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The Endgame in Afghanistan & Christian Nationalism

March 23, 2023
Notes
Transcript

Eric flies solo in this episode (while Eliot is traveling in Europe) and hosts guest Paul D. Miller, Professor of Practice in International Affairs at Georgetown University and former NSC Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Bush 43 Administration. They discuss the recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report on the collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in August of 2021 and attempt to assess the roles of the Trump and Biden Administrations in the debacle. They cover the diplomatic malpractice involved in reaching and implementing the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban, the repeated failure of US efforts to train foreign military forces to be self-sustaining, and the possible alternatives that might have been pursued to hold the Taliban at bay. They also discuss Paul’s new book, The Religion of American Greatness: What Is Wrong WIth Christian Nationalism? (InterVarsity Press, 2022) and touch on American identity and the US role in the world, the universalism of the American creed, how Christian nationalism is related to isolationism, democracy promotion and the role of history and heritage in American life.

https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/evaluations/SIGAR-23-16-IP.pdf

https://www.amazon.com/Religion-American-Greatness-Christian-Nationalism/dp/1514000261

https://www.old.thebulwark.com/afghanistans-terrorist-future/

https://www.old.thebulwark.com/the-catastrophic-u-s-exit-from-afghanistan/

https://conversationswithbillkristol.org/video/eric-edelman-v/

https://conversationswithbillkristol.org/transcript/eric-edelman-v-transcript/

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01402390.2016.1145588

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09592318.2013.857935

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This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:06

    Welcome to Shield of the Republic. A podcast sponsored by the Bulwark and the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and dedicated to the proposition articulated by Walter Littman during World War two, that a strong and balanced foreign policy is the shield of our Democratic Republic. I’m Eric Edelman, counselor at center for strategic and budgetary assessments, a Bulwark contributor and a nonresident fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, And I am flying solo today because my partner in in this enterprise, Elliot Cohen, the Oskud professor of Strategy at Johns Hopkins School of Advantage National Studies is actually on a staff ride in Europe, but I’m joined by a very special guest today. Former colleague in government, Paul Miller, who is a professor of the practice of international affairs and cochair for global politics and security at Georgetown University, who’s got degrees from Georgetown and Harvard, was a director for Afghanistan Stan at the National Security Council in the Bush forty three Administration, an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and a Military Intelligence Officer in the US Army, and the author of several books, including one favorite of Mine American Power and Liberal Order.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:25

    And most recently, the religion of American greatness, what’s wrong with Christian nationalism. Paul, welcome to the show. Thank
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:33

    you so much for having me on the show. I’m looking forward to the conversation that’s good to talk to you again. I’m
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:38

    looking forward to it as well. I wanna start with something you and I both worked on when we were in government and have followed since, which is the war in Afghanistan that gets a little bit less attention nowadays than it did a year and a half ago before the war in Ukraine broke out. But in the last month, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, has published a report, very important report, I think, on the collapse of the Afghan security forces. And given your expertise, Paul, I thought we would kind of walk through what’s in that report and explain to our listeners. What it tells us about the US experience in Afghanistan.
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:27

    So let me start with I think the bottom line upfront from this report and see if you agree with it, which is that Much as we did in Vietnam, we trained the Afghan national security and defense forces to be a mirror of the US military, particularly the US army. And so we train them to fight the way we fight with exquisite intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance with combat air support from the air force when the going got tough with contract support for maintaining a fleet of both rotary and fixed wing aircraft and well as vehicles to move forces around. And when as a result of the Doha agreement reached by the Trump administration and then executed by the Biden administration, we pulled all of that out Suddenly, the Afghan national security forces were, a, unable to fight the way we trained them and taught them to. And b, deeply demoralized by US actions, which led them essentially to collapse in the face of Taliban offensive. Does that ring true to you?
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:45

    Yeah. That that’s about right. That’s what the report says. And it’s not terribly new or surprising. You know, as observers like you and I knew, well, before twenty twenty one, this was likely to happen if the United States made the decision to to withdraw.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:02

    Some folks place more blame on the on the decision to train the kind of Afghan army that we train in the first place. That that to me is a bit more of an academic discussion. When you’re looking at the situation in twenty twenty and twenty twenty one, and you want to preserve American interest intact, it’s easy to recognize that the Afghan army was was fighting had been fighting for ten years with our support, with our air support, our intelligence, logistics, medevac, with resupply, with everything. But they were fighting and they had been fighting and holding the line for ten years. Sixty six thousand Afghan soldiers killed in action over ten years.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:43

    And when we pulled our support, they made a very rational decision that they could not win the coming battle. And every Afghan soldier had to choose whether they were gonna essentially go on a kama kazi mission and try to carry on on a fruitless fight or go home and be with their families and and accept the Taliban takeover. And I don’t begrudge the individual Afghan soldier as the choice to go and be with their families and live, you know, choose life. So that’s what happened. It was very predictable.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:13

    It was predicted, and it is what happened. CAGR has now put it down on paper. It just says, you know, we were right when we predicted this would happen. So nothing terribly surprising there, but it is what we thought it was.
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:23

    Yeah. And it wasn’t just people like you and me who had been following this closely. It was it was a lot of other people as well. Congress chartered an Afghan study group that was co chaired by General Joe Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as and former commander in Afghanistan, commanding general, and Nancy Linberg, the former president of the US is due to peace. And now president of the San Francisco Bay Area, the World Affairs Council, and that report suggested that you could have this kind of collapse.
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:59

    If the United States pulled its forces out. So the Biden administration, of course, that was forewarned of this as, you know, a result, not just by people like you and me, but others, yet they decided that they were gonna go ahead and carry out policy that was actually initiated by the Trump administration. And so just to show that on Shield of the Republic, we are equal opportunity abusers and perfectly happy to be bipartisan in our condemnation of policies. We don’t agree with I mean, how much stock do you put in the Biden administration argument that they really were stuck with the Doha deal that Trump administration had struck with the Taliban signed by secretary of state Mike Pompeo in February of twenty twenty. How much were they stuck with that?
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:48

    And how much opportunity did they have to modify or walk away
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:55

    from that agreement? So it’s absolutely true that the Biden administration was dealt a bad hand, and it’s also true that they played it badly. They when they took office, there was nineteen years of mistakes behind them. Some of them, by the way, made and championed by by Joe Biden when he was vice president for for Barack Obama. But
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:17

    there
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:17

    was nineteen years of mistakes behind them, and it was very difficult to see a way forward. And they did the worst possible thing in that situation. Instead of staying to try to fix some of the mistakes, they just very abruptly left. Joe Biden comes into office promising to undo Trump’s legacy. And I I I cheer on quite a lot of that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:40

    And yet the one thing that he kept from Trump’s presidency was the DOJ agreement with the Taliban. Just find that baffling. I think it was very clear from the get go that the Doha agreement was not a path forward to secure American interests. It was just papering over an American exit. Now Trump administration officials disagree with that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:58

    They have their own claims. They say the Doha was sustainable and all that. And you and I can talk about the merits of Doha. But I think that it was pretty flawed. So it’s confusing to me why that was the one thing of Trump’s legacy that the Biden administration chose to keep intact and to execute with about a four month delay.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:15

    I I think it was easy for them. They could have chosen otherwise. They they were not bound by Doha. No one believed the Taliban was abiding by the terms of Delhi. Even the United Nations put out a report saying that the Taliban continues to cooperate with al Qaeda, and that was in the summer of twenty twenty, I believe.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:32

    So when you have that continuing cooperation with international terrorism, pretty easy to repudiate the agreement and say, Taliban aren’t living up to the deal. Neither are we. We’re staying and we’re gonna keep on the fight. I
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:44

    do wanna talk a little bit about the Doha agreement and dig into it with you. First, there is the issue of whether or not the Taliban were abiding by their undertakings. And I do think there is a salatory lesson to be taken away from this debacle, which is that allowing agreements to go unfulfilled or allowing noncompliance with diplomatic agreements is never a good idea because it has all sorts of downstream consequences. But moreover, one of the points that the special inspector general report makes is that there were a lot of side agreements to this agreement, side letters, understandings, that were apparently reached between the American negotiators and the Taliban without ever informing the government of Afghanistan. I mean, one one can argue that from the get go, Delhi was flawed because the government of Afghanistan was not a party.
  • Speaker 1
    0:09:45

    They were sitting at the table, and their fate was being decided by the Taliban and and the US delegation under our former colleague, Zal Khazazad, as a special envoy and then later secretary Pompeo who actually, you know, signed the agreement. To me, this is sort of the the real, you know, stunning diplomatic malpractice of all this is that bad enough that the, you know, Afghan government wasn’t there. But to compound it by apparently never sharing with them the actual terms that had been agreed, the actual undertakings that the Taliban had reached. Seems to me really kind of stunning. And I find it also incomprehensible.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:30

    That in the wake of the withdrawal in the collapse that the Biden administration did not make available to the special inspector general, the text of the side letters and the memorializing of these other oral undertakings by the Taliban. To the special inspector general, it’ll be interesting to see whether the congressional appointed Afghanistan Commission gets access to those documents, but do YouTube, Paul, see this as sort of diplomatic malpractice of the worst kind?
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:02

    As you know, I’m writing a book about the war in Afghanistan I’ve interviewed a lot of policymakers, including yourself. And in my conversations with former Trump administration officials, there’s a narrative that has emerged. And I’ll try to I’ll try to give do justice to it and tell you what the Trump administration says about Doha. I don’t agree with it. I think it’s wrong, but let’s let’s give the narrative it’s due.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:27

    And then I’ll kind of explain where I think it’s not not right. There there was actually an ongoing conversation within the Trump administration about what the goal actually was in Afghanistan. What were they trying to accomplish with Doha? And they even disagree on what Doha actually said, what it meant. Here’s the best possible defense of it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:45

    Right? They would say that the Doha agreement did not obligate the United States to completely fully withdraw all troops, and that the United States was able to keep behind a counterterrorism force and a embassy protection for us that allowed us to maintain our interests. And that it was the later Biden team that then pulled the plug entirely. They will also say that the Taliban was eager to partner with the United States in counterterrorism, which is I think true against ISIS ISK. Ron DeSantis that was the case, the Taliban actually seemed to be a better partner than the Afghan government.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:25

    And government was corrupted and incompetent. Alright? So that’s what the Trump administration officials will say about Delhi. Now, I think that’s a little disingenuous the text of the dog agreement does say complete withdrawal. It does say that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:38

    And whether or not there was this wink and not understanding that complete withdrawal allows for a stay behind force of twenty five hundred troops for counterterrorism. The text just doesn’t say that, and it’s super easy for the Taliban to say, look, you can’t keep any troops here. And by the way, it was easy for the divide administration to say that to point to the text and say, look, we’re just following the DOJ agreement. Doha is pretty evidently to me papering over an American withdrawal. And that’s what it was intended to do.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:07

    That’s what actually did do. And so efforts to retrospectively make it into something more substantial with more teeth than it actually had are unpersuasive. So, yeah, diplomatic malpractice. Yeah. I think it was it was a poorly structured deal with very few enforcement mechanisms that weren’t not actually enforced over the following year.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:27

    And that did actually allow our enemies to triumph and us to to lose. It’s the proof is in the pudding. Look what actually happened after Doha was signed. So I think it was a it was a poorly structured deal. So the blame certainly lies with Biden for his choice to follow through with the deal, but the blame also lies with the Trump administration for signing a bad deal in the first place.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:49

    Yeah. I agree. And let me add two other points to that recitation, which I think bolster your argument One is the episode at the tail end of the Trump administration, which ultimately led to Mark Esper’s resignation as secretary of defense, which was after the election, the president attempting before he had to leave office. To rush a final withdrawal of all US troops out. So if the objective of the Trump administration wasn’t to get all our troops out why was the president when he thought he was running out of time scrambling to try and enforce a total evacuation of our of our troops.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:35

    Second point is the Biden administration decided to keep The Trump administration’s negotiators, I’ll call his ad on as as the negotiator with the Taliban. I don’t think Zol would say that the agreement actually allowed us to keep troops there because he seems to have agreed that all US troops were going to going to leave. So It it seems to me very hard to sustain this argument. I know Secret Podcast Pompeo tries to do this, but like you, I find it totally unpersuasive. I wanna go to one of the issues about the performance of the both Afghan government and the Afghan national defense forces, you know.
  • Speaker 1
    0:15:16

    I I found it really off putting when president Biden complained that the Afghan’s were not willing to fight for their own freedom. When, in fact, as you point out, for the last four or five years of the conflict, they were bearing the brunt of the fighting. I mean, US casualties in the last several years were, I believe, in single digits from combat related fatalities in Afghanistan. And the Russians were taking quite considerable casualties actually in in the fight. But moreover, it comes out in the cigarette report, the special inspector general report, that the Afghan government probably wasn’t preparing adequately for the US withdrawal in part because of their own factlessness.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:03

    There’s no way that one can, you know, pretty that up. But by the same token, they were very uncertain about what was going to happen in part because they were told that this agreement was conditional on a certain Taliban behavior and they kept waiting for the US government with either under the Trump administration or the Biden administration to hold the Taliban to account which never happened much to their surprise and shock after having been told repeatedly that it would be conditions based. Does that, to your, in your view, mitigate to some degree, the lack of planning and the poor performance of the Ghani government? Again, I don’t wanna give I don’t wanna give them, you know, too much of a pass here, but it it does seem to me there is some merit in saying that they were really betrayed in that sense.
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:57

    Yes. Now I’ll make a distinction between the Afghan army and the Afghan civilian government. I think the Afghan army, I would almost entirely exonerate them for their decisions. Right? They really did stand and fight, and then when it became rational to not fight, they they didn’t fight.
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:10

    The civilian government of Afghanistan was not an effective partner because of their corruption and their incompetence. Could we have we should have looked them into the negotiations. And if we had, we would never have signed OHA! That’s precisely why there was no effect of negotiations prior to twenty twenty is because we rightly insisted that the Afghan government be part of it the Obama administration tried. They they had several outreaches.
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:38

    There was a prisoner swap in twenty fourteen. And negotiations continued to founder because the Taliban refused to negotiate directly with Kabul. And I think that was the right posture to take, but it also meant no negotiations. Once we excluded Kabul from negotiations, it just simply meant we were handing we were betraying their interests. And so both of these things can be true.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:01

    Afghan government corrupt and incompetent,
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:03

    and also we betrayed them in the negotiating with the Taliban. And the prisoner exchange that you mentioned is particularly dark chapter I think here because the ratio of prisoners released was something like five to one. We essentially put five thousand Taliban fighters back into the field who violated their undertakings not to return to the battlefield and did. And in in essence, we replenished the Taliban forces and set them up for the offensive that they launched in the late spring and and summer of twenty twenty one.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:36

    That’s the later prisoner release in after Doha. Yeah. There’s a separate one under Obama.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:41

    Yeah. What lessons do you think we should take from this. I mean, I I’m, you know, mindful of the fact that one of my predecessors is under Secret Podcast defense for policy, Bob Comer, who was involved in the training of the Arvin, the army of the Republic of Vietnam during during the Vietnam war or Rota, In Policy Walk Circle’s pretty famous study for Rand called bureaucracy does its thing, which recounts how the United States Army essentially trained. The Vietnamese army to be a replica of itself. I had read that study when I was under Secret Podcast, you know, I was kind of trying to poke and prod my colleagues and see Sticker, the training command in Afghanistan.
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:24

    And yet, we seem to have just repeated the same thing again. How do we avoid that in the future? Should we find ourselves in a similar situation where we have to train how nation security forces. I mean, is there a way to do this that doesn’t end up creating this military totally dependent on the kinds of, you know, unique support capabilities that we bring to the battlefield.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:49

    All of the answers to all of your questions. Will be in the book that I hope to publish in a year or two. I promise. Very hard to boil it down to a couple of talking points, but, you know, if there’s less since the Afghan war. What, you know, we were talking about negotiations.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:02

    You just can’t negotiate while also unilaterally withdrawing. Because then the enemy says, well, I negotiate. We’ll just wait until you’re gone. And then we get everything we want. And we did that, you know, we we unilaterally withdrew in Vietnam.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:14

    We did the same thing and rock same thing in Afghanistan. So if you’re gonna fight, stay in fight, if you’re gonna leave, just leave, and don’t pretend to negotiate. But if you’re gonna negotiate, understand that fighting and negotiating are two sides of the same coin. It’s the whole armed diplomacy concept. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:29

    You you you hold up the olive branch with one hand and and the male to fist with the other hand. So that’s, you know, one lesson. Another big lesson of the whole Afghan war. And and I, you know, I think that all four administrations got this wrong. I think that we tended to gravitate towards an activity that was easily defined and measurable in counter terrorism because we built the best terrorist killing machine in world history, and we could make dead terrorists real fast.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:58

    And we gravitated away from the messy complicated, uncertain, ambiguous thing of reconstruction, stabilization, counterinsurgency that’s kinda hard and messy, and bureaucracies don’t do it well. And so we we kind of shifted our attention away from that and didn’t pay as close of attention. And and by some way, I say we, I mean, the president’s and all the policy makers didn’t wanna do that messy stuff because it’s hard to define and measure and succeed at. And we prioritized consistently over the years the easily defined and measurable thing of killing lots of terrorists. And and we succeeded after twenty years, killed lots of terrorists, and never built the Afghan state.
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:37

    And in my view, the Afghan state was the the precondition for long term victory. You needed to build an Afghan state and an Afghan army capable of standing on their own for us to have long term success against al Qaeda denying safe haven there. And we just got it Bulwark, you know, with the the condition for permanent victory. We never paid attention to it. And instead, we did the short term victory time and time and time again until we lost.
  • Speaker 1
    0:22:01

    Is it fair to say that because the stabilization counterinsurgency effort traditionally people who do coin counterinsurgency say that eighty percent of the effort needs to be non military and only twenty percent is military you know, twenty percent provide security for the public, but eighty percent provide governance and services to them as well, and that we never got the balance right. And part of the reason we didn’t get the balance right, I mean, tell me if you agree or disagree, Paul, is that our government is not I mean and I mean the whole government now, not just the executive branch, but legislative branch as well is not optimized to provide resources that way. I mean, because you know, we tend to be more generous with resources for the Department of Defense and we are for the, you know, agency for international development, which actually is now just a kind of contracting vehicle. It’s not really even an agency anymore. Or the state of department or other elements of government like the agriculture department that might have been able to really help and that’s endeavor.
  • Speaker 2
    0:23:15

    Yeah. I mean, here’s a counterpoint. I don’t think foreign aid is intrinsically impossible. I think there’s examples in history where we’ve actually delivered foreign aid effectively and and built stuff overseas. It’s hard to do in a country so dramatically poor as Afghanistan.
  • Speaker 2
    0:23:34

    I think that’s the real challenge is how you how you build a highway in a country where the people who would maintain the highway are themselves illiterate. Do you do a literacy training program first so they can read the instruction manual on the steamroller that they need to, you know, keep the highway paved? Like, it’s it there’s prior problems. This is so difficult to even begin such programs when the challenges are so formidable. And that’s why I think you need a lot of local ownership and a lot of local initiative and locally designed projects.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:05

    That’s where I would go with this conversation and say, can we read rigor of foreign aid so that locals on the ground are in charge of what the programs look like. It’s a small example in Afghanistan. Thing called the National solidarity program that it was up and running in two thousand, like, five to eleven or something, where local village councils said, hey, give us a block grant of fifty thousand dollars to drop in the bucket for us. And we’re gonna build a well, or we’re gonna, you know, flatten the road with with crushed gravel. Or something or we’re gonna pick up the garbage.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:38

    And those programs were among the most effective. In getting something done, employing young men and spurring a little bit of economic life in the villages. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. And it and it’s not a multi it’s not a ten billion dollar project. But those kinds of things might actually
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:53

    hold out promise for success when you in this kind of context. Yeah. I know, you know, when I would speak publicly about Afghanistan, I would try and convey to audiences in the US the scale of the challenge we were facing because I think people don’t really appreciate it. You know, when you told them that the per capita income in Afghanistan was about one fifth, the per capita income of Haiti. When we started.
  • Speaker 1
    0:25:20

    You know, I think it gives people some, you know, sense of the scale of the challenge. So I guess my question is, final question on Afghanistan before we turn to your terrific new book. Was this mission impossible? I mean, was it just was the scale of this thing just so out of, you know, reach of the Americans beyond our ability to control out of the variables. We had a safe haven, you know, building in a country that was nominally our ally in this struggle, but was clearly undermining our objectives by housing the Taliban and allowing them to continue to operate out of their territory.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:01

    And in that sense, you know, had the by administration not pulled out, you know, would this be just an endless war or was this something which we could have managed at a, you know, reasonable cost over a long period of time, which is where I tend to come out. But I’m just curious where where you come out on it?
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:21

    Well, you know, the the posture we had achieved by twenty fifteen or sixteen or seventeen wasn’t ideal, but I think it was defensible and sustainable. It wasn’t great. It was a pretty suboptimal strategy, but at least it kept the lid on, kept cobble standing, and kept the Taliban and al Qaeda on the back foot. And and that’s good enough for my money. Here’s a different scenario though.
  • Speaker 2
    0:26:43

    And here’s what I’d hope to see the next time around we have to do something like this. You start earlier, but you go slower and lower and longer. But what I mean is, we we didn’t do we didn’t invest a lot. In state building in two thousand and two, in two thousand and three, even in two thousand and four. And because we missed that golden window, that’s why things trended poorly starting in two thousand and five, six.
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:06

    So if you imagine for a minute that we actually started a lot of our big aid programs earlier you don’t have to you don’t have to have a ten billion dollar program. You know, you can have a hundred million dollar program, but you started early, you get that seed money in, and used to sustain it at a low level, but you sustain it for a long time. You build relationships and you over the course of two decades, you know, you might actually see some real fruit. You know, the old adage. We weren’t there for twenty years.
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:34

    We were there for one year, twenty times, which is what they said about Vietnam. Let’s be there for twenty years. You know, let’s actually have some continuity and of of of relationships, of personnel, deployments, and of money. And that’s the kind of thing that could make a difference. That that would be my recommendation to the next president who has to intervene and do something messy like this.
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:54

    And it’ll happen. It it’ll happen in North Korea. It’ll it’ll happen, you know, it might be Ukraine, honestly. Post war, Ukraine, there will need to be a post conflict reconstruction effort. And it’ll be led by the Ukrainians, but we’re gonna pay a lot of money for that as we should.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:08

    So let’s keep these lessons in mind earlier, lower, slower, longer.
  • Speaker 1
    0:28:13

    Yeah. We, you know, did a lot to facilitate an election that, you know, got CarsAI elected in two thousand four, but we didn’t do much really to allow him to and his authority outside the city limits of of Kabul. Well, thank you for for that. I wanna turn to your book, the religion of American greatness, what’s wrong with Christian Jonathan Last? And as I read this book, which is really terrific, I could see that this was a very personal book for you.
  • Speaker 1
    0:28:43

    So tell our listeners how you came to to write this book.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:47

    Yeah. And and I’ll try to there is actually a connection. You know, we were talking about international affairs and an intervention in Afghanistan. Foreign affairs, you can’t really have an idea of foreign policy unless you have an idea of America’s rule in the world, which rests on a prior question. Know, what what is American identity?
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:04

    Who are we as a country? What do we stand for? And that’s what this book about Christian nationalism is about. It’s about American identity and a specifically America’s relationship to Christianity. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:17

    There’s obviously a strong historical connection there. Even today, a majority super majority Americans profess Christianity and and, you know, we all know there’s a strong influence But what does that actually mean for American identity? Do we have to be a Christian nation to remain truly American? And as I share the first chapter of the book, I’m a Christian. I’m an American.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:38

    I’m a patriot.
  • Speaker 1
    0:29:40

    Does
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:41

    you know, there’s lots of Americans just like me who who say yes, who say we’ve got to remain American, we’ve got to remain Christian, predominantly sort of Anglo Protestant cultural heritage if we’re gonna keep our freedom and keep our identity and and our sense of ourselves. Actually think the answer is no. I I would disagree with that. And that’s what the whole book is about. I I you know, Christian nationalism is this idea that we not only are and have been a Christian nation, but but but we must remain.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:09

    And our government has to make it a point of public policy to maintain a Christian identity for America. And I I just think that’s a a mistake as a fool’s errand, and it leads to all kinds of problems And it’s also not the vision of America that I think will inspire the world. I think what it means to be Americans about liberty and equality and the constitution and declaration, all that stuff. And that’s universal. That is truly universal across time, lines of time and culture and religion, and that’s what we can hold up as an exemplar to the world.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:40

    Yeah.
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:40

    I wanna pull on that thread if I could. I mean, you talk in the book about Christian nationalism as a kind of form of cultural killerism as opposed to Christianity as a form of theological universalism. And it does strike me that that there is, you know, that therein lies the connection, you know, between what you’re writing about with regard to American identity. And our larger role in the world. Do we stand as a nation for a set of ideals that transcend culture and language and borders and boundaries etcetera.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:23

    Could you talk a little bit about that? Because you also characterize yourself, I think, and I feel the same way. Not as a nationalist, but as a as a patriot. And I think those are two really distinct things. But talk a little bit about the sort of the way that national particularism focused on certain traits actually undermines of both the the nation’s unity, but also its ability to project a role in the world.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:53

    Yeah. So if you if you ask the question, what does it mean to be an American? Jonathan Last from any country is gonna answer by talking about their particular culture. Right? To be an American nationalist means to as as Rich Larry said in his book to preserve the cultural nation.
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:11

    Right? There are certain features of our culture that that are unique to us, and we gotta keep them that way otherwise, we’re no longer ourselves. Right? And so the essence of French culture is is the meaning of French identity in the French nation and the government, the French government needs to subsidize and and even mandate those things in order for France to remain France. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:33

    So a a nationalist talks about culture. And and I think the distinction is you and I would talk about creed rather than culture. We talk about the ideals. Right? To us, what it means to be an American, to uphold the values, the ideals, the universal, ideas of liberty and quality, which which we believe are indeed universal.
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:51

    And I can recognize ways in which the creed came from the culture, which, again, the Jonathan Last emphasized quite a lot. That that perhaps our and it is look, it’s historically indisputable that open societies originated in Western Europe. And so there’s a there’s a tie there. And the nationalists insist that that tie is indissoluble and the creed and culture go together forever and you can never separate them.
  • Speaker 1
    0:33:20

    I
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:21

    just look around the world and I see other examples of open societies outside of Western Europe and North America, places like Japan and India, and places like Namibia, and about about half of Africa and a good swath of Asia, and most of the South Pacific are open to science today, and they don’t have a European or a Christian cultural heritage. So I think it’s obvious that the democracy or or liberalism or human rights can be separated from their originating context in Christian Europe. And if that’s true, we should champion those universal values. And that means also, at home, we can be a bit more relaxed about cultural change. We are less Christian.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:03

    We are less European than we’ve ever been. I don’t think that means we’re less American. I think that means so long as we hold the ideals of the constitution, the declaration, that we’re as American as we ever have been, and we’re successfully adapting to cultural change. And that’s a good thing. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:20

    You know, you talk a little bit in
  • Speaker 1
    0:34:22

    the book about a political scientist who I think both of us hold in high regard the late Samuel Huntington, who’s final book, really, who are we, written about twenty years ago, and talked about the United States as a critical nation coming out this culture, Anglo Protestant culture. Mhmm. And raising concerns that continued immigration, particularly Hispanic immigration from the hemisphere would fundamentally change the character of of the nation what has what struck me at the time and what continues to strike me and and you kind of address Huntington in your book. Is that in fact, if you look at Hispanics, I mean, they’re increasingly sick. Yeah.
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:07

    Many of them are leaving the Catholic church and becoming evangelical Ron DeSantis. I mean, that’s a very major change in the Catholic church itself over time, which people believed in the nineteenth century was gonna undermine the character of our Anglo Protestant country as Irish and Italians and others from Central Europe who were Roman Catholic entered the country. That hasn’t I mean, the Catholic church itself became very amortized. And adapted to to the creed. So do you wanna talk a little bit about your critique of Huntington?
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:46

    Because I found it very compelling?
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:48

    Yeah. I mean, to pick up that point about the about Hispanics and about Latin America, one of Huntington’s worries is that we will lose our sense of ourselves, we’ll stop being fully American. Because Hispanic immigration will erode or undermine the Anglo Protestant culture, which he thinks is the fundamental basis of our open society, which is again, it’s true that we’re less anglo and less protestants than ever. Is our are we less democratic than ever? You know, you could say voting rates are just as fine as they ever were.
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:23

    If there’s threats to democracy, and I think there are they’re not they’re not coming from Hispanics. Right? You know, who who is there on January six? It wasn’t, you know, I observed in Latin America that almost all of Latin America are open societies, you know, with the exception of Venezuela and Cuba. There doesn’t seem to be any contradiction between Latin American culture or Hispanic culture and open societies or democracy and and and human rights on the other.
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:48

    And if there’s no contradiction, then we can relax about the the growth of Hispanic culture in America. It’s not gonna undermine democracy. I see no evidence for that whatsoever. I wanna affirm that Huntington is correct historically. Of course, it’s true that we were predominantly angler protestant.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:07

    And that was the originating condition of our experiment in democracy totally true. But Huntington and others insist it has to stay that way for us to remain democratic forever in the future. And this is not true. We can withstand cultural change and pluralism. We have withstood that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:25

    And so we can relax about ongoing change. That doesn’t mean all change is good. We can push back on the stuff that we think is unhelpful or Ron DeSantis, but, you know, his particular concern about Hispanic immigration is just way off.
  • Speaker 1
    0:37:38

    Yeah. One of the things I’ve always been struck by is how easily people become Americanized once they — Yes. — move here and how capacious the culture and the creed that goes with it you know, is. So, you know, if you read for instance the letters from the British colonial governors back to London, they’re constantly complaining that the colonists don’t wanna vote the taxes to pay their salaries as as administrators because Americans you know, just don’t like to pay taxes. And of course, you you know, you look at immigrants who come to this country, whether they’re people who came from Central and Eastern Europe as my forebearers did, but Korean immigrants or Hispanic immigrants that a lot of men that the republican party, you know, arguing for lower taxes.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:26

    It’s just a it’s a culture. This is, I guess, what, you know, Joe and I call, soft power. This is the stickiness, the attractiveness of our our culture to people. Paul, I wanna explore one part of this though, the sort of Christian nationalist temptation that you describe in the book seems to overlap somewhat with divisions we’ve seen in the Republican Party between the more internationalists and isolationist wings of the party. And some of that to have to do with this whole issue of democracy promotion and whether that’s an appropriate objective for US foreign policy.
  • Speaker 1
    0:39:05

    Could you talk about that a
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:06

    bit? So I think the political right I think the Republican Party is a coalition between nationalists and Ron DeSantis and Ron DeSantis, the word conservative, I mean, in the sort of pre twenty sixteen sense. It’s almost almost libertarian in sensibility. And I just accept that that’s the shape of the political right. It’s that coalition now.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:26

    Within that coalition, I’m definitely conservative, wrote a whole book announcing Jonathan Last. But I recognize kind of that’s the shape of the political right these days. We we differ sharply on foreign policy and on the purpose and size of government, of course. Jonathan Last, Donald Trump was very clear that he didn’t see a point to promoting democracy. He thought it was intrinsically impossible.
  • Speaker 2
    0:39:47

    Because to him, democracy is inextricably tied with our unique culture and why bother trying to export it and all that. And I think he’s wrong about that. I think the last two hundred and fifty years of the growth of democracy to disprove that. More to the point, I think democracy abroad is directly beneficial for American national security interests. I wanna make a selfish argument for this.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:10

    Right? When when other nations share our values, They won’t be threats to us, and they will likely be trading partners for us. They can make us rich and safe the growth of our ideals kind of like an an outer perimeter of our own security. Right? We’ve got our inner perimeter of our of our physical land boundaries in a a wall, which you know, and all that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:33

    But our outer perimeter are friendly countries that share our values. So the more we’re we live in a world that reflects our values, the safer we are. And and I love to push that fence as far out as possible, which is why NATO expansion was a great idea This is why the growth of democracy in Africa, Latin America, Asia is a great idea. Of course, we’re not gonna roll in with tanks and force them out. We’ve never done that except in Japan and and kinda worked.
  • Speaker 2
    0:40:57

    Right? We’ve never really forced democracy and others. But when we can encourage it, we can put our thumb on the scale and say, look, yeah, we’re on this side. If we can encourage the protesters in Iran, if we can encourage the protesters in Hong Kong, if we can say yes, that’s we we ally with it. We agree with them.
  • Speaker 2
    0:41:17

    It’s only to our benefit to see those ideals championed in every
  • Speaker 1
    0:41:20

    corner of the world. I wanna talk a little bit about history and heritage. I very much agree with what you just said about you know, democracy. But by the way, the founders who get a lot of attention from Christian nationalists were very clear that the experiment in Republican government that they were launching was not going to be able to survive forever in a world that was hostile to democracy. And the founder of the Republican modern Republican Party Abraham Lincoln believed that in spades.
  • Speaker 1
    0:41:58

    And so it’s what you say is very, I think, deeply rooted in our history. But because history has become such a battleground now, and I I should say to listeners that Paul, you advertise in your book the fact that you are, at some point, going to write yet another book in which you take on the progressive woke left And and I — Indeed. — I look forward to reading that too after you get done with the Afghanistan book. But because history has now become such a battleground, how should we think about, you know, history versus heritage? You write in the book that, you know, we we need to be reverend about the seeds of our system that were planted by the founders, but we can’t just put our history into sort of glass case and and just venerate it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:42:48

    It has to be looked at in a in a critical light as well. How do you square the circle? I mean, because, you know, on the one hand, I find myself irritated by people who wanna argue that the history of the United States is just the history of a series of problems, you know, the problem of race, the problem of class, etcetera, the history of the United States is is full of episodes that are dark and that deserve to be examined. But overall, it’s a history of a country where liberty is unfolding and evolving over time and and there seems to be a lack of balance in all this. How do you strike a balance, you know, in these history wars?
  • Speaker 2
    0:43:32

    Yeah. And this great question. And this is a really and balance is the right answer. Right? I find sometimes to to be a bit cliched here, on the right, you find a very triumphalist vision of history where yeah, we can do no wrong.
  • Speaker 2
    0:43:45

    And on the left, you find the opposite. You find a, you know, a defeatist division of history where we can do no right. You know, where America is just a a long long litany of sins. I think it’s important for us to have some, first of all, knowledge of history. I’m just shocked in how historically illiterate, you know, most Americans are.
  • Speaker 2
    0:44:02

    And and even some and cultivate some gratitude, some gratitude, and and reverence is even not too strong a word. For the achievements of the past. Alright. CS Lewis has this thing about how you need to recognize that we’ve done great things in the past. And and that we want to continue doing them together in the future.
  • Speaker 2
    0:44:23

    And that’s kind of what makes a country. And I think he’s I think he’s right about that. So it’s good. So patriotism is good. So it’s good for us to cultivate gratitude for what came before.
  • Speaker 2
    0:44:34

    Warts and all, flaws and hypotheses and all, there’s good things that this country has done in stood for in the past, and we need to teach them, honor them, venerate them, and hold them up as examples in inspiration. But not be captive by them because they were also a bunch of races to compromise with slavery and segregation. Like, so let’s not be captive to them entirely. And let’s be free to do better, the ultimate respect you can pay to the past is to do better than the past. And I think that’s the attitude you need to take is have that gratitude and use that inspiration to do one better in your day, in your generation.
  • Speaker 2
    0:45:11

    And so I would invite, you know, all Americans to do that understand American history, read American history, appreciate be grateful for it, and then ask, what’s our fight today? And how can we overcome today?
  • Speaker 1
    0:45:22

    Yeah. I wanna pull a little bit on one thread there. I mean, as a former army officer, there’s a commission now that’s been created to rename a number of American Army bases that were named after Confederate officers. And there’s a lot of pushback about that, obviously, because some, you know, storied names like Fort Bragg, you know, will be retired and replaced as the result of this. I I have to say that, you know, although I’m, you know, I am conservative and I, you know, I believe in honoring our past, I’ve always found it odd that you know, we have had this cult of interactionists, essentially, embedded in, you know, in our public spaces.
  • Speaker 1
    0:46:13

    And it seems to be perfectly appropriate to take down confederate statues, which by the way, were erected in the late nineteenth century as a, you know, a apertinence of the effort to essentially disenfranchise African Americans who had been liberated from slavery by the civil war and given the vote. So this was a, you know, these statues were not innocent, you know, memorials to our history. They were part of a a fairly vicious ideology that was racist. And I just don’t think there’s Anyone who knows anything about the history of the nineteenth century south, you know, I think Ron DeSantis that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:46:56

    And I I completely agree. And I think this is a great example that shows precisely the boundaries of how and when and where to respect and honor and appreciate the past. Look, we wanna appreciate and cultivate the best of our past. So put up a statue of George Washington, but not Robert Dley, not Jefferson Davis. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:47:13

    What did what does Jefferson Davis stand for that we wanna honor today? Nothing. Guy was a traitor and he and he’s responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans. He gets he should get no statues here. Of course, keep him in the history books.
  • Speaker 2
    0:47:27

    Where do Ron DeSantis symbols belong? The history books and the cemeteries and the battlefields, and that’s it. Right? They they don’t belong in public squares. You don’t need to name Ron DeSantis schools after after them.
  • Speaker 2
    0:47:40

    I’d actually live in an area in Virginia that used to be named for Robert Lee and they just recently changed it. I think that’s a good thing. There were people who advocated a couple of years back, tear down all statues to Davis and Lee, and also tear down the statues to Washington and Jefferson because they were racists and slave owners. No. I you know, they were flawed men who made horrible moral compromises, whose, I’d say, net contribution to the nation was positive.
  • Speaker 2
    0:48:08

    That I’m talking about Washington now and Jefferson because they created a system that we have inherited and built upon and improved. Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, didn’t build anything. We didn’t inherit it, and we rejected it and overthrow and defeated it. But Jefferson and Washington and the others have built something positive. And we’ve that the ultimate tribute here is that the ideals they left us are the very ideals that we sort of condemn them with.
  • Speaker 2
    0:48:31

    And and and that’s we should recognize the achievements that they made leaving behind those principles. And so they are worth respecting and and having statues too. Not the confederates, but for the American confederates, yes.
  • Speaker 1
    0:48:43

    Well, I agree with that and on that balanced note of how we should think about our history. I think we We have to close our conversation, but Paul, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been great having you with the shield of the Republic. I I hope when you complete the the volume on Afghanistan that my colleague, Elliot Cohen, and I can have you back when the two of us can discuss it with you because as you know Elliott was very involved in that two thousand eight Afghanistan policy review that you were involved in as well. And which we’ll be discussing, I think, next week, on Shield of the Republic with Meghan O’Sullivan.
  • Speaker 1
    0:49:21

    And we’ll be grading some of your homework in in the terms of the transition memo you wrote for the two thousand eight Bush Obama transition. But for today, I think We’ll have to bring this to a close. Thank you so much for being with us.
  • Speaker 2
    0:49:36

    Eric, thanks so much for the conversation. I enjoyed it. I love the the wide ranging nature of it. Look forward to next week’s discussion with Meghan, I’ll be a keen listener, and I I certainly enjoy the chance to coauthor with her the chapter in in in in hand off. It’s a great book that Steve Hadley put together as honored to be part of it and glad you’ll be talking to Megan about
  • Speaker 1
    0:49:55

    We’re looking forward that
  • Speaker 2
    0:49:56

    to. Well,
  • Speaker 1
    0:49:57

    that’s it for this episode of Shield of the Republic. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review on Apple or Spotify or wherever you get Secret Podcast from. Drop us a line at shield of the Republic at gmail dot com. We also want to thank our long time producer, Shay Katieri, who’s moved on to other projects, but it did invaluable service for Elliot and me as we got this show up and running.