These remarks were delivered at the 61st Annual Conference in October, 2007 by John Burns of the New York Times.
You can live 32 years on the front page of The New York Times in a deserved and welcome anonymity, but you cannot appear on PBS or “Charlie Rose” for very long and maintain that anonymity. It generates a kind of faux celebrity — brief-lived, one would hope, because I think that celebrity and journalism do not make good fellows.
I was reminded of this recently when I was walking down Fifth Avenue in New York and a fellow who — as best I can judge American accents — I would say probably came from Brooklyn, stopped about five paces short of me and said, “You the Iraq guy!” I said, “Can I just detain you for a second? In what sense am I the Iraq guy?” He said, “I seen you on TV.” I said, “Can you remember why I was on TV?” “No.” “Can you remember what I said?” “No, I can’t remember that,” he said. “All I remembered is you need a goddamn haircut.”
Life on occasions like this for me is upside-down. I look out and I see ambassadors of the United States who have served in parts of the world where I have reported; ambassadors of the United States who have helped me a great deal in times of distress. I hate to name names for risk of excluding those I do not name, but Ambassador Oakley and Phyllis Oakley, who more than once got me out of trouble in Pakistan; Ambassador Chamberlin, who did the same thing after 9/11; Ambassador Bodine, who got me out of a dungeon in Yemen; and half a dozen others. I see senior diplomats from the Middle East. I see American diplomats who served recently in Iraq. I just met the younger Mr. Oakley, who served in the National Guard in Iraq. In short, I am talking to an audience more expert in the region by a long way than I am.
But it is not the most inhibiting experience of this kind I have had. Two weeks ago I was in Aspen at a conference that Charlie Rose hosts out there. I was a little frightened when I joined a panel with General Abizaid, General Lute and Charlie Rose to see sitting prominently in the front rows two former Secretaries of State — Colin Powell and George Shultz — but much more frightening for me, the former Secretary of Defense, Mr. Rumsfeld. I am sure each of you knows that you learn only by doing, not by watching journalists spend a lifetime watching and listening to people talk (badly or well, as the case may be), but when you have to stand up in front of an audience and do it for yourself you discover that you only learn by doing. I had about fifteen minutes to contemplate the fact that somebody I had watched — Mr. Rumsfeld — from afar, from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, and by whom I was mesmerized (for all the reasons that we all were) was sitting there looking somewhat skeptically at me. I tried to remember what I had learned from watching him. One of the things I rather liked about him was the way that he would take his spectacles and push them back on his nose like this and then raise his gaze to a far horizon. The problem is, I do not have that far horizon, as I said.
He came up to me afterwards, to my astonishment, and said, “I like what you said.” I do not know whether he was referring to the far horizon or whether he was referring to other things I said. He invited me to lunch, which only goes to show that reconciliation — if not national reconciliation, at least a certain level of personal reconciliation — is always possible.
I come to Washington tonight off a flight from London at a time when this city and this country and the world are seized with the issue of Iraq. There are plenty of pundits in this city — perhaps too many of them — and although I spent five years in Iraq, I think it is important that I am very careful in what I say to you for a whole number of reasons, one of which I have already mentioned — I am talking to an audience of experts.
I have to take another two minutes to tell you why it is so dangerous to talk to experts. I was posted to Canada once by The New York Times after I was arrested for spying in China. There are probably people in this room who helped me get out of the Peking Central Prison. I was sent to Canada because, as the editor said at the time, “We want to send you somewhere where nothing ever happens.” Actually something did happen: the Toronto Blue Jays were on their way to and actually did win the World Series that year, I think the first non-American team ever to win the World Series. The sports editor called me up and said, “Would you go and interview the manager?” I said, “I’m happy to do so,” and I went and did it, filed the story. We were already in the digital age so within five minutes he called me up and said, “I don’t mean to be offensive, but have you actually ever been to a baseball game?” I said, “Yes, I was a graduate student at Harvard and Adam Ulam used to cancel classes in the spring and take us out to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox. Yes, I’ve been a couple times.” He said, “I don’t mean to be offensive, but we rather thought so — do you mind if we rewrite this?” Which they did. So be careful when you are talking to an audience of experts.
There is another reason, and this is something that we at The New York Times have a great deal of trouble convincing people who are not Americans — I think Americans understand it, but I think it is a lot less well understood certainly in my own native country and places east. There is a firewall at The New York Times between reporting and opinion. It is crucially important and it serves us well. If I were to stand here tonight and offer to you unvarnished opinions on this war that is a wound in the heart of America and the world, I would be doing an ill-service to my newspaper and ultimately to you. If we reporters become pundits, pretty soon The New York Times would be very little better than Pravda — and we are not Pravda. So I would ask you to bear that in mind in assessing what I have to say.
As it happens, although I am constrained by that consideration, I judge from my experience in Iraq that the reporters whose company I kept — Americans, Europeans and others who saw the war in its grimmest phases — actually do not have and do not offer any simple solution to this. We would sit at the dining table of The New York Times night after night and discuss this, and the fact is that the more we saw of it, the more vexed we were as to what the solution for America might be. It is, as I am sure all of you in this room know and I am sorry to use the cliché, a perfect storm. If the devil had wanted to invent a public policy issue more difficult, more unyielding, more worrying than this for the United States he could hardly have done so.
One general observation I would like to make is that it seems to me the debate in this country about this war is heavily freighted by endless debate about how we got there. There are certainly very legitimate, pressing questions to be asked about that. But we are there now — I say “we,” I mean the United States and my own country. We have heavy responsibilities there and my sense is that to the degree that is possible, those who engage in the debate over this issue need, if they possibly can, to set aside those recriminations and to look at the situation as it actually is and leave to history if they can, or at least leave to another debate and another day, the recriminations over some of the key issues. I do not mean to say that those recriminations, those reservations, the anger that has been generated by this, is unjustified. I do not take a position on that, but I would like to make some remarks from my own experience about some of those issues. Having said I think we should set it aside and look at this issue in the clear as to where we go from here, just a few observations about some of the issues which have been so controversial here. I will try and be very judicious here because I do not have a fixed position about this.
The most controversial issue of course is weapons of mass destruction and whether the intelligence was doctored. There has been an intensive debate about that and reports that run to hundreds of pages — official reports, congressional reports, reports in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. They raise very serious questions, but it seems to me that when history comes to judge this we need to remember what actually happened when the decisions to go to war were made.
I will speak only of one experience, and that was my experience covering the weapons inspectors in Iraq from November 2002 until March 2003, when they left with the imminence of war. We used to report to the United Nations headquarters at six o’clock in the morning and wait for the inspectors to come out of the building and set a course — erratically, as it happened — first north, then east, then west, then south — for whatever was the target of the day, pursued by the Mukhabarat, pursued by ourselves at speeds of up to 120 miles an hour on rain-slicked expressways. I think there was a failure of imagination on the part of we reporters because the Iraqis behaved in such an elusive and devious fashion in their treatment of the inspectors, even at the last, that we concluded they had something to hide. We would arrive at the gates of Tuwaitha, the nuclear establishment, or the chemical and biological establishments — most of them long since abandoned — and there would always be a runaround at the gates. “The director isn’t here.” “Wait 15 minutes.” “Wait 30 minutes.” We would be admitted into the offices and the workshop floors and there would be secretaries looking at computer screens and playing solitaire. The Iraqis submitted a 12,000-page dossier to the United Nations on December 7, 2002, which was — to put it mildly — a pack of lies. To cite only one element in it, we know from the debriefing of Saddam’s son-in-laws that there was a biological and chemical weapons program that lasted at least until 1995. The dossier makes no mention of that and makes no mention of any programs after the first Gulf War in 1991.
My point is only this. The Iraqis appear now in hindsight to have been working very hard to try and raise doubts in our minds, to raise the impression that they had the weapons. We know now they did not have the weapons. But one account of the debriefing of Saddam Husayn in jail that I read — we know very little about what Saddam told his captors, but one account which seemed authentic had him actually saying that their purpose was to deter war by creating the impression that they did have these weapons.
I do not want to imply from all of this that anybody here in Washington, DC, or in Downing Street should get a pass on this issue, because clearly there are very serious issues to be raised. But I do think that in any fair judgment about it we need to look in the round at what actually happened.
Human rights is another issue which I think has been — because of the disaster that has happened since April 2003, there has been something of an instinct to forget what Iraq was like under Saddam Husayn. You really had to be there to understand it. I am sure there are many people in this room who would agree with me about that, who were there — I know that Ambassador Fowler was there back in the early 1980s and many of you served as diplomats there. I thought I knew nasty; I had served as a reporter in China during the Cultural Revolution, in the Soviet Union at the bottom of the Cold War, in South Africa in one of the meanest periods of apartheid. But I have to say, I discovered a new level of nastiness in Iraq under Saddam Husayn. The only country I can compare it to, having spent probably two-thirds of my working life in repressive and authoritarian societies, would be North Korea. The difference is that in North Korea, Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung take great effort to disguise the brutality. In Iraq, Saddam made no effort to disguise his brutality because it was the principal mechanism of government. It was Murder, Incorporated. The fear with which Iraq was possessed under Saddam Husayin was a woeful, appalling thing to contemplate, to experience.
I think it would be honest of us who were reporters there at the time to admit that that inclined many of us to think (although it is not our business to encourage or discourage, god help us, war) that the removal of Saddam Husayn by one means or another, whether it was internally wrought or externally wrought — and by that time the Iraqis themselves had tried innumerable times to get rid of him and failed, to the extent that an Iraqi diplomat who served in prominent positions in this country took me aside one day and asked me to convey a message to President Bush. This was before the first Gulf War, the first President Bush. He said the message is: “Bomb, bomb, bomb.” I was astonished. This conversation took place in the parking lot of the Foreign Ministry. When I asked why, he said, “The Iraqi people have tried to kill Saddam Husayn and they have failed, and paid a terrible price for it. But somebody has to save this country.”
There will be a debate, probably endless debate into history, about whether or not the price the Iraqis have paid in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Husayn is greater than the price they would have continued to pay had he been left in power. Of course that is unknowable, but I think when history comes to judge this it will be only fair to say that Iraq was truly the most terrible charnel house under Saddam Husayn. In October 2002 when he opened Abu Ghraib prison, as it turned out liberating 50,000 people, many of whom were actually criminals and gangsters and thugs who then later on joined his Fedayeen and went underground and became part of the insurgency — I stayed until dusk that day and I finally found the execution chamber in the section dedicated to political prisoners. There was a chill autumn wind blowing through this room about the size — almost exactly the size of this room. There were two rows of butcher’s hooks hanging from the ceiling and a sort of control room, a glass-paneled control room, at one end. I was still in some doubt as to whether or not this was what it appeared to be when I realized it could not have been anything else, because of the soiled clothes, underclothes and trousers, that were lying along the sides of the building. It was a most terrible, terrible place and I think that we need to remember that.
I think when history makes its reckoning of this, we journalists will also have something to answer for. I can speak here for myself but I think that many of my colleagues would also acknowledge this. I do not believe that we paved the way for war, as some people say. I do not apologize for the fact that I and others like me were mesmerized — I am almost inclined to say obsessed — by the terror in Iraq and wrote a great deal about it. I felt it a matter of personal honor to write about it from Baghdad, under a Baghdad dateline, which earned me the mocking sobriquet of “the most dangerous man in Iraq” from the Ministry of Information. I understood well what he meant about that. At news conferences, if I asked a question, he would say, “Ah, the most dangerous man in Iraq.” What he was saying was, “You think you’re brave. You think you can come here and write about killing and you know we’re not going to touch you because you work for The New York Times and you wear a suit of armor. We’re not going to do anything which hastens an American invasion. But wait until an American invasion becomes unstoppable — we’ll get you then.” It is another story I will not tarry with tonight, but my time came when the Mukhabarat came for me and I spent ten terrified days in Baghdad, on the run from the Mukhabarat after they came for me at three o’clock in the morning in my hotel room. I basically bribed my way out of the situation to win my freedom. So for me, the arrival of the Marine Expeditionary Force in eastern Baghdad, which took the Baghdad Sheraton Hotel complex, was a liberation.
When I say we have something to answer for, what do I mean by that? I do not think, as you would expect, people like me are to apologize for the way we wrote about human rights abuses. It was the most obtrusive and in a strange way accessible element of that society. If that enabled people in this city and in Downing Street to press the case for war, I would say that was an unintended consequence. If you reverse the presumption and ask, “Should we not have done that because of the danger that it would have enabled people to go to war?” — of course that would be absurd.
But where I think we did fail, and certainly those of you — and there are many of you — who have spent your lives here working on the Middle East or who originate from the Middle East will, I am sure, agree with this, was in a sense that I think we failed elsewhere. Let me say at least that I have failed elsewhere. My generation of reporters has placed human rights and the abuse of them at the very top of the list of priorities in our reporting on distant places. I do not think that is to be apologized for but I think that what we have often done is that in doing that we have given too little weight to history and to culture. There are many of you here — diplomats, academics and others — who spend lifetimes working on those issues and would no doubt assent to this.
To put it at its bluntest: if we had paid more attention to the history of Iraq, if we had paid more attention to what lay beneath this carapace of terror in Iraq, I think we would have been able to report more effectively than we did on the fissured, fractured, traumatized society that Iraq was when American troops crossed the border and the bombs started falling on March 19-20, 2003. That, I think, might well have given pause to people who were otherwise intent on invading and overthrowing Saddam Husayn. My own sense of it is that for all the mistakes that have been made in Iraq — and goodness knows there have been many and grievous ones — that it may well have been a mission impossible from the start. This was a very unpromising land in which to embark on the kind of project that the United States did, to try and create in a great hurry a civil society, a functioning democracy. That is not to say that Iraq, with its great and noble history, is not capable of doing that, but it certainly was not capable of doing it in 15 months — not given the vociferous forces that were liberated by the American invasion and which have bedeviled everything the United States has done ever since. So in a reckoning in the fullness of time, I think we journalists would have to put our hands up and say that we would have done well to expend more of our energies reporting on that aspect of life in Iraqi society as well as all the reporting that we did on the abuse of human rights.
So where are we now? To put it as a schematic — I think it is much more complicated than this, but: stay or go? If I had an opinion, I would not voice it here for the reasons I have already said. But the fact of the matter is that I am as vexed as I expect many of you are. We know the price that has been paid: 100,000 Iraqi civilians, perhaps as many as 200,000. I am projecting now from the sort of figures that we saw in 2004-2006 in terms of civilian deaths that we – we at The New York Times and other American newspapers — were able to establish through morgue counts and others. There were many months when the figures went over 2,500-3,000 a month. So I think it is reasonable to think that the figure could be in excess of 100,000 and could be on the way to 200,000. Nearly 4,000 American soldiers dead, 30,000 wounded, many of them grievously. $500 billion spent already; under any scenario, probably the best part of $1 trillion before this venture has ended. The price America is paying and Iraq is paying is extremely high.
To go? We do not know what the price of that will be with anything like the same kind of certainty that we can project the price of staying, but I think many of us who have worked there share the same anxieties that were expressed by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus in their public testimony in this city and expressed privately with great intensity by American diplomats and military people in Iraq. I will just remind you of the way that Ambassador Crocker put it in an interview that we at The New York Times had with him in the late summer. He said, “We are one and a half reels into a five-reel movie. What we have seen so far is horrific; what lies ahead” — and I am paraphrasing here — “could exceed by far anything that we have seen to date.”
I personally feel from my travels in Iraq that that is a warning that we have to take seriously. The American military, for all that they are not very popular and in some places and certain times are very unpopular, still are the principal bulwark, such as there is, between Iraq and a catastrophe of proportions that we have not yet seen. What do I base my judgment on this about? It is talking to Iraqis and talking to them very often at times of maximum distress — in the wake, for example, of suicide bombings when there is widespread panic. If you wait long enough and you talk to people on the periphery, the survivors and wounded, and you say to them, as I often did, “I don’t make policy; I’m a messenger. But I can write messages which do land in the places that you would want them to land by tomorrow morning. What’s the message I should send? That you want American troops out now?” The overwhelming, the most common response was, “No. No, they must stay until they have created stability.”
The question, it seems to me, for those who take that view has to be: if American policy is weighted on that side of the balance, what prospect is there four or five years out from now — when there are perhaps many thousands of other American soldiers dead and wounded, tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and wounded — that the same dilemma will not present itself again? In other words, can we by staying only defer the day of reckoning and the ultimate disaster or not?
These are extremely difficult questions and I thank God that — in Teddy Roosevelt’s terminology — people like me are not in the arena, we are in the bleachers. What did he say? “It is not they who shed their blood, tears, toil and sweat” — we don’t. It is our privilege and our limitation that we are in the bleachers on this. I feel for those in this city, in the Congress and the administration and the next administration, who are going to have to make judgments about this, because they are judgments on which a great deal hangs.
I have admitted to some shortcomings in the way that journalists wrote about Iraq before the invasion. I think I should speak to you, because it is something I really do know something about, about journalism since the invasion. I think – and as much as possible here, I would have to say I am not speaking about myself – I do not much like the notion of the journalist as hero; much less do I like the journalist as crusader. Wherever we go in places of conflict and hazard, we are not even in the first five of the most endangered people. I think that requires of us a certain modesty. The civilian population are always and everywhere more endangered than us. Troops, coalition troops and Iraqi troops, more endangered than us. They have to go in harm’s way; when we go in harm’s way, we are usually and very effectively protected by American troops.
I will give you just one recent example and the kind of dilemmas that it creates for people like me. I wanted to get to Saddam Husayin’s grave before I left Iraq in the late summer. We sent out a foraging mission, if you will, scouting missions from Baghdad to Ouja, Saddam’s home village on the banks of the Tigris about 110 miles north of Baghdad — Iraqis. They came back and said it was impossible; there were about twenty checkpoints along the road, all infiltrated by Sunni insurgents or by Shi‘ite militias — “You won’t get there.” So I talked to the American military. I did not tell them what I wanted to do but I said I needed to come to Camp Speicher, the headquarters of Multinational Division-North, to report on US military activities in the north — but I also needed to go to Tikrit and I needed a day or at least half a day there where I am free to report with Iraqis and no American military presence.
The moment came when we were departing Camp Speicher and the platoon that was mustered to take us there — we were described as a media package, a photographer and myself — and I realized to my consternation that the only purpose for this platoon of about 30 men in heading down what is certainly one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq (about 15-20 kilometer run-in to Tikrit down the main north-south highway, where American troops are frequently attacked, ambushed and bombed) — the only reason they were going was to take us there and they did not know why we were going. It will be a very long time before I can resolve that in my own mind. I think perhaps what I should have done was to say, “We can’t do this. We cannot put you at risk in order to get us somewhere for a mission that you don’t even know about.”
As it happened, they got us to Tikrit. We had some trouble disengaging from them when I told them I wanted to in effect hand myself over to the insurgents — “No sir, we can’t do that.” A battalion commander who was friendly and helpful — I reached him by radio telephone — said okay. So I liberated myself and for the first time I actually found myself for several hours in the hands of people who were definitely in the insurgent camp. They were perfectly charming. They took me to the gravesite and eventually returned me, astonishingly, to the gates of Camp Speicher, where I went in to see General Mixon, the commander of Multinational Division-North, feeling a little guilty that I had not owned up to what I was doing. As I walked into his office he said, “How you doing, John?” I said, “Fine.” He said, “How did you enjoy your trip to Ouja?” I said, “How on earth do you know that?” He said, “We’ve been watching you. Where else would you possibly have wanted to go?”
We are well protected wherever we go, but it is a dangerous business. We choose to be there. I said this on “Charlie Rose” the other night; some of you may have heard me say it. I live in Cambridge in England, close to the Scott Polar Institute where Robert Falcon Scott’s diary from his last night in the Antarctic wastes is open to the last page. What he wrote there, as I told the 50 or 60 or perhaps more New York Times correspondents, reporters and editors who came to Baghdad, was, “We took risks. We knew that we took them. And now that events have turned out against us, we have no cause for complaint.”
Western journalists in Iraq have no cause for complaint. We are there voluntarily. We are well rewarded in terms of professional rewards. I should say, because it may raise doubts, that at least at The New York Times we are not financially rewarded; we are paid, and I am proud to say it, exactly the same for being in Baghdad as we would be in New York or London. I think that is the way it should be.
We are very well protected by our employers. The New York Times — Bill Keller, our editor, has said it publicly so there is no reason for me not to (he said it two years ago). Our budget in Iraq runs into the millions. It was two years ago over $3 million a year simply for our local costs. Our overall costs are very much greater than that. Anybody who has ever bought a Mercedes Benz or BMW armored car knows that you don’t get much change out of half a million dollars. These are enormous expenses for newspapers. This is not just The New York Times, it is the principal newspapers of America — The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and others — who have borne these costs at a time which has been a very bleak time financially for the newspapers in America. What they have bought us is as much protection as it is physically possible to acquire — armored cars, flak jackets, compounds which are armed and protected like — I hesitate to say it, but we have had to learn a great deal from the way that American troops protect themselves. This is very unusual in the history of journalism. It is not armed journalism because we do not carry weapons — we are very strict about that — but we cannot do our job without being protected in this way. I think it is to the great credit of — to speak of The New York Times, the Sulzberger family, Bill Keller and his fellow editors; the Graham family at The Washington Post; the Chicago Tribune company; The Los Angeles Times — that at a time when our industry is facing the biggest financial challenge in 50years that they have done this.
The result, I think, is creditable journalism. I think that we have managed to keep the American public — for all the criticism we get from the right and the left — informed about everything that is crucial about this war. There is much else that we would like to do that we cannot do. It is very difficult for us to get outside of Baghdad except with the embedding with American troops — in short, traveling on Blackhawk helicopters — but I think that when it comes to making decisions on these crucial issues that now confront America, the press has been true to its charter. We have, I believe, informed America effectively and comprehensively about every aspect of this war that is crucial to making that decision.
Finally, I would like to say that I am not an American citizen so it is perhaps a little easier for me to say this than it would be if I were. When I was a boy, 13 or 14 years old, playing golf with my father, who was a NATO general (air force) in Germany, one day we were on the 14th fairway and we passed a grassy mound surrounded by concentric rings of barbed wire and men wearing strange uniforms — uniforms that were strange to me. It was the first sighting I had ever made of an American. I had gone to schools where George Washington was a footnote, an asterisk in the history of that much more important figure, Lord North. My father said, “That’s where we keep the nuclear weapons that we will carry to target if there is a war with the Soviet Union.” He said, “Those are the people who keep the peace in our world.” That was long before I made my first footfall here, long before I dreamed of working for The New York Times. It has been true — it was true in my father’s lifetime, from the First World War through the Second World War, through the Cold War; and it has been true in my lifetime. I would hope for America and for its partners in the world — indeed, for the world as a whole — that a solution is found to this dilemma, this looming disaster, which preserves that in America.
I think it will. My sense when I come here is of a country that despite all of this has an enormous vitality, a tremendous reservoir of goodwill and intelligence, and above all a willingness to reinvent itself in the sense of acknowledging fault and fixing it. It is my hope but it is also my belief that America will do that in this case too. Thank you very much.
Q & A
Ambassador Fowler: John, thank you for your extreme candor and frankness and authority. Mr. Burns has agreed to answer a few questions.
John Burns: I’ve been asked: is a tripartite division of Iraq inevitable and would it be a good idea? I am not sure those of us who have read about the creation of Iraq as a nation-state in 1920 fully understand this, but Iraqis have a tremendously strong national consciousness. It is true that of course in recent times sectarian division seems to have trumped that national consciousness, but if I tell you that after the first night of so-called “shock and awe,” when we watched the bombing of Baghdad from the roof of the Palestine Hotel — one of the most extraordinary fireworks displays, if you will, that anybody can ever have witnessed (you all saw it on television) – the night in which there was more gunfire in Baghdad was the night that Iraq won the Asian football championship this summer.
My sense is that whilst there is a struggle of a most bitter and ferocious kind, it is not Sunnis fighting to control the Sunni territories or Shi‘ites fighting to control Shi‘ite territories — it is both groups fighting to control Iraq. I don’t think there is any willingness on the part of the Kurds of course, who already have a largely autonomous state — it is different. But I don’t sense any willingness on the part either of the extreme elements, much less the moderate elements, to settle for a division of Iraq — and that is before you get to the question of how much bloodshed would there have to be in order to resolve issues like Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad, Diyala — the most evenly balanced province in Iraq by Shi‘ite-Sunni divide.
This is a battle fought for possession of the kingdom. I personally do not think it will work. I think an attempt to bring that about would only exacerbate the violence.
Question: [inaudible] May I ask, have you [inaudible] on why the US forces, when they came in, did not destroy the vast armaments [inaudible]?
John Burns: My immediate thoughts go to something that General McKiernan told us — Ambassador Bodine will remember this because she was there at the time. When we asked why this and that had not been done, General McKiernan told us that he had — and this was within ten days of the arrival of American troops in Baghdad — he had 7,000 troops in Baghdad, where Saddam had in the Baghdad district over 250,000 army, police, Mukhabarat and others to enforce his rule. So I think part of the answer is what has bedeviled the whole American project in Iraq — there simply were not enough boots on the ground.
Then when you go to these weapons dumps, Iraq was a vast arsenal. You fly across Iraq in a Blackhawk helicopter, almost everywhere you see these wedge-shaped cuts in the desert. I never served in the military and it took General Casey or General Petraeus or whatever general it was I was traveling with to explain to me that these were weapons firing ranges. They put tanks into these revetments cut into the desert. Later on they were used in many cases as the sites for mass graves in the Shi’ite uprising in 1991, the Anfal campaign in 1988.
The weapons dumps themselves, to think of only one that I went to near Amarah, were just absolutely huge. You drive along a road and you’re driving for ten or fifteen minutes alongside a weapons dump, a vast, unguarded weapons dump. You may say that is another factor that should have been taken into account before the invasion. Whether it was or it was not, I do not know. But it was clearly impossible to guard dumps of that size. In fact, early on after the invasion we heard that a nuclear testing site of Saddam Husayn’s south of Fallujah, on the west bank of the Euphrates, had been left unguarded by American troops and villagers had gone there. There were, as I recall, about ten or 12 pylons about 80 feet high which had packages of cobalt which they could raise and lower from a basement to create some sort of – I’m not a physicist – but some kind of radioactive field. They took prisoners from Abu Ghraib and they subjected them to radiation. I went there with a New York Times photographer.
When we got back to Baghdad and told the US military commander that we were doing a story about it, we wanted to know what they knew about it, they actually brought people out from Washington to talk to us. But before they did that, they said, “How long were you there?” I told them that I had actually spent most of my time in the area of the reviewing stand used by Saddam’s scientists and military chiefs but that my photographer had actually been inside the tower and climbed up one of them. They then said to me, “Get him to a hospital immediately.” His name is Tyler Hicks – he is the Brad Pitt of photojournalism. Tyler Hicks turned about three shades of pale when I told him this; he spent the next three days in the shower trying to wash himself down before we got word from Washington that actually the radioactivity had so far declined that Tyler Hicks would have had to spend about thirty years in that tower to have done himself the damage that he thought he had.
John Burns: I guess that’s a question that everybody who thinks intelligently about this war asks themselves all the time, and each of us probably has found our own position on the spectrum on that issue. Certainly my sense is that Saddam had proven over many years that he was almost invulnerable to domestic challenge, that there were no limits to the barbarism that he imposed on his people. Perhaps I can ask you in a rather general or generic fashion: if the lesson taken from what has happened in Iraq were to be that the United States and its Western partners were to abjure the use of physical force to end this kind of barbarity in the future, I think it would be a much darker world. The argument will be made of course that the place to decide this is the United Nations, but I do not think you have to be a great student of the United Nations to see what the problem there is and will be.
My sense is that — let me put it this way. There is a sort of conundrum to my mind, or contradiction, that we can see almost daily. It may be that history will judge the American invasion of Iraq to have been a failure for America and for Iraq. But it seems to me that many of those who criticize the United States for having used its military power to depose Saddam Hussein have at other times and in other places been advocates of the use of American power under the doctrine of liberal interventionism. Remember Rwanda — when I was in Bosnia, I can remember the furor there was about why did we end the war in Bosnia and not Rwanda. There are many other cases in our world now where people who are bitterly opposed to what the United States did in Iraq will advocate the use of, in effect, Western military power to end other forms of barbarism.
As to whether or not this will prove to have been a good idea in Iraq’s case, it is not for me to say. But I would certainly hope for all of our sakes that it does not cause the emergence of a Fortress America where there is a dead-set unwillingness to, in the extreme, use military force in the aid of oppressed peoples. This country has a great and noble tradition of doing that and all of us in this room have been beneficiaries of that in our lifetimes.
Ambassador Fowler: I want on behalf of us all to thank John Burns for his public service, because it is the quality of his journalism – a public service to us all.
Thank you very much.
About this Transcript:
John Burns delivered his remarks at MEI's Annual Conference Banquet at the National Press Club, Washington DC
Assertions and opinions in the Insight do not reflect necessarily the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.