The August 7 edition of National Public Radio's afternoon news show "Day to Day" featured John Burns, the respected Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. Burns, who had his life threatened by the Hussein regime while covering Iraq, is leaving the country to head the London bureau of the Times. Host Lex Chadwick introduced Burns as "Perhaps the most respected war reporter of our time."
Burns thinks that in retrospect invading Iraq may have been a "mission impossible," given what Saddam Hussein had done to the psychology of his subjects. But Burns also thinks "there's no doubt" things are better in Iraq since the troop surge and that a withdrawal would make life "very much worse" there.
Burns: "…I think if we had our time over again, considering what has happened, we -- or to speak for myself -- I would have spent more of my energies trying to write about what lay beneath, if you will, a carapace of terror here, the deeply fissured sectarian society that was just below the surface and into which the United States was stepping. Five years on from when I arrived here in Iraq, I have a much better sense of that history.
"And it leads me now to the conclusion that this probably was a mission impossible from the start because of the fissured society and because of the deeply wounded psyche of that society. They had been bludgeoned, mercilessly bludgeoned, for -- we say 24 years of Saddam Hussein, but under the Baath Party for 30 years. And this was not a normal place the United States stepped into it in 2003 and it was certainly not for that reason, as well as many others, fertile ground in which to implant Western democratic ideals."
Chadwick: "If you view the mission in Iraq as doomed from the beginning because of the society that Iraq has become; what do you see now for a possibility for Iraq and for the American presence there?
Burns: "I've been pondering this a lot as I prepare to leave here. And I think I can say that I have in common with many of my Western colleagues here a reluctance to conclude that this is completely lost. And that is partly something, if you will, a cry from the heart. The head tells us that this situation is close to, if not irretrievable, the heart tells us that once America makes that judgment and inevitably, if it does, decides to come home, the trauma of the Iraqi people is going to become very much worse.
"It's in the face of that that we find it so hard to believe that there is no salvation here. We have been hopeful. The alternative to some kind of limited success here is so ghastly that it's very hard to give up on the idea that there might be -- even now there might be a turning of the tide, improbable as it seems."
Chadwick: "In your view, is the military surge over the last eight or nine months, has this accomplished anything? Do you think Iraq is any better off now than it was in, say, November or December of last year?"
Burns: "Oh, yes. I think there's no doubt about that. The American troops, in general, but particularly the surge troops, the 30,000 surge troops, in the last five or six months have definitely had an effect in the areas in which they are deployed. The problem is that 30,000 troops, however painfully it was for the U.S. military to find those 30,000 extra troops, is simply not enough. It's still a shell game here. You move them into one neighborhood, they achieve some degree of stability. They hope that the Iraqis will this time move in behind them, Iraqi military. And after the Americans clear the areas and hold the areas, it's not at all clear that that is happening this time anymore than it did last time with any great success."