John Burns

Say what you will about reporters in general or the New York Times in particular: John Burns breaks all the stereotypes. As the Times’ longtime Baghdad bureau chief, he has been a fearless and honest chronicler of the war. He has presented plenty of evidence of disasters, but he isn’t afraid to highlight successes when they occur, and to warn of the dangers of American disengagement.

You can read a transcript of his fascinating interview with Hugh Hewitt here. Some highlights: asked if the surge is working, Burns replies

I think there’s no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference. They’re definitely making a difference in Baghdad. Some of the crucial indicators of the war, metrics as the American command calls them, have moved in a positive direction from the American, and dare I say the Iraqi point of view, fewer car bombs, fewer bombs in general, lower levels of civilian casualties, quite remarkably lower levels of civilian casualties. And add in what they call the Baghdad belts, that’s to say the approaches to Baghdad, particularly in Diyala Province to the northeast, to the area south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and to the west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, there’s no doubt that al Qaeda has taken something of a beating.

He goes on to warn that this has not so far led to political reconciliation:

I think it’s probably fair to say that the Iraqi political leaders, Sunni, Shiia, Kurd in the main, are somewhat further apart now than they were six months ago. In other words, the Bush administration’s hope that the military surge would be accompanied by what they called a political surge, a movement towards some sort of national reconciliation, uniting around a kind of national compact, that has simply not occurred. Indeed, the gulf between the Shiite and Sunni leaders in the government is probably wider than it has ever been.

While this might be music to antiwar ears, Burns deflates one of the chief arguments made by Democrats who contend that their demands to pull U.S. troops out are putting pressure on the Iraqi politicians to compromise. Au contraire, Burns points out:

[T]he 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. It has had an effect of 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?

He then goes on to warn about the consequences of an American drawdown:

[A]n accelerated early withdrawal, something which reduced American troops—even if they were placed in large bases out in the desert—to, say, something like 60-80,000 over a period of six to nine months, and in effect, leaving the fighting in the cities and the approaches to the cities to the Iraqis, I think the result of that would, in effect, be a rapid, a rapid progress towards an all-out civil war. And the people who are urging that kind of a drawdown, I think, have to take that into account.

There is much more of interest in the interview; you should read the whole thing. And while you’re at it, take a look at this Washington Post story. The lead sums it up nicely: “House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Monday that a strongly positive report on progress on Iraq by Army Gen. David Petraeus likely would split Democrats in the House and impede his party’s efforts to press for a timetable to end the war.”

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John Burns

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