I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
I want to say this clearly from the outset — I am not here to pretend — not for a single moment — that I know how we should have left Afghanistan, that I have the secret to a graceful exit. I don’t doubt the withdrawal could have gone better in a million ways. In particular, I think it’s clear our visa system was a disaster, and that’s really unforgivable.
But at the same time, there are a lot of ways withdrawal could have gone much, much worse. I’m not seeing any serious engagement with the counterfactuals here. What I am seeing is a lot of confident pronouncements and criticisms from people whose track record on Afghanistan, on the wars of the past 20 years — even the worse before that — should, in my view, impose some humility. And by the way, I include myself among those people who need to show some humility here.
But I can’t escape the feeling that the second guessing, the recriminations over the exact logistics of the withdrawal are being used to distract the more fundamental reckoning — the ugly end of our Afghanistan occupation demands. Why were we there for 20 years at all? And just as importantly, why do the Afghan people have so little to show for it? How did we fail so fully that the Taliban was actually strengthened by our presence and by the government we constructed, and backed, and financed?
What do we need to learn about our own limits, and follies, and mistakes from all this? What do we need to learn? How do we stop believing that we can control all of this? But we’re already seeing a form of moral blackmail deployed to try to shut down that harder conversation. If you try and question the fundamental nature of our occupations, that justifying logics which is from strategic self-interest — we invaded Afghanistan because they had protected and created space for Al Qaeda — to humanitarian motivations— what, you want Afghan girls barred from school?
You think the Taliban is a force for good? And the answer to that is, of course not. The choices here are not isolationism or militarism. But we are culpable as a country, not just for the harms of our withdrawal or our absence, but the harms of our presence, of our wars, our drone strikes, the geopolitical chaos we create, and then leave. We are culpable for failures of action, not just of inaction.
And yet, I don’t see that reckoning happening. I see the opposite. I see the same people who promised victory again and again, who assured the American people they knew how to do this, that they could predict how policy would play out in Afghanistan — I see them fanning out across cable news without being held to account, by themselves or by anyone else, for their failures.
I see a concerted effort to make President Joe Biden pay for being the one to admit our defeat, rather than effort to understand why a losing mission continued for so long. That’s a scary thing in foreign policy, when there is more political punishment for admitting something is not working than for being the one to create something that didn’t work or who perpetuated it.
So I wanted to have a foreign policy conversation that I’m not hearing with someone who stands outside of and critiques the Washington consensus on these issues. Robert Wright is a journalist and an author. He’s the founder of one of the great enduring institutions of the blogosphere, bloggingheads.tv. He writes on science, and religion, and human cooperation, and foreign policy — particularly foreign policy — in his excellent newsletter Nonzero. I’m a subscriber to that. I urge you to be one too.
In Nonzero, he really routinely examines the assumptions that drive America’s foreign policy conversation, the interest groups that drive it, the kind of collective social dynamics of what he and others call the blob, which is the Washington foreign policy establishment. And that’s what I wanted to talk to him about — the ideas about American power that get taken for granted, the history of failure and blowback that we often ignore, and the lessons we need to learn.
Our reckoning with not just the harm we have done, but I want to say this clearly — with the good we could achieve, the good we could do is long overdue. As always, my email — email@example.com.
Bob Wright, welcome to the show.
Well, thanks for having me.
So there’s a tendency for politicians and journalists to focus really relentlessly on the present moment, what’s happened in the past few weeks — maybe, at best, the past couple of years. But I want to go further back than that here. What do Americans need to know about our history in Afghanistan prior to the 2001 invasion to understand what’s happening now?
Well, a very big year is 1979. This was, of course, during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had occupied Afghanistan, supported a coup that ensured a Soviet-friendly regime. And Jimmy Carter decided to contest Soviet control of Afghanistan. So the United States started sending weapons there, largely through Pakistan.
The Reagan administration kind of upped the ante by providing these Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. So before long, you had a full-on insurrection, a full-on civil war that took a huge toll on Afghans, and in a certain sense, paved the way for, you could argue, 9/11 itself. Certainly, Osama bin Laden was there in the cauldron that we were heating up in Afghanistan. That’s where Al Qaeda was founded, while he was there.
And in a way, the Taliban can trace its origins to — not to the American intervention per se — the American proxy intervention per se, but certainly to the chaos that ensued after the Soviets finally pulled out. And the leadership of the Taliban had gotten a fair amount of training via American-supported training initiatives in Pakistan and so on.
So what you saw from the very beginning was the United States doing what we did in the Cold War, which was treat large parts of the world as kind of stretches of turf on a game board. And their role was to be contested by us and by the Soviets, and very little thought was given to the implications of this for the people who lived there.
By the time all was said and done, by the time the long proxy war in Afghanistan was over and the ensuing civil war in the 1990s was over, somewhere around a million Afghans had died. And again, you can argue — very conjecturally, of course — but you can argue that 9/11 might well not have happened, had the US not chosen to heat up that cauldron.
And I want to hold on that number of Afghans who have died, because one, it’s horrifying and we were part of it. But two, I think you have to see that as part of the way the Afghan people see foreign countries coming to occupy their country — and particularly so after 2001, when we do have to see years and years of drone strikes, we do have years and years of war, we do have years and years in which we’re doing nighttime raids of homes.
And the way we talk about it here at home is we’re trying to keep America safe from terrorism, but in Afghanistan, it’s just one more superpower coming in and treating their country as instrumental to something else and treating their lives as subordinate to the lives of people somewhere else.
Right. We helped train some of the people who became leaders of the Taliban to expel foreign occupying forces, and it turns out they did that twice. They just did it to us. Now, I don’t want to suggest that we are exactly comparable to the Soviet Union by any means, or that the nature of our occupation was, but we do tend to take it for granted that countries around the world see things the way we do.
Like most people, we assume that we’re good people. We see our intentions as good, and that’s not always the widely shared perception. We are not always perceived as liberators, and the people in the countries that come into play in our contests with great powers do not always share the aspirations that we attribute to them. And I think, if there’s one thing I would propose is a miracle cure for the ills of US foreign policy, it would be for Americans to get much better at trying to see the world from the perspective of other people around the world.
This is something that I think there’s been insufficient reflection on in the American conversation over the withdrawal, which we will talk about in depth, of course. But the Taliban is a brutal player. They were an unbelievably brutal regime, and there were many, many, many, many in Afghanistan who were happy to see them toppled in 2001. That’s one reason it was not all that hard.
But I have not seen much reflection in America about the fact that our occupation and the government we set up, financed, and supported there managed to drive people back towards the Taliban — not everybody, of course. But if they are as bad as we say they are — and in many cases, I believe that to be true — then what does it say that so many in Afghanistan were willing to prefer them by the end of this?
Yeah, I’d say it’s probably a couple of things. First of all, you have to remember, people have very immediate needs. They want security for their family. They want food to eat. They want to feel respected. And elementary considerations like that are often going to make the difference when people are deciding where their allegiance lies.
Does it lie with these locals called the Taliban, or does it lie with a perhaps distant government that supported by a Western power in Kabul? We shouldn’t assume that people everywhere see the nobility of our larger mission to transform their country. People just aren’t like that.
Secondly, it’s very hard to pour as much in the way of resources as we poured into Afghanistan to support the government and to build up the military without a lot of corruption creeping in. And it did. And this became known among the people, that the leaders of the government had their condos in various countries other than Afghanistan and so on.
And one reason this became such a problem for us is that, in general, the truth about Afghanistan just didn’t find its way back to people who mattered in America. And that was an institutional problem. I’ve been reading this book “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam about how we got into Vietnam, and one thing he says is, when you’re deciding whether to intervene militarily, you can count on the generals to tell you everything that can go awry and stress the negative part of the picture, but once they’re invested, once it’s their job to create a good outcome through military means, it’s going to be all happy talk. They’re not going to report that they’re failing. They’re going to give you the sunnier side of what’s happening, in this case, in Afghanistan. And that’s what happened.
The reports coming back not only from the military, but also, I think, through the State Department largely we’re sunnier than they should have been, and so we didn’t see all the ways the government was failing to win the allegiance of people in various parts of Afghanistan, and we didn’t understand the reasons that the Taliban was.
And we’ve seen that. We now understand how little we understood. When we look at how fast this whole thing collapsed, we realize we had no idea how fragile the thing we had built was.
I want to hold on that point of how little we understood, because it seems to me that a central lesson of Vietnam — which you’re reading about in Halberstam’s book of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Libya, of Syria — of virtually everything we have done with military force through this country for decades now, that the central lesson is how little we actually know and understand about other countries.
And Afghanistan is the apex example of that. We’ve now been there for 20 years. We financed the government. We have an information and intelligence network. We have people on the ground, and have now for some time. And we still didn’t understand how hollow the government we had constructed was. But also, again, and again, and again, the plans that we attempted to execute that were supposed to stabilize the country failed, and the Taliban just kept gaining more and more ground.
And this is a bigger, in some ways, more difficult question, which is, I don’t think, after all this, that you can look at the American foreign policy debate and say on many of the topics we discuss that we have the informational foundation atop which to discuss them well. And the people who frame themselves as experts have just been wrong so often that I don’t really think there’s anyone left to trust.
I would just about go that far, yes. As you know, I’m a critic of what’s called the blob. It’s called that by its critics. The word refers to the foreign policy establishment. And I mean that broadly, by the way — people at think tanks, journalists, commentators, columnists, the people who show up on cable news to tell us what’s what, and as well as the people who go into government and actually make and implement the policy.
And what’s so frustrating about the foreign policy establishment is that it is still staffed by the people who have been demonstrably making errors of judgment — at least in my view, and the view of some others — for a couple of decades now. I would submit that most of the people going on to the cable news shows to comment on Afghanistan now supported the Iraq war, for example.
In the Iraq war is something that is widely considered a catastrophe. That’s almost a consensus. So you would think, in a properly functioning foreign policy establishment, there would be accountability, and the people who vociferously supported it would see their influence wane, and they wouldn’t still be writing the columns, and running the magazines, and running the think tanks, and so on, and we would try some new people who oppose the war.
But that didn’t happen, and it keeps not happening. There have been a number of things that were mistakes that have been made since the Iraq war, and the people who supported them are still — I wouldn’t quite say controlling the dialogue, and in fact, there are signs of some fresh air entering the system. But I would say they still exercise the dominant influence on the conversation, as you suggested.
And I want to be honest about this. I am a columnist — although I wasn’t then — who supported the Iraq war, to my enduring shame. I have my excuses for that. I was a college freshman. I wasn’t a — somebody covering politics. But when I think back on it, this is the key thing, and it’s what has really changed the way I approach foreign policy myself, which is what I looked at then was George W. Bush, and Colin Powell, and Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton, and Tony Blair — and for that matter, Joe Biden — and all of these people from different parties and different countries, who seem to have access to a level of intelligence that I didn’t — and I assumed they knew something I didn’t.
And then they just didn’t. And not only did they not know something I didn’t — a lot of the things they thought they knew just weren’t true. Draper’s book “To Start a War” that came out last year — I highly recommend it on this. It’s a fantastic look at how much they were wrong about. One of the things I really want to interrogate in this conversation are two dominant assumptions of American foreign policy — one, that we have enough information to do things like invade, and occupy, and rebuild other countries, and then the other — that we have the control over external events, such that we could implement policies like that.
And here I think, again and again, we’ve seen that we do not have that information. The people at the top are often more blinkered and misinformed than the people on the ground, simply because they have this huge architecture of generals and so-called experts telling them things that expats often — exiles — that they often want to hear.
And I don’t say it’s insincerely motivated or it’s not done with an effort to try to make the world a better place, but it is not reliable. And to me there has been no reckoning with its unreliability down to this last couple of weeks, where we have this withdrawal, and the same people who have been wrong in their predictions now about Afghanistan for 20 years are on TV saying they know how they should have actually been done. There’s just no reckoning with the failed record of predictions or the poor empirical foundation upon which we stand.
Yeah. When there is as strong a consensus in support of a policy, like the Iraq war, as there was — virtually everyone in the establishment supported it — then there’s nobody with influence who wants accountability. And maybe that’s part of it. The other thing is most Americans do not care about foreign policy unless Americans are coming home in body bags. That’s what finally did it in Vietnam.
And as a result, foreign policy is disproportionally influenced by a number of relatively narrow interest groups that have their particular issues that they focus on. If you ask, for example, why a policy that some of us think is almost always a bad idea, which is economic sanctions — why are we immiserating the people of Venezuela, and the people of Cuba, and the people of Iran, and Syria?
Well, the answers are actually different, to some extent. There are different lobbies focused on these particular regions. But at the same time, there is a larger world view shared by foreign policy elites that is also part of the problem. You have the problem of particular lobbies, and then you have the problem of the whole blob’s worldview.
And part of the blob’s worldview is that we have to keep meddling in countries — for a noble purpose, right? I don’t doubt the good intentions of the foreign policy elite, but they do feel that they have to keep busy making things better in various countries, even though, if you look at most of the countries we’ve intervened in — whether militarily through direct military intervention, or through proxy military intervention, or through economic sticks like sanctions — it seems to me, usually, we make things worse.
And so we just have to respect the inherent limits of our understanding of things, for one thing. We just have to, on the one hand, I think, work much harder to understand how things actually look on the ground in various countries, how various foreign leaders view the world, and so on, but at the end of the day, still understand that the limits of that exercise can be pretty strict. In other words, there’s only so thoroughly you can understand things.
And even when you understand things pretty well, it’s hard to predict what the outcome of an intervention is going to be. And all of that should add up to a kind of humility that I just don’t think America has exhibited.
I want to draw this out to a principal about the way we talk about foreign policy here, which is that the American foreign policy conversation, the establishment that drives that conversation — it focuses very intensely on the harms caused by our absence, our inaction, or our withdrawal, but there is no similar culpability or reckoning for the harms we directly commit or that our presence creates.
And so if you’re only ever looking at one side of the ledger, then, of course, you’re going to be biased towards action. But that just goes to, I think, a point you’re making here with sanctions, with our military interventions. The body counts on these things are horrifying. The number of Iraqis who have died because of our invasion is in the hundreds of thousands, and there’s no real accounting for that in America.
But look at the intense moral fervor we get into when we think about the harms that could be triggered by our withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I don’t want to say they’re not real, and I’m not saying that our withdrawal was done perfectly — although there are also a lot of other ways it could have gone even worse. But I do think this is a huge problem. Where is the conversation about the harms that our continued occupation of Afghanistan have visited upon those people, as opposed to simply the harms that our absence might lead to?
I would almost go further. I think you’re right. In general, there’s not nearly enough attention given to the amount of harm we inflict on other people through military intervention, through proxy military intervention, and again, through sanctions. The amount of suffering we are causing in the world right now through sanctions alone, during a pandemic, Americans are completely oblivious to, because it’s getting no attention. And that’s certainly true in the large-scale examples you’ve cited, where our interventions lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
I want to talk about this in relationship to Afghanistan, because we have been, as you say, talking a lot about the cost of withdrawal. What were the costs of our presence?
Well, for starters, in addition to the $60,000 or so Afghan troops who have died since the war started, tens of thousands of civilians have died — some of them killed inadvertently by us, of course. So there’s that. And I want to come back to that. But there’s also, you might say, stunting of the growth of Afghanistan.
In other words, as long as we are there, shoveling toward powerful Afghans, and on the one hand, building up a military, but on the other hand, not giving them the keys to the maintenance equipment — almost literally — in other words, not even building a self-sufficient military — we’re not really paving the way for a kind of organic evolution of the kind we say we would like to see. The whole system was dependent on our continued presence. So there’s that.
Now, to get back to the killing of civilians, one of the ironies in the press coverage of this thing has been that there’s been very little attention paid to the way the killing of civilians in Afghanistan and just the presence of a foreign occupying force in Afghanistan seems to have fueled terrorism in the United States. There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about, well, will Afghanistan become a platform for anti-American terrorists? Well, it’s a good question. I don’t think there’s as much cause for alarm as some people do, but I would make one point. The only kind of radical Islamist terrorism we have seen in the United States since 9/11 has been so-called homegrown terrorism that is committed by people who were already in America, typically grew up in America. And more often than not, they have cited as a chief motivating factor — they themselves have cited the presence of American military forces in majority-Muslim countries.
The Pulse nightclub shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing — in both cases, the people who did these things mentioned the war in Iraq and referenced Afghanistan as well. So it’s one thing to dismiss our lack of attention to the human toll in Afghanistan to American selfishness, and cynicism, and just the selfishness and cynicism of people generally — people are pretty focused on themselves around the world.
But the irony is that I don’t think the media does a real great job of explaining how the human toll of these interventions comes back to haunt the United States and threaten the actual security of the United States. So again, it just seems so often the case that you can look at a policy that is championed by much of the foreign policy establishment, and just say, remind me who this helped. It doesn’t seem to have been good for the country we intervened in — doesn’t seem to be good for America.
I think there’s a reason for this, though. And Spencer Ackerman, who was on the show a few weeks ago, gets at in his book Reign of Terror, which is, there is a tremendous prohibition in the American foreign policy conversation about taking seriously the things said and the rationales given by those who attack us. This goes back to Osama bin Laden, who gave a manifesto for why he did 9/11. And it, again, had to do with American occupation in Muslim lands.
Back then, person after person after person got canceled for trying to take that seriously. Spencer brings receipts in his book on that. But this goes to things like the Pulse nightclub shooting. Obviously, we don’t want to, as the line goes, negotiate with terrorists, but we verge on being unwilling to take them seriously. And that would not matter as much, if we then weren’t justifying many of these interventions on the belief that they make us safer, even as we are refusing to listen to the evidence that the things we are supposedly trying to make ourselves safer from are happening, in part, because of the interventions.
Now, if you want to say this is complicated — we are now in a cycle of intervention, and so you can’t just say, well, we’re going to go back to the state of nature here before we intervened in anything. That’s not possible either. And it is the case that you could have a place like Afghanistan, much as happened in Iraq with ISIS, become a platform for terrorists who do want to project outwards.
But at the very least, I think there needs to be a reckoning with the fact that this strategy for security does not appear to have worked out well. And the evidence of that is in the very statements — the documented statements of the people who attack us, and it is simply that we ignore what they say, because we don’t want to accept that they might have a legitimate grievance.
Right. I was just today reading an op-ed by a couple of these terrorist experts, and these guys were listing scary things bin Laden had said. And I looked through it for exactly what you’re talking about to see if they ever said what bin Laden said about his actual motivation — for example, the fact that, when he came back from Afghanistan, after experiencing his first jihad and apparently getting addicted to jihad, he came back to Saudi Arabia and found American troops there as a residue of the Persian Gulf War.
This, to him, was unacceptable to have foreign troops in the Holy Land. And time and again, he stated specific grievances, and then we acted as if his only grievances that we weren’t Muslims, as if he wanted to convert to Islam or something. That wasn’t what he was up to. He had grievances.
Now, you’re right that, if you say, well, wait a second — if the Pulse nightclub shooter says this is why he killed these people and Osama bin Laden says this is why he killed these people, maybe we shouldn’t do this, because then you won’t have so much terrorism — you’re right. People say, wait a second — you’re doing what the terrorists tell us to do? You’re going to appease the terrorists?
And it’s a perfectly fair question. You can imagine that being taken as positive reinforcement in a way that winds up strengthening terrorism, but look at it another way. Do you want to keep making life easy for jihadist recruiters? They’re out there right now around the world. They’re online. They’re trying to get these guys to join their crusade and kill Americans and kill others. And they want nothing more, at least so far as the power of their recruiting pitch goes, than to see American troops in Muslim-majority countries — then to see us accidentally bomb a wedding.
This is all good news for them. So the way I would frame it is, do you want to make life easy for the people wanting to recruit warriors who want to do us harm? And I would say more broadly that you should never shy away from trying to understand the actual causes of problems, the root causes of problems. That does not have to entail some kind of absolution of the people who have committed the crimes.
It doesn’t have to mean that you’re forgiving the Pulse nightclub shooter if you point out that there was a specific set of circumstances that motivated him. I just think we have to get better in general in life at unflinchingly pursuing the question of why bad things happen. And then we can sort it out, what we do to try to prevent the bad things from happening in the future.
And we can ask, well, will this embolden terrorists or will this undermine their recruitment? Which effect will be stronger? But what bothers me is, as you’re suggesting, the relevant data doesn’t even enter the conversation in America. There’s just part of the story we’re not reporting. At least in many venues, we’re not telling many Americans all of the reasons that these bad things happen.
There’s been something in the American conversation in the past couple of weeks that I found really unnerving, which is that, in one breath, there is a humanitarian justification and horror given for why there is anger at the way we have, or the fact that we have withdrawn from Afghanistan. But in the other breath from the same people, you can hear a really evident frustration and disappointment that the Afghan government collapsed so quickly to the Taliban.
It’s clear that, implicitly, a lot of people here would have preferred that there had been two or three years of heavy fighting before what we all knew was going to happen happened, and the Taliban took over, because at least then, it would have looked more like our policies, and our investment, and our support for this government had been worth something, that we’d been supporting a real fighting force. But would two, or three, or five years of civil war at that level have been better for the Afghan people? I doubt it.
Yeah. If you had told people the US is going to withdraw this year from Afghanistan, most people who have been paying attention would have said the Taliban is going to wind up running Afghanistan. And they would have guessed it was going to take a year or two, but they would have guessed that it was going to happen.
Well, if you ask, what’s the best way it can happen in the worst way it could happen, if you’re really focused on the humanitarian toll, the number of people who are going to die and be maimed, then this is one of the better ways for it to happen. I hope it doesn’t sound too cold and clinical to say that, but a much slower, more arduous Taliban victory would have been fatal, and otherwise bad for a whole lot of Afghans.
There are a lot of obvious downsides. First of, all the Taliban is running the place. But again, most people think that was going to happen anyway. And it happened in a relatively painless way. And of course, the flip side of that is that we weren’t prepared for the evacuation. That’s not the only reason the evacuation didn’t go perfectly.
There were intrinsic problems in setting that up, but one reason it’s a problematic evacuation is because the Taliban takeover cost fewer lives actually than most people were expecting. If it had been what a lot of people expected — a one-year, two-year, maybe three-year campaign, and city by city, the Taliban advances — there would have been more planning of the evacuation, I think, but I think it would have unfolded ultimately in a more orderly way. And that part of it would have been better.
We have yet to see how successful the evacuation is going to be, but it may well be that it would have gone better had the Taliban advance proceeded more slowly. On the other hand, you would have had a huge cost paid for that, in terms of Afghan lives.
But let me give voice to the other side of the argument here. So Congressman Dan Crenshaw, he wrote that the United States, quote, “found the proper balance in recent years, maintaining a small force that propped up the Afghan government while also giving us capability to strike at Taliban and other terrorist networks as needed,” end quote. So there is an argument here that we did not need to withdraw, that the cost of the occupation was manageable for us and the benefits were significant for Afghanistan, and the mistake was thinking that it needed to end really ever. How do you read that argument?
Well, if you want to stay there literally forever, I guess I’d be willing to take the argument seriously, but that really is the implication. And there’s a lot of places like Afghanistan. Are we going to stay in Iraq forever? And by the way, two weeks ago or something, it was announced that we’re sending troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo. And that got no attention.
They’re just advisory. They’re just special forces. They’ll come out. Well, who knows? But this is part of a larger policy of continuing to establish a presence in various places, ostensibly in the name of national security. And I think one reason those of us who favor withdrawal from Afghanistan favor it is that we think the entire policy needs to be overhauled.
So we’re not really just talking about Afghanistan here. We’re talking about a change in mindset that we hope will now be manifest in various other places, if we slowly come to realize that our interventions are not always helpful. I say that to help you understand why some of us think that, although, yes, you could have — it would have been lower cost for us and the Afghans to stay another year, but then you keep saying that, and Afghanistan never becomes its own country.
And by the way, the cost to American national security that are — that the interventions like this have had continue as well, because what people like Crenshaw are advocating, I think, is more and more kind of a standoff posture, where ground troops don’t get involved, but every once in a while, the Afghan people see an American drone or a fighter plane, and some people on the ground die.
And every once in a while, we get it wrong, and it’s a wedding, and so on. And we don’t think much about that, but that is the thing that fuels some of the anti-Americanism that eventually comes home to roost. So there are a lot of situations where it’s easier this year to put it off another year, but it doesn’t make sense to do that forever.
I want to take this as a bridge to another bipartisan feature of our foreign policy politics right now, and one that has become a shaping force of the Afghanistan conversation, which is support on both sides of the aisle for a new Cold War with China. And we’ve been talking here about the Biden administration, which has been in opposition to a lot of the foreign policy establishment on withdrawing from Afghanistan.
But they are also framing this decision to leave as partially motivated by the recognition that we need to stop wasting time and energy on these endless wars in the Middle East so we can focus more on the primary geopolitical conflict of our era, which is China. I’m curious how you see this.
This has various versions. This tends to come mainly in conversations about China, but sometimes this new Cold War is conceived as a global war on kind of authoritarianism that would also involve Russia. In that way, it really is kind of deja vu, I guess. It’s no longer communism, per se. It’s authoritarianism. But we’re still fighting a Cold War.
Look, I’m in favor of doing what we can realistically do to prevent the spread of authoritarianism, but I don’t think the foreign policy establishment has a very good idea how to do it. And the things I see them recommending — like, for example, establishing a league of democracies — might tend to have the effect of deepening the fault lines between our part of the world and China’s part of the world in a way that makes the Cold War a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, look, there are a lot of problems in China. We could do — have a whole conversation on that. And there are things inside China that, ideally, you would change, if you could, and then there’s things having to do with China’s external behavior, especially in its neighborhood, that they’re watching and that we should try to exert influence on. But I think we should be careful about sinking the world into another Cold War that is so deep that we fail to address common problems.
And by the way, Afghanistan is a good example of this. So one of the blob talking points — anti-withdrawal talking points is we are ceding influence to China in Afghanistan to Russia. Well, China has a border with Afghanistan, so naturally, yeah, it’s going to try to wield its influence in ways that serve its — what it sees as its national interest.
But if you are worried about Afghanistan becoming a platform for anti-American terrorism, it might make sense to work with some of the regional powers that are going to have influence on Afghanistan’s future. That includes Pakistan. It includes China. It includes Iran. So sustaining antagonism with various of our adversaries, and deepening it — including Iran, including China — and sustaining that antagonism seems to be something the foreign policy establishment is very good at — has a huge cost, I think, in terms of American national security, in terms of global security, in terms of the welfare of the whole planet.
Anything that distracts us from solving problems like climate change, or create so much antagonism between us and other great powers that it’s hard to focus on climate change — anything like that is, in the long run, bad for the Afghan people and for people around the world. And my own view is that climate change, as important as it is, it’s only one of a number of non-zero sum international problems that need urgently to be addressed.
Other ones include getting serious about the control of bioweapons, preventing an arms race in space, an arms race in AI, in human genetic engineering, various other environmental problems that I think collectively certainly qualify for the term existential. And one reason I think we need to quit spending so much blood, and treasure, and energy in interventions that actually make things worse even on their own terms is that it prevents us from focusing on all these problems.
And that’s also the reason I worry about what you’ve just said, which is our kind of — almost the attraction of the foreign policy establishment, I would say, to the idea of a new Cold War. I think it’s a product, it’s a feature of technological evolution of the last 100 years — and even longer than that — that, more and more, the interests of nations are tied up with the interests of other nations, so that, just in the name of national self-interest, you should be working on these non-zero sum problems with other countries.
To go back to a point you were making a minute ago, I found the dialogue about whether or not, after our withdrawal, China will increase its influence in Afghanistan totally bizarre. There are grounds upon which you could convince me that American presence in Afghanistan is important, primarily if it was clear we’re making the lives of people there a lot better, rather than triggering an unending conflict that actually makes it worse.
But taking us out of the conversation for a second, the idea that I should care how much influence China has in Afghanistan — I have tried to read the pieces. I cannot come up with an argument that does not sound unbelievably ridiculous. Who cares? Do we not have bigger things to worry about in the world than the level of Chinese influence in — this goes to the point you were making earlier about treating other countries like this is Risk on a game board. It just doesn’t matter. That does not matter.
No, it doesn’t. And in fact, if you look at what China’s interests are in Afghanistan to some extent, they coincide with ours. They worry about radical Islamist terrorism making its way into Western China. It’s the same with Russia. One thing we forget is that other great powers have an interest in stability, generally speaking.
Now, there are some times when they want to stir the pot, especially if they feel that we have a deeply adversarial relationship and they want to complicate our lives. But the default reflex of great powers is to keep the neighborhoods around them stable, and we should try to harness that fact as we work to influence the future Afghanistan. And it seems to me that will involve trying to minimize the gratuitous antagonism that there is with China and with Russia — although there are some genuine points of conflict of interest with both countries that we shouldn’t shy away from dealing with. But we should really try to minimize the gratuitous antagonism.
So you know I’m a polarization guy. I wrote a whole book on polarization. I think a lot about it. One of the things I try to do when I talk about this is out places where sometimes polarization can be healthy. And I think, in this whole set of connected foreign policy debates, you’re actually seeing some of the dangers of excessive depolarization, of excessive bipartisanship. When it comes to the war on terror, and Afghanistan in particular, for a long time, that has been such a collective enterprise of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that no one has had an incentive to say it is failing. It would implicate everyone.
And the war on terror broadly has been very, very bipartisan, and with the exception of later on in the Iraq War, it has been a very hard thing to question from first principles, because again, both sides are implicated. Both sides fear being painted as weak on defense. It’s interesting that, in certain ways, I think it took Donald Trump, who, because he was such an outsider, was able to present himself as an enemy of some of these things — that it actually cracked open the door on it.
But then China is like this too. And I’m genuinely worried about this, watching Congress. The quickest way — maybe the only way now to get a big bipartisan bill is to frame it, partially at least, to us about competition with China. You look at the big R&D bill going through — that’s framed as a competitiveness with China act. Joe Biden’s American Jobs Act — they often explain that as a competitiveness with China project.
And when you have this much bipartisan support for something, like, say, a Cold War with China or the war on terror, it becomes hard in a two-party system to find space for critique of it, to have people who see their political interests bound up in criticizing it, and they will try to make the American people aware of the failures in logic or the failures in execution. And I think, broadly speaking, in a bunch of these foreign policy debates, a problem is here that they are actually pretty bipartisan. And when things are too bipartisan, you actually get a suppression of contrary viewpoints, which I think has been true. I’m curious, as somebody who has watched this from somewhat outside of it, if you think that’s right.
Well, yeah, I think it’s been a problem. And part of the dynamic has been that, whenever Democrats start to seem dovish, Republicans convince them that, if they don’t prove their manhood, they’re going to suffer for that politically. Now, you might have hoped that, as you suggested, Trump was kind of a watershed, because when he first started criticizing John McCain, people said, oh, he’s toast. You can’t criticize a war hero.
Actually, he turned out to be wrong. It gets back to what I said earlier. Most Americans actually don’t care much about foreign policy, so I think a president does, in principle, have more leeway than presidents exploit. Now, Biden is asserting some leeway here with Afghanistan, in a way. Well, he is and he isn’t. The polls show that withdrawal was popular.
Now the people opposed to it are trying to make him pay a price, largely by focusing on how the evacuation could have gone better, I guess. And they’re going to — some of them — I don’t want to attribute cynical motivations to everyone in the foreign policy establishment, because I believe a lot of them — maybe most of them — they really mean well and they’re not playing cynical games.
But I do think there is a hope in some quarters that, if we can put enough heat on Biden now over Afghanistan, he will have to muscle up in other areas, like with respect to China. And in fact, already, in the wake of this, he has spoken more assertively than presidents traditionally speak about defending Taiwan, in the event that it’s attacked. So maybe the dynamic is taking hold again, and enough heat is going to be put on him over Afghanistan that he’s going to go do regrettable things.
I would also say there’s already a tendency in this administration to pursue a new Cold War. If you look at the rhetoric about Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken, national security advisor and Secretary of State, there’s a lot of emphasis on rolling back authoritarianism and so on. And again, what you can effectively do to encourage the prospering of democracy and freedom — do it.
It just seems to me that most of the things we try to do don’t work, and many of them work out badly. And in this case, I fear that one of the consequences will be a needless degree of antagonism with China that, first of all, could lead to actual war, and secondly, could get in the way of solving the various collectively existential global problems, like climate change, that I mentioned earlier.
I want to hold on that idea of doing things that we actually work, because one way I fear this conversation being heard, at least from my end, is that it is an argument for withdrawal from the world. It’s an argument for saying, well, the American government can’t effectively conduct foreign policy, and so it just shouldn’t.
And that’s really not what I think at all. It’s that we can’t invade, occupy, and then control the direction of other countries — does not work to be a colonizer or an occupier in that way. If we care about women in the world being educated, if we care about people not starving, not dying from — not just Covid, but malaria, if we care about them getting richer — there are so many things that we work, and you don’t have to drone strike anybody to get them done.
You can just give people money. You can give people vaccines. You can change American trade policy so that people in poor countries have better access to our markets. You can let people into our country who want to come here. There are a million things you could do for much less money than wars — that, if we wanted to take the suffering of people in other places as seriously as we take our own, we could do it. And we should, by the way. We should do it, for both reasons humanitarian and self-interested.
It’s just we should do things that work. Again, we know what they are. You could go to GiveWell and look at their list of recommended charities. And bed nets work, and there’s no reason you need to have charities running around begging people for money for malaria bed nets. The American government could make sure everybody who wants want to have — has the bed nets they need, or that every child on Earth has the vitamin E supplementation they need. It would cost, to a first approximation, nothing.
And it’s the — our unwillingness to do the things to help people that are cheap and easy that also, by the way, makes me skeptical when we try to justify our military interventions under the guise of compassion, because if we’re so compassionate, if we care so much, then why don’t we do the stuff that we know works, as opposed to the stuff that, in general, does not — which is a Cold War with China, which is another occupation, or another 20 years of occupation in a country that doesn’t want us there?
The alternatives here are not militarism and isolationism. There’s a whole vast range of diplomacy, and humanitarianism, and economic leadership, and renewable energy that we could engage in, and it would work. We know that.
I want to pick up on that isolationism point, because there is a tendency to caricature critics of the kind of American intervention abroad we’ve seen as being isolationist. And that basically applies to none of them, actually. Now, there is diversity within the kind of anti-blob coalition. There are people on the left, like me. There are people on the right.
And a lot of us in this coalition — it’s sometimes called the restraint coalition — we want to see more restraint on American militarism. But a lot of us in this coalition want an extremely active role for America in going out and helping to build international governance in environmental matters, on various arms control fronts. And some of us have ideas about using international economic institutions in ways that are more progressive than they’ve generally been used.
But basically nobody in the restraint coalition really qualifies for the term isolationist. And some of us believe that, as America’s relative power declines — which is inevitable, and it’s not a bad thing that the rest of the world is getting prosperous. I don’t see how you can bemoan the fact that other nations where poverty used to prevail are becoming less poor.
But a consequence of that is that our relative economic — and in the long run, hence, our relative military might — is declining in the world. And some of us think the way to preserve America’s national interest for the future, even in light of that trend, is to establish a world of rules and laws, and strengthen the norm of complying with international law, including not invading countries and bombing countries unless it is compliant with international law.
That’s a very activist mission, to go out and do the things I’m talking about — build the sinews of global governance, build respect for international law by actually complying with it — which, by the way, takes restraint. There are times you’d like to do things, but it’s just not legal, and you can’t. That’s a full-time job, and I think it’s a job that’s critical not just the future of the planet, but by implication, of course, the future of the United States. So there really are no isolationists in the world, so please at least drop that talking point.
I think that’s a good place to end. So always our final question — what are three books that have influenced you that you’d recommend to the audience?
Well, I’ve already said that I’ve been listening to — I don’t read books anymore — I’ve been listening to, while taking walks, David Halberstam’s book “The Best and the Brightest.”
How long is that book as an audio book?
The answer is longer than was absolutely necessary. If I had been his editor, it wouldn’t be the book it is. And I also think some of the characters are slightly overdrawn, but it’s a really valuable, well-reported book. And as I suggested, you see eerie parallels. Some of the problems in Afghanistan are perennial institutional problems. And you wonder, when are we going to learn that there is intrinsic distortion of information coming back from a war zone? But anyway, I’m enjoying that.
There’s a book that’s kind of about the blob, that came out a couple of years ago, that I read by Stephen Walt called “The Hell of Good Intentions.” It’s about why the foreign policy establishment keeps making the mistakes it makes. And then not that long ago, I listened to the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. And as you know, I have this — a big hobby horse of mine is cognitive empathy.
That’s not necessarily emotional empathy, not necessarily feeling their pain, but it is trying to understand the way things look from all the perspectives in the world. And I’d never read the novel, and I realized that it’s just such a great exercise in cognitive empathy. What it does is hugely complicate a moral assessment of the situation by looking at things from the eyes of a monster.
And then it gets back to what we mentioned about how, well, should we really try to understand the root causes of why people do horrible things? I vote yes, but — and then try to proceed wisely from there. But anyway, it’s great book, and it’s a very different book from — the voice of it and everything is just enthralling in a way that I hadn’t expected.
Robert Wright, thank you very much.
Thank you, Ezra.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma, and Annie Galvin, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones and mixing by Jeff Geld.