A Conversation With The World’s Most Esteemed Journalist –John Fisher Burns

I think my title conveys a fair and widely-held assessment. Left, right, center –all professional and experienced journalists at least admire and many are in awe of the career of the New York Times’ John Fisher Burns. I catch up with him occasionally, and did so today –which was “tonight” for Burns, who was in Sarajevo, which was the subject of his weekend piece which caught my eye. In the course of our conversation, I mention this Burns’ article from 1996, sent to me by The Daily Caller’s Jamie Weinstein. There is much and more in this conversation. Every young journalist ought to study Burns’ method –and absorb his understanding of the role of the U.S. in the world. Enjoy

The audio:


The transcript:

HH: It’s really an extraordinary week, and it hit me earlier this week when I read a piece by my guest, John Fisher Burns in the weekend New York Times, that we are on the 100th anniversary of a remarkable event, and it snuck up on me, and I didn’t even notice it until I read John Burns’ piece in the New York Times. He joins me now from London, the New York Times’ senior foreign correspondent. Hello, John, and good evening to you. Thanks for staying up late to talk to me.

JB: Not at all. You’re talking to me in Sarajevo. I’m still here.

HH: You’re still there. Well, tell people, let’s just begin with the piece you wrote and the anniversary that you’re writing about, because I don’t know that many people realize that the world started to go to hell a hundred years ago last weekend.

JB: On a street corner about 75 yards from where I’m talking to you now, where I’ve been watching the United States-Belgium soccer match until you called. There’s a river that flows through Sarajevo. It’s called the Miljacka River. And on June 28th, 1914, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian empire, who were then the colonial rulers of what is now Bosnia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, Sophie, came here to celebrate what was considered to be a triumph of Austria-Hungarian colonialism. They had built this town, Sarajevo, into the most modern town in the Balkans. It was the first city in Europe to have operating tram railway system. And they came into town by rail that day, and they went to the city hall, and on the way there, somebody threw a bomb at them which bounced off the back of their open car. So they were a little bit shaken. And in one of the great miscalculations of history, Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke, asked the head of security, a certain General Potiorek, in the city hall over a reception, do you think it’s safe to go back along the embankment where we just came, where somebody just threw a bomb? And the general said well, nothing’s sure, but I think you can be pretty certain that whoever it was that organized that, you know, we’ve got him now, go ahead. And they got back in their car, they went 500 yards, and a 19 year old kid called Gavrilo Princip stepped off the sidewalk with a Browning semiautomatic pistol, and assassinated both of them. And that led on to the implosion of the European order and the First World War.

HH: John Fisher Burns, I did not know until I read your piece that Princip is revered by some, that that, and I had no idea that this centenary was such a boiling point of controversy among, you know, I haven’t thought much about Bosnia since the Dayton Accords. And you really brought home, reminded me of the horrors of 20 years ago. But also, I didn’t realize that they lived on the 1914 assassin’s memory was itself an issue of division between the many multi-ethnic people of that city and country.

JB: Very much. The history of Bosnia for the last century since those assassinations has been one absolutely riven by nationalists. They usually say ethnic. I would say sectarian rivalry, dissent, and warfare through the First World War, the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied Sarajevo. Indeed, the embankment road along the river where the Archduke and his wife were assassinated was, during the years 1942-1945, called Adolf Hitlerstrasse. So there’s been a continual eruption of nationalist, sectarian hatreds. And the people of our generation will remember, it’s only 20 years ago, barely, 20 years ago next year that the United States brought an end to the most recent eruption of those furies, which was the wars of the, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s in which 110,000 people were killed in Bosnia, 11,500 of them during the seize of Sarajevo. And this ran on for four years until the United States finally did what could have been done much earlier had there not been opposition from the U.S.’ European allies, principally my native country of Britain. They finally used air power to silence the Bosnia-Serb nationalist guns that were besieging Sarajevo, where 11,500 citizens died and brought a peace which has prevailed until now. So the city from which I speak tonight is a city very, very different from the one in which I spent several of those war years. It’s a delightful place. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s in a deep valley. Whichever way you look from where I am tonight, you see mosques which speak for the Ottoman Empire’s 400 years here. You see orthodox cathedrals, churches, and you see Catholic cathedrals and churches. It’s a quite beautiful place. I thoroughly recommend it to anybody who happens to come make their way from California to Southeastern Europe.

HH: What a fascinating thing. That city which marked the beginning of the war, also communist for so long, the Olympics, the horrible civil war, and now, I promised my audience, John Fisher Burns, I would not give spoilers on the game. But I am curious as to who the Sarajevo crowd is rooting for – Belgium or the U.S?

JB: Well, very much the United States. And that’s interesting.

HH: Yes, it is.

JB: I think there’s still, there is a very bifurcated view here. There are many people who will tell you that the Dayton agreement, named for negotiations that took place at a United States Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, has emplaced a sectarian straightjacket, because Richard Holbrooke, who was President Clinton’s envoy to this part of the world, and President Clinton himself, got a peace out of a very messy situation, which, and basically to get people to stop shooting, they had to in effect freeze in place the nationalist authorities that had been established during the course of that war. So on the one hand, you’ll hear many people here in Sarajevo say that the Dayton agreement, the United States-sponsored Dayton agreement, froze this place in 1995, and they are carrying the burdens of sectarianism ever since. On the other hand, in the World Cup, when the Bosnian team was eliminated last week, the support here switched to the United States. And I suspect that’s true not just of Bosnia but of many countries around the world, and for a reason that you and I both understand very well, as do your listeners, which is that the United States, for all its travails in recent years, is still a city on a hill, that people in places afflicted by nationalism, by conflicts, see in the United States an example of a country of 300 million people of every different possible national origins who’ve come together, built the world’s greatest economic, political and military power, and aren’t shooting at each other. And that is a tremendously inspiring thing for many people in the world.

HH: You know, John Fisher Burns, a few years ago, my friend, Kurt Schlichter, arranged for me to embed at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. And I was amazed that there were squares in Kosovo devoted to President Bush, to President Obama, and to President Clinton. They all had their own squares. They were the most pro-American people I’ve ever met. And of course, that was the Muslim Kosovars and the Catholic Kosovars, not so much the Serbian Kosovars. But we’re still there, and that’s why Kosovo’s still settled, is because we’re still there. But we’re leaving Afghanistan. I made the point to a friend, Kosovo has remained peaceful because we stayed, not because we left.

JB: Yeah, you know, I think it’s entirely possible. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the United States in recent years. I’m a foreign correspondent. I travel around the distant world. But I think it’s probably the case that with all the travails that the United States has faced in recent years at home, and with, if you will, not the disintegration but the crumbling of some of the, you know, the pax Americana around the world, that Americans are probably a little bit dispirited by all of this. And of course there are, you’ll find academics everywhere from Boston, Massachusetts to Los Angeles, California who will tell you that we’re seeing the beginning of the end of the American empire. It will be a grim thing if that were the case. But what I see still is a world which for all of the things that have gone wrong for America, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America still holds such peace as there is in the world, depends very greatly on the United States. And it’s not a fact that has been forgotten by very many people in all the countries I go to, including Bosnia, and that’s very inspiriting. I’ve just come back from a supper in the old town of Sarajevo. They had television screens up…

HH: Hold that thought for one second, John Fisher Burns, while I go to break. I’ll be right back with my guest, principal foreign correspondent, senior foreign correspondent for the New York Times, winner of two Pulitzer, and actually our very favorite guest, John Fisher Burns, on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – – – -

HH: In the city that I think marked the beginning of what British historian Paul Johnson would call modern times, Sarajevo, one hundred years and five days ago with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. World War I followed. He is back reporting there, and in the middle of that, having dinner in the old town of Sarajevo in the middle of the World Cup. And it is cheerful to know, John Burns, and to hear your report that America still has its friends in far off places that might, you might not have expected. I didn’t expect to hear that report that they were cheering for us today.

JB: Every time Clint Dempsey gets anywhere within five yards of the ball, everybody in the bar, the restaurant I was eating in about half an hour ago were on their feet. As you and I are talking, I’ve lost the signal on the television set in my room, so I don’t know what’s happening there. If you know, I’d be happy to be told.

HH: I’ll tell you off camera, because I promised all my listeners I wouldn’t put spoilers out on the game.

JB: Fair enough.

HH: John Burns, let me, they’ve got it all TiVo’d, and they’re driving home with blinkers on and not listening to the radio for fear of knowing what happened in the World Cup.

JB: Yeah, I understand. I understand absolutely.

HH: What an extraordinary thing, by the way. This must amuse you. You probably grew up playing soccer, and it must amuse you that America is now transfixed by a sport that it generally does not have much time for.

JB: Well, I’m very much, I mean, I love American sports. I’ve been a New York Giants fan, your folks out in Los Angeles will forgive me for this….

HH: I’m sorry to hear that. I’m a Cleveland Browns fan. So I hate Y.A. Tittle, but go ahead.

JB: Anyway, it’s a joy to see America turning onto the joys of soccer. Of course, it’s always been a very strongly-supported sport at the high school level in the United States, and to some extent, the college level. But it’s had such stiff competition from baseball, hockey, basketball, football. And if it’s making a breakthrough now, that would be a wonderful thing, because it’s been something severely missing from international soccer, is that the United States, which got so large in our lives, in all of our lives around the world in so many other ways, has been an absentee, not totally, but they’ve, you’ve never had the U.S. playing such a obtrusive role as they are in the present World Cup, and so much the better for everybody.

HH: Now John, when I posted the link to your Sarajevo piece, and I’m going to repost it, Jamie Weinstein of the Daily Caller, sometimes a guest host, sent me a note. He said my favorite John Burns piece ever is from November 24th, 1996, a conversation that you had with Mullah Mohammed Hassan in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This goes…

JB: Oh, yes.

HH: This goes sort of so far back, I hope you can remember the piece he’s talking about. I pulled it and I read it. And I marveled that you’re in Sarajevo and we’re talking about a piece where you sat down with the Taliban leader in Kandahar. Some things don’t change, and the places you have to pay attention to don’t change, either.

JB: They don’t, sadly. You know, and people are saying here in Sarajevo, I‘ve been coming here since before the war in 1992, so that’s, whatever that is, 22, 23 years. I’ve been going to Afghanistan a bit longer than that. But here in Sarajevo, where we’re talking about an event that turned a century ago, many people, including some of the brightest minds in the town, are saying, shaking their heads, how much, how far have we moved forward in a hundred years that the strains, the hostilities, the enmities which led to those shots being fired on the embankment here on the 28th of June, 1914, are still paramount in our lives here. And academic here said the other day to me that the 20th Century began and ended in very much the same way, and we can only hope that the 21st Century doesn’t end in the same way.

HH: Now the American Century really begins in 1917 when three years into this awful war begun in Sarajevo, a hundred years and five days ago, sees America enter under Wilson’s tutelage. And three years from now, we’ll celebrate America’s entry in the war. We’ll commemorate it, and then we will celebrate the end of the great war. Do you think that the end of this American Century really is the beginning of the PRC Century, because I was reading last night a new novel by Brad Thor, and I don’t know if you read thrillers. I read everything by Le Carre and Daniel Silva.

JB: Yeah, yeah, I do.

HH: I love Brad Thor, but it’s set in China, and the Chinese characters that he has are quite militant, and they’re intent on making this the Chinese century. What do you think? You were the bureau chief in Beijing, I believe.

JB: Yeah, I’m not buying that at all. I think it’s very much more likely that the internal fissiparous strains within China will cause China to turn inward rather than turn outward.

HH: Oh, interesting.

JB: There’s no doubt, and it was made very clear by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, that the economic strength that he wished to build in China with the help of the Western world, the opening, the great opening of China, was intended, and Deng Xiaoping declared it to be so, to return China to what he called its proper place in the world, namely that the number one place that it occupied at the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 18th Century. I think that that is not going to happen. I think we have to remember that China itself isn’t an empire, that more than 50% of the territory of China is in effect, from the historical point of view, occupied territory. I think they haven’t begun to find a way to live with the restive, and in some places, rebellious peoples of the non-Han parts of China. And I think that China is going to be wrestling with very big problems trying to maintain its own integrity, and that unless it becomes a democratic country, in which case, they are very likely to lose, as the Soviet Union did, large parts of their territory, unless it does, I don’t think that it will mount the sort of challenge to American paramountcy in the world that many people think. Now I may be very wrong about that. I hope I’m not, because I would like my grandchildren to grow up in a world at peace. And I’m not sure that a world in which Chinese military and economy power is paramount would be a very comfortable place to live.

HH: What do you make of their aggressiveness towards the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan? That does not seem to be an economic giant moving slowly to influence the world, but rather a military power seeking to establish hegemony in the South China Sea.

JB: It does. I’ve been, you know, I left China in a police paddy wagon having been released from a jail where I was charged with spying. And that, 20 years ago, after I’d spent the best part of ten years there in two assignments, so I’m a little bit out of touch. But it seems to me that that’s a very distressing indication of where China is headed, quite unnecessary confrontations, no apparently willingness to sit down and talk, reaching out for territories in the South China Sea which are a long way away from the Chinese coast, and are much closer to the coasts of the countries that you just mentioned, particularly the Philippines and Japan. This has the look of a potential imperial power. But you know, again, I think the United States is a very large factor in this. There have been times when there’s been a talk about the nations, the allied Asian nations of the United States wanting to see a gradual builddown of American military power in the Pacific. I think that that’s very unlikely to happen.

HH: I hope it doesn’t happen. I’ll be right back with John Fisher Burns, who’s in Sarajevo tonight.

— – – –

HH: We gave John Burns his World Cup update during the break so he won’t worry. Don’t worry, we’re not going to spoil your drive home. John Burns, last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney was my guest, and I asked him a question, and he gave me an answer that generated more media for this show than in the 15 years it’s been on. I want to play you that exchange and get your reaction to it. Here’s my question and the Vice President’s answer.

HH: Do you think we get through this decade without a massive attack on the homeland?

DC: I doubt it. I doubt it. I think there will be another attack, and the next time, I think it’s likely to be far deadlier than the last one. You can just imagine what would happen…

HH: Yeah.

DC: …if somebody could smuggle a nuclear device, put it in a shipping container and drive it down the Beltway outside of Washington, D.C.

HH: So John Burns, what do you make of his pessimism, and I will expand the question to include London or the United States, because I also think the United Kingdom, like the United States, is a target of jihadis everywhere.

JB: Well, of course, who would be fool enough to say that Vice President Cheney is wrong? After all, he knows a lot more about these things, presumptively, than you or I do. But it seems to me that one of the signal characteristics of the, how many years is it now, 13 years nearly since the 9/11 attacks, seven years, or is it nine, nine I think since the attacks in London which are known as the 7/7 attacks.

HH: Yup.

JB: One of the signal characteristics is that there hasn’t been a repeat. And if there hasn’t been, it’s not because al Qaeda and its allies have not intended that they should be. I’m talking about no repeat of an attack with major casualties.

HH: Right.

JB: And why has that been? Because we have, thank goodness, security and intelligence organizations which keep a very close eye on all of this, and have succeeded as I saw during the years when I was the London bureau chief of the New York Times, in preempting a number of very serious attacks. I’ll just mention one of them, which was a transatlantic airliner bombing trial, which had it succeeded in bringing down the five, six, seven American and Canadian aircraft that were the intended targets, would have killed, potentially, more people than were killed in 9/11. Well, that was, they got wind of that, British and American intelligence. And other intercepts that have been made, some of them under the programs that Edward Snowden has brought to public notice, and so I think that you know, we’ve kept, our security and intelligence forces, have kept pace with this. And I would hope that that will continue to be the case.

HH: Now you’re probably friends with Richard Engel, the NBC correspondent. My friend, Guy Benson over at Townhall, made me aware that Engel has been tweeting out a series of conversations he’s had with security forces that the number of expat jihadis working in this new Western Iraq who are European or Americans is quite high, dozens in the case of Americans, thousands in the case of Europeans, and that the security services are scared to death that they’re becoming hardened, talented killers, John Burns, with passports.

JB: They are, but I think it’s significant. I know that a number of these folks returning to the United Kingdom have been picked up the moment that they set foot at Heathrow Airport outside London, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s been some counterpart arrests made in the United States. Look, there are very serious risks here, and I think that we’re going to have to hope that the vast majority of people of Muslim origin and belief in the United States and in the United Kingdom, where we have a population of perhaps two and a half million people of Muslim origin, that the vast majority of peaceable people in those communities are going to support our intelligence and security agencies in making sure that this remains under control, because it would be a very dire thing if they don’t. If to the extent, to some extent, I agree with Vice President Cheney, because I say to my children, my grandchildren, that I very much worry that the world in which they grow up is going to be much more tumultuous than the world into which I grew up, indeed in the world in which I now live. I wish it were otherwise, and if I, if you told me that I would say that when I was in my 30s or 40s, I would have been astonished. I actually believe that we were on a progress towards a much more peaceable world. But let’s not forget that just before the First World War, just before those shots were fired on the embankment here in Sarajevo, there were many people looking at a Europe which had been mostly at peace then for 50 years or more.

HH: Yeah.

JB: One of the longest peaces, some people would say, since Napoleon, with the exception of the France-Prussian war, which believed the same thing, that progress was inevitable. And look what happened.

HH: And suddenly, it was gone. One more segment with John Fisher Burns.

— – – – -

HH: John Burns, I would be remiss if I did not ask you, given the number of years you and your wife spent on the front lines of the war in Iraq if you did not tell me what you think of the events of the last two months in western Iraq, and how you see, are the events there as precipitating as the events that you are covering a hundred years ago plus five days in Sarajevo were then?

JB: Well, I will say this. There were many of us in Baghdad in 2003 who did not foresee the disaster that befell the United States and its allies after the capture of Baghdad. And you know, we have some accounting to do for that. But I will say that it became fairly quickly apparent that the objective of the United States in Iraq were mission impossible not because of mistakes that were made by the United States military, in my judgment, or even after the invasion, mistakes that were made by the administrations in Washington, D.C., but because the authorities that succeeded Saddam Hussein, Sunni-Shia-Kurd in Baghdad simply could not come to a political reconciliation. And you speak to General George Casey or General David Petraeus, they will tell you that certainly by 2005, they understood very well that without a political reconciliation, the entire American venture in Iraq was at peril. President Obama withdrew American forces, wisely in my view, and that made practically inevitable what has happened. Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, never made any serious attempt at reconciliation with the usurped Sunni minority, usurped in the sense that they had ruled Iraq for most of the last several hundred years. And inevitably, they were going to regroup, they were going to draw on their great Sunni hinterland, and they were going to come back, and there was going to be a great shock. And that’s what we’ve seen. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised that whatever we do, whatever the Russians do, you’re going to see a return to the status quo ante in which the Sunni minority, with the backing of the Sunni world, and not just these Sunni militants, but people who belonged pretty well in the Saddam Hussein camp, once again rule great areas of Iraq.

HH: Will Iran permit that, in your view, John Burns?

JB: I’m not sure that Iran wants a return to what happened in the prolonged ten year war between Iraq and Iran, which knocked Iran backwards enormously, as it did Iraq. If I’m not mistaken, about a million people died on the two sides in that war. And from what I’ve seen of Iran under this new president, they are desperate to begin to make economic progress. And I’m not sure they’re going to want to get mixed up on in all of this. Of course, it all depends on who you’re talking about in Tehran, as the ayatollahs are still paramount there, and they are capable, of course, of doing some pretty reckless things. But I have a feeling that there’s going to be an unwillingness to get mixed up in this, because the Iranians, amongst other things, saw what happened to the Americans. And I’m not sure…

HH: All right, my last question comes from the fact that yesterday, a horrific thing happened. The three teenagers were murdered in Hebron, and Israel mourns today, and the civilized world mourns the butchery of these three children. But of course, Israel is bombing Gaza as we speak, and Iran is suffused with genocidal rhetoric. What do you think Israel does in the next near term number of years? You know that part of the world better than anyone I can talk to. Do they sit tight and watch Arab kill Arab and hope it doesn’t spill over? Or do they act preemptively against the Iranians?

JB: Oh, God, I hope they don’t do that. I think that would really unleash forces whose outcome would be very difficult to foresee. And I think the United States under any administration will take the same view. I think common sense will prevail in that, and that you know, Israel is a very tough nut to crack. Israel is very well-defended, and I think that it’s extremely regrettable, of course, these three teenagers who have died, and there will be, vengeance will be wreaked upon those responsible, and justifiably so. But I don’t see an existential threat in all of this, unless Iran gets nuclear weapons to the state of Israel. But at the same time, I think most of us would say it’s very unlikely that the people of Israel are going to live at peace with their neighbors for a very long time.

HH: So John Burns, as you continue, how long are you staying in Sarajevo? Are you going to write another wonderful piece from Sarajevo before…

JB: I have to get, I have to get back to my native land to cover the beginning of the Tour de France bicycle race this weekend. So I’m out of here tomorrow.

HH: You have the most amazing career. Thank you for staying up late with us. I think you’ll make the end of the game on your Tivo at the hotel if I let you go. John Fisher Burns, it is always a joy to talk to you, and always a joy to read you. Thanks for joining me.

JB: Likewise, Hugh, thank you.

End of interview.

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    Hugh Hewitt
  • Hugh Hewitt is a lawyer, law professor, and broadcast journalist. A proficient blogger, Hugh Hewitt has one of the most visited political blogs in the U.S.

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