our knees over this. The Iraq war is not over. There are still 50,000 American troops in Iraq, a lot can go wrong, already is going wrong, as those American troop numbers build down.
There is a rising trajectory of violence, more suicide bombings. There is a risk of resumption of large-scale insurgency, even civil war, and we have to hope that President Obama is not confronted sometime next year with a decision as to whether to continue with those withdrawals if, in the judgment of the president and his aides that’s likely to, if you will, remove the last impediment to, shall we say, a civil war.
Then you have the situation in Afghanistan. The president could end up a year from now with two bad wars unless there’s a turnaround in Iraq, which is not yet, as far as I can see, on the horizon.
So I think there are some pretty choppy waters ahead, and that’s even before you get to the tangled mess of the Middle East, which of course he’s engaging in even as you and I speak.
Tavis: Finally, then, John Burns, given what you’ve just said, you don’t sound hopeful to me. Maybe I’m mis-hearing you.
Burns: I’m not hopeful, but I also think, as I said at the beginning, that it’s time for those troops to come home. I think the Iraqis have had plenty of time to find a way to political reconciliation between themselves. They have largely squandered that. They’ve settled none of the fundamental political issues in Iraq, not even any fundamental agreement on who should govern the country as between the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis.
I think America has borne this burden for long enough. That, of course, does not deal with the what-if – what if chaos does break out? What then happens to stability in the region, in the Middle East, to oil prices? It’s a devilish situation and I think that we’d better all hope and pray that somehow the Iraqis come to their senses, come to some kind of political reconciliation having stared over that abyss and do not once again go down the road towards widespread violence and civil war.
Tavis: John Burns, I’m always honored to have you on this program and always appreciate your earnest insights. Thank you for your time, sir.
Burns: Thank you, Tavis.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm