Burns of NY Times on 'Today': 'No Limit to this Violence' if US Troops Removed

Far be it from me to put in a plug for "Today," but I do hope Nancy Pelosi & Friends were watching this morning. Congressional Dems might be quick to dismiss what President Bush predicts would be the upshot of a date-certain pull-out from Iraq. But perhaps they would not so blithely disregard the observations of one of the most experienced and respected reporters on Iraqi matters . . . a New York Times staffer, no less.

During this morning's first half-hour, "Today" aired a segment devoted to answering the question "What if US Troops Withdraw?" In the first part, narrated by David Gregory, dueling experts painted alternatively gloomy and not-so-glum pictures of what things would be like if the US withdrew. Those on the "things wouldn't-be-so-bad" side seemed to receive more than their fair share of air time.

But then, Matt Lauer interviewed John Burns. As Matt observed, "few Western journalists have as a good a perspective on this war in Iraq as New York Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns."

View video here.

LAUER: What do you think happens if there's a date certain set for that withdrawal?

BURNS: If United States troops stay, there will be mounting casualties and costs for the American taxpayer. If they leave, I think from the perspective of watching this war for four years or more in Baghdad, there's no doubt that the conflict could get a great deal worse very quickly, and we'd see levels of suffering and of casualties amongst Iraqis that potentially could dwarf the ones we've seen to this point."

And later: "Most would agree there is a civil war, but a countervaling force exercised principally by Americans but also other coalition troops is a very significant factor that leaves the potential for a considerable worsening once you remove that countervaling force. . . Remove that countervaling force and then there will be no limit to this violence."

LAUER: What about this idea that if we leave, we leave behind a vacuum that other states in that region will rush to fill?

BURNS: Very difficult to tell what they would do, but of course this could come as a wake-up call to them, once they were convinced that American troops were going to withdraw and that they might get drawn in, perhaps they would get serious amongst themselves about drawing up some sort of compact to avoid that possibility, but that's purely in the realm of speculation. We really don't know what their intentions would be, but there's certainly a potential for regional conflict.

LAUER: And scenario number three, John, is that if we leave a terrorist haven behind in Iraq, as the president has warned a number of times over these last four years, that we're going to have to fight those terrorists again here at home. What's the likelihood of that, in your opinion?

BURNS: Well, it's very difficult for me, for anyone, to predict what would happen, but you only have to look at Afghanistan to see what happens when you have a failed state and an Islamic militant component of some size, not necessarily controlling the state. But certainly in Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad, they probably would have effective control and that's a province that abuts, as you know, to the west, key Sunni Arab states. Who knows what could happen? But certainly, yes, there's a potential for an external threat arising from that.

LAUER: From what you've seen, from what you've heard, is the surge working?

BURNS: When I left Baghdad it was just beginning, but from what I see and hear, from here in England at the moment [he's scheduled to return to Iraq soon], the American military command is reporting a 25% decrease in overall levels of violence in Baghdad. That was predictable. The question is, of course, how long can you sustain it, and is the American public prepared to pay the costs of sustaining it, not over six months, or twelve months, but more likely over a much longer period than that?

Burns was duly modest about his powers of prognostication. But on sum, he clearly seems to believe that the kind of withdrawal being proposed by the congressional Dems could have disastrous consequences both for Iraq itself as well as for U.S. national security interests. Speaker Pelosi, Leader Reid -- are you listening?

Mark was in Iraq in November. Contact him at mark@gunhill.net
Mark Finkelstein
Mark Finkelstein is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.