Wednesday, February 14, 2007

John Burns on Iraq

Hugh Hewitt had a very interesting interview with John Burns of the NY Times. Here is some of it:

HH: Mr. Burns, in reviewing the Charlie Rose interview, as well as the one you did with Bill Maher in March of 2006, I was struck by two statements. To Bill Maher, I’m paraphrasing, yes, the Americans made a whole bunch of mistakes in the occupation, but if we fail, it won’t be because of those mistakes, and to Charlie Rose, the statement that when Iraqis sit down and talk with you in calm situations, the vast majority of people still believe they are better off with Saddam, under Saddam. Nothing was possible, it was frozen. Those two statements are extraordinary. You don’t hear them very much. Can you expand on them?

JB: Yeah, I need to say something about opinion polling in Iraq, because opinion polls tend to tell you something different. But I think opinion polling in Iraq is extremely misleading, because opinion is intimidation led. It was under Saddam. If CNN posed a camera in the face of somebody on the street in Baghdad in the fall of 2002, when the war was looming, and they said are you with Saddam or are you with George Bush, well of course, 100% of all Iraqis who were asked that question said they were with Saddam. What else could they do? They didn’t…they were going to end up in Abu Ghraib on the end of a rope. Of course the situation changed somewhat, but any Iraqi who is asked now a question like do you regard American troops as occupation troops, do you want them out, is wise, given the fact that American troops may be in the neighborhood for 30 minutes, but the bad guys are in the neighborhood for 24 hours, it’s wise to give a heavily, carefully calibrated answer, which does nothing to upset the bad guys. So yes, I do believe, number one, that most Iraqis still believe that for all of the price they have paid, amidst all of this chaos, that the possibility of a different kind of future for the country that was opened by the arrival of American troops was net an advantage. Let’s look at what happened after the hanging of Saddam. There were protests, but they were not very widespread, they were not very protracted. Saddam had very little legacy left at the end. The problem was not Saddam. The problem is that the Sunni minority in Iraq has not reconciled to the loss of power. That explains a great deal about the war. It was a frozen society. It was an unbelievably brutal society. And most Iraqis, and this is beyond doubt, and I include in this Sunnis, yearned to be relieved of it. And when America did that for them, it was after many, many years of Iraqis attempting to overthrow Saddam, failing, and paying an incredible price for it. So I think that we’d have to remember that in making an assessment of what happened. As for what has happened since, and the American mistakes, when I said if it fails, it won’t be because of American mistakes, what did I mean by that? Of course, if there hadn’t been some of the mistakes that were made along the way, the situation might be somewhat better. But my sense of it is that if it fails, that history may say it was mission impossible from the beginning, which is to say that when you remove the carapace of terror that Saddam had imposed on that society, what was revealed underneath it was an extremely fractured society which had never resolved the question of power, political and economic power, and how it was going to be divided between the principal communities, mainly Sunni and Shiites. That’s the situation the United States inherited, it’s the situation which continues to fuel the violence there, and it may be that history will say that the china shop rule, the power rule, you break it, you own it, might have been well to consider beforehand, not because Iraqis didn’t want him overthrown, Saddam overthrown. They did want him, and there was scenes of liberation in the streets of Iraq afterward. But you know, this is an extremely complex, extremely violence-prone society, a society that has proven to be resistant to, not yet ready for, and maybe will not be ready for a very long time, for Jeffersonian democracy of the kind that the United States hopes to install there. We’ll have to see what history’s verdict is, but my sense is that Iraqis still, in the main, are happy at least that Saddam is gone, very unhappy about other things, but happy to see him gone.

I really enjoyed the interview. It seems to me we don't get very much of the sort of experienced analysis that Mr. Burns offered in this interview. We don't seem to hear such experienced analysis from most of the news and commentary industry, and we don't seem to get it from our elected leaders inside the Washington beltway.

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