“Whatever you make of the decision to go to war,  we have created the most perfect storm in Iraq,” John F. Burns said September 30 at Colby College. “You could hardly imagine any public policy issue in our lifetimes more vexed, more unyielding of any acceptable solution than this one.”

Burns, the chief foreign correspondent for The New York Times, spent the last five years running the newspaper’s Baghdad bureau. He received Colby’s Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism and spoke in the crowded Lorimer Chapel on campus.

burns2He scrupulously avoided advocating a course of action, but he urged Americans to weigh the price of staying engaged versus withdrawing. “I can tell you how it feels [in Iraq], but I can’t tell you a great deal that bears on the terrible, fateful decisions that have to be made that you don’t already know,” he said before evaluating the options.

“If they [Americans] were to stay there another three to five years, we could see this becoming a two-trillion dollar war, we could see thousands more American troops dead. And it seems most improbable to me, from my travels in America, that America is prepared to pay that price.”

But the other option, withdrawal, he said, would have a destabilizing effect. “There is a potential for a violent cataclysm in Iraq that, bad as things are, could be very very much worse than anything we’ve seen to date,” he said, listing as likely consequences, “the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dead, … the possibility of regional conflict—a very high possibility in the vacuum that would be left by the withdrawal of American troops. There’s the security of the state of Israel (which could hardly be left unaffected by an even worse collapse in Iraq than we’ve already seen) and the threat that that would pose at least to the government of King Abdullah in Jordan.”

Assessing hopes for a solution, he used a line he attributed to General George Casey, who commanded the multinational force in Iraq: “‘If it was easy, we would have already done it.’ … Unfortunately there is no such choice. I think this is going to be extremely difficult and extremely painful to resolve whichever way the decision is made.”

Given annually to a courageous journalist, the award honors the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an early Colby valedictorian and an abolitionist publisher who was killed in Alton, Ill., in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob.