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Christopher Evans
Christopher Evans

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Great. Thanks, Kal. Thanks, everybody, for joining us for this. I'll just make some opening comments, kind of summarizing the argument I was making in this piece, and that can set up all kinds of directions that we can go in our conversation. And, you know, just to situate it, for me what was the genesis of this idea about the end of the 911 era is like everybody else, you know, the extremity of the lockdown come hit me in early March. And for me, I was taking a walk with my daughters. And we went down to Venice Beach, which was completely empty, desolate, which I'd never seen before. And my daughter picks up a dandelion. And makes you know, I said "make a wish" and she said that her wish was to make the Coronavirus go away. And for someone who worked in national security for eight years in the White House, what really hit me about that moment is that this crisis, COVID-19, is something that had hit everybody in America, including my daughter. She understood the crisis we're in in a way that terrorism never would or could. No terrorists could kill as many people as this disease already has. No terrorist act could have the economic impact that this has had. Perhaps the societal impact when we think about what the fallout is going to be, that we're already seeing in some ways. And when you consider that we've spent trillions of dollars preventing terrorist attacks, relative to what we spend on pandemics. You know, it hit me but it also wasn't a surprise. A pandemic is something that people have been warning about for many years. In the Obama administration, we dealt with H1n1, we dealt with Ebola more acutely in 2014. And, you know, by the end of the Obama administration, we're very seized with the fact that the dangers of issues other than terrorism far outweighed the risk of terrorism itself. And I'll come back to that in a second. And so for me, it recalled a sign that I saw once in a tour of the CIA operation center. That said, "Every day is September 12." And, you know, I understood the mentality that led the agency to put that sign up probably on September 12. And I also understood that that is kind of where America has been, both the American government, American politics, and in some ways American society more than we think ever since. I understood it because I was in New York, I witnessed 911, that compelled me into public service, led me down to Washington. I worked with the 911 Commission for two years kind of deconstructing that event and what it meant for our national security apparatus. I entered public partisan politics largely because of the Iraq War, which was how we had gotten the response to 911 wrong. I went to work for a guy Barack Obama who never would have been elected president were it not for the Iraq War and so in his own way, never would have been elected president with a 911. So I was someone, even before I entered government service, who had been shaped by 911. And as I reflected on the Obama administration, you know, I could see the many ways in which that presidency was shaped in part by 911. We entered office, inheriting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with over 150,000 troops and a massive counterterrorism apparatus, that it kind of reshaped the US government to prioritize this one issue, terrorism, above all others. There's probably a bank shot to the financial crisis that we inherited from the trillions of dollars that were reported to counterterrorism in those years. And in the first Obama term, in particular, you know, you could also feel working in national security, and the US government, the kind of gravitational force of 911. So a president elected to end wars, and he did remove 150,000 troops from Iraq gets pulled deeper in Afghanistan with the surge in 2009. We had very aggressive counterterrorism efforts in the first Obama term, we had controversial counterterrorism efforts like drone policy. The Arab Spring, in some ways, probably has some roots back into the post 911 environment, including the Iraq war, and the kind of hyperpolarization of the Middle East, from US military interventions, and from the kinds of leaders and places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who, in some ways legitimize themselves as partners of the US because of counterterrorism. At the same time, particularly in the second term of the Obama administration, Obama was very deliberately trying to end this error and move into a new one. And if you look at the signature components of Obama's foreign policy, in that second term, each of them in their own way are trying to move us into a post 911 world, a post post-911 world, I should say. The Iran nuclear deal meant to avoid another war in the Middle East that could have been precipitated by Iran getting a nuclear weapon and dealing with that challenge diplomatically. The Paris Climate Accord meant to kind of signal that climate change was going to be the new focus of American foreign policy. And I think people don't fully appreciate how much work went into the Paris Accord, not just in negotiating in the room, but in terms of using all of our bilateral and multilateral relationships to prioritize climate change in the second Obama term. The kind of pivot to Asia, the Trans Pacific Partnership, the focus that was put on the Asia Pacific region, was in many ways playing catch up to the rise of China, which had basically, I think, been largely ignored by the United States in the decade after 911. And so we were seeking to build an infrastructure in the Asia Pacific region that could shape the rise of China and shape the rules of the road, on everything from trade, to technology, to governance, in ways that were meant to influence Chinese behavior. Even the Cuba normalization, which I negotiated in government, was meant to kind of close the chapter in our history, tie up some loose ends, so that we could get past that and engage not just Cuba, but our own hemisphere without the baggage of history (obviously, a different historie than 911, but a similar mindset of seeing even an island of 11 million people is a threat). And, you know, at the same time that we were doing this, we were kind of pulled back by world events, and even more so by American politics, into this post 911 era, most acutely in terms of world events, ISIS and its emergence in the second Obama term obviously guaranteed that we were going to remain militarily involved in the Middle East, albeit with a very different model than the post 911 wars, without large us ground forces present. But even that is interesting to look back on because, you know, ISIS and ebola, terrorism and a potential pandemic, certainly an epidemic emerged at the same time. And one is so much more dangerous in a way than the other. I mean, ebola threatened to kill millions of people. And yet, you know, think about how much attention was paid to ISIS in our media and our politics versus ebola. It just shows you how hardwired we had become as Americans to see terrorism as inextricably linked to our national security, our concept of national security in a way that we don't think about pandemics. But beyond that, it's not just what 911 has done to our national security, but it's what it's done to our politics. That was so evident to me in the later Obama years, particularly as you know, the Republican party and certainly key elements in the Republican Party, kind of demonstrated almost as radicalization in a way around this kind of securitized us versus them post 911 mindset. There was this kind of toxic stew of issues. Why doesn't Obama say radical Islam? All the Benghazi investigations, of course, demagoguing refugees, demagoguing illegal immigration, that all very much tie back to this idea of fear of the other. And, you know, polarization for the purpose of security. That is very characteristic, I think, of post 911. America. And it shows you, you know, how what might have started as a very legitimate fear of terrorism morphed over time into this "us versus them" approach to politics. And into that current steps Donald Trump. And, you know, I think part of this, too, is the psychology of a nation that after 911 was promised great victories. I tried to imagine what it was like to consume, say, Fox News throughout the Bush presidency. You were constantly on the precipice of a great victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those victories did not materialize and never will materialize. And I think we haven't thought enough as a country about the fact that we did not win those wars. When countries don't win wars, often our politicians look for people to blame within. That's the most tried and true tactic of how these things happen in history. And so it became "blame Obama, blame Muslims" in the United States, blame people want to impose Sharia law here, blame illegal immigrants," all these things kind of got melded together in the person of Donald Trump. And as a president, despite his rhetoric about ending wars, he's done quite the opposite. He's escalated every war we inherited. There are 20,000 more US troops in the Middle East today than there were when he took office, largely because of his saber rattling with Iran. But even more so the securitisation narrative that I talk about, you know, MS-13, as his focus, immigrants, of course, as his focus, even recently, Antifa, you know, he wants to designate as a terrorist organization. It's the language of post 911 America that is weaponized, and the mindset. And so here we are in the midst of multiple crises. COVID, I think, is going to be perhaps the most transformative, but an economic crisis. And then, of course, the response to structural systemic racism in this country and police violence. This is a time to, I think, for a fundamental transformation of how we think about national security. The threats that we face, the challenges that we have to deal with, are not terrorism. It's still gonna be an issue, I'm not suggesting we don't pay attention to it. But when you measure it against climate change, against pandemics, against the emergence of new technologies, and how that's going to pose risks to privacy and economic security, when you look at the nationalist and authoritarian trend around the world that is challenging the very idea of democracy, the rise of China is a part of that. When you look at all that, we're not focused on the right things, our eye is not on the ball here. And at the same time, we have to fundamentally get our act together home, which I'll come back to in a second.So I'll just close here, because we can unpack some of this in Q&A, in terms of what does that mean, you know, I think in terms of our national security participation? I think it means wholesale shifting to the threats that I just talked about. You know, that means resourcing. We have we have a Pentagon budget that is way too big, in my judgment. It makes no sense that we have a plan as a country to spend a trillion dollars in the next decade, modernizing our nuclear weapons infrastructure. What for? Why is that money not being spent on the things that can prepare us for the world that we're actually facing? Why are we not investing more in research and development in this country, in the development of artificial intelligence, where we're being beaten by China? And the National Institutes of Health so that we're better prepared to deal with things like a pandemic? The National Science Foundation, our basic research base that helped us win the Cold War has been wholly neglected, particularly under this Trump administration? These are the kinds of investments that we're gonna have to make if climate change is an existential threat to the planet, which it is, the amount of money that we're spending on that challenge, from climate mitigation, to support for other countries, for the development of new technologies that can accelerate our ability to slow global warming, that resource allocation has to shift. So does the personnel structure of the US government, the promotion structure, the experts brought in in the last 20 years, State, DOD, and elsewhere, very focused on terrorism in the Middle East. They're great people, and they need to be a part of the answer to, but there has to be a shift to this other issue set. And so the kind of fundamental realignment of what the United States thinks about is national security and how we build a government to deal with that, I think, is what's required. And I've no illusions that that's easy to do. But one of the good things about being in government is you can say what you think should happen and recognize that it's going to take a lot of work to get there. A couple of other things. Beyond that, I think that, you know, we have to also recognize the change in mindset that has to take place here. One of the things I talked about in pieces, mindset towards government itself. There's been this multi decade assault on the role of government, "government is bad, bureaucrats are bad." I think we learned in COVID, that's who you need, that's your backstop against all these threats that we're going to face. And we need to kind of reinvest in the idea of what government can do for people in this country, and bring more people into serving government, and try to re energize the United States to deal with this new set of challenges that is going to shape our world. At the same time, I think obviously have to deal with our selves at home. As someone who deals with foreign policy, America is not gonna have any credibility and standing to do things in the world if we're not seen as getting our act together at home, even if we tried to do everything right in the world. You know, we're not credible in democracy if we're a country that makes it hard for people to vote, you know. There's a connection between how we get our democracy in order home and what we do around the world. We're not gonna be incredible on climate change around the world if we don't do something really substantial, significant and aggressive here at home. We're not going to be credible and dealing with the regulation of new technologies and disinformation and artificial intelligence if we're not doing that here at home with companies like Facebook. So across the board, we have to see that the lines between what we're doing here and what we're doing around the world have to go away, because these issues are all fundamentally interconnected. And of course, most profoundly, as particularly young people have reminded us the last few weeks, if we are not seen as dealing with our own systemic issues involving race and immigration and how people are treated in this country, we have no moral authority to lead the world. On the other end, if we do, if we're seen as correcting those issues, if we're seen as making progress on those issues, that gives us a lot of standing to once again have some moral authority in the world. So all of these things, you know, I think are very much connected. And I'll just end, Kal, before we move to conversation, with one anecdote I put in the piece that kind of drives this home to me is that when I taught at UCLA last year, you know, I was teaching presidential speeches. And I remember, we read the speech that George Bsh gave to a joint session of Congress after 911, which is a very sobering speech. And it was very well received at the time, I thought it was very well done at the time. But when you read that today, you know, Bush is calling for nothing less than making America's entire national purpose a global war on terrorism, that we were gonna have to reorient all government in society for this challenge and he compared terrorists to Nazi Germany and Soviet Communists. Reading that 20 years later, it was like reading another language. I understood it, but my students were 19 20, 21. It was like this document came from another planet. And we have to reckon with the fact that we got the response to 911 wrong and it's time to move on. And that the national purpose of this country has to be about bigger things than just fighting terrorism. And government and national priorities should reflect more the interest of those young people who are the future of this country, then, you know, relitigating and trying to course correct and do one more surge in the Middle East to deal with the fact that we got this wrong. It's time to move on. And in a strange, tragic way, I think this COVID moment offers that opportunity (if there's a change in presidency, certainly, but it goes far beyond the presidency). This has to be embedded in lots of different aspects of American politics, government and society. So Kal, I'll stop there and look forward to the conversation.




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