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September 15, 2020
Missing America
6. Endless War

In This Episode

How do we end the state of forever war in the Middle East? We look at how a cycle of authoritarianism, conflict, and U.S. support for autocrats undermines human rights and fuels radicalization in the region.

Host Ben Rhodes talks to activist Mohamed Soltan about his experience being imprisoned and tortured in Egypt. Then he talks to leading progressives in Congress and journalists about a blueprint to end the cycle of war.

 

Transcript

 

EPISODE 6: ENDLESS WAR

 

In June, two thousand nine, I sat in an auditorium in Cairo, Egypt, and watched President Obama deliver a speech we’d spent weeks writing together. 

 

CLIP: ANNOUNCER:  Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States! (APPLAUSE) 

[MUSIC BEGINS]

 

It was a high wire act. Five years after the U.S. invaded Iraq and basically broke the Middle East… here was a U.S. President trying to reset relations in the region. We called the speech “A New Beginning.” 

 

OBAMA: You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.” 

 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: “We love you!”  

 

OBAMA: “Thank you.” [APPLAUSE]

 

We got a lot of praise for that speech.

 

But it wasn’t till years later that I learned its biggest impact… didn’t really have much to do with the words I’d written. And had a lot to do with the identity of the guy speaking.

 

Rula Jebreal is a writer and foreign policy analyst.  She was a TV reporter in Cairo at the time.

 

JEBREAL: I remember my assistant — Mohammad — was twenty… five? So he was, you know, helping in studios, bringing us coffee and other things. And he kept listening to President Obama’s speech. And I didn’t understand why. He kept repeating it, repeating it, repeating it. So I was… There was a moment I was like, “OK, you have to explain to me; you listen to it at least 80 times.” And he looked at me and he said, “Madame, this man has our skin tone. This man’s father was a Muslim like us. This man can be a president in his country, and we cannot even vote.” So it inspired millions of people across the Middle East — and across the world, probably — to think that they can take their lives in their own hands and challenge regimes.

 

And they did. In twenty-eleven the Arab Spring began. After a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire to protest corruption and oppression.  Egyptians like Mohammed rose up, demanded democracy, and ousted Hosni Mubarak. A dictator who’d ruled for decades.

 

JEBREAL:  And they really thought President Obama will back them on this. Because the message was clear: “We’re changing our foreign policy. We’re changing this chapter where we look at you as irrelevant and we talk only to the regimes.” President Obama talked to the people. He was the first president to address the people, not the regimes.

 

In 2011, the Obama Administration did back the Egyptian people.  Not the Egyptian regime.

 

[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]

 

That is… until we didn’t.  

 

And instead of a new beginning… things in the Middle East just kept getting worse. 

 

I’m Ben Rhodes. And welcome back to Missing America. A look at the political diseases spreading across the world in the absence of American leadership.

 

This week — the War on Terror, and the endless wars it has spawned. How we infected the middle east with them… and why we’ve been unable to heal the wounds they’ve opened.  

 

We’ll learn how even under a progessive President, America’s over-arching focus on fighting terror undermined our support for democracy. And how Trump, despite his isolationist rhetoric, has only plunged us deeper into the quicksand.

REZAIAN: I mean, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, And how we’ve responded to it, is sort of the textbook of what not to do!

Then, some hope. As we hear about steps that could lead us out of the quagmire.  

On this episode of Missing America.

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

 

ACT ONE

 

To give you an idea of the collateral damage our Middle East policy can cause, I want to introduce you to another young guy who was inspired by the Cairo speech:  Mohammed Soltan.  

 

He’s a human rights activist. Born in Egypt, but raised since age seven in the USA.  

 

In twenty-eleven, he was a student in Columbus, Ohio. 

 

SOLTAN: I was at Ohio State, and for a long time, I struggled between the Egyptian part of my identity and the American part of my identity. I… um, the American part of my identity — voted and, and volunteered for campaigns and voted for my local sheriff and local representatives all the way up to the highest office in the land! And then, I had this far fetched dream that someday the Egyptian part of my identity could enjoy the same freedoms and liberties that the American side did.

 

But whenever he visited Egypt, as ruled by Mubarak, it seemed pretty clear his dream… would never happen.

SOLTAN : That dream became more and more far-fetched until 2011, and I’m sitting there at Ohio State University watching, you know, on my iPhone, the protests break out — these Egyptians… You know, best and brightest, taking to the streets.

NEWS CLIP: (ArabSpring): [CHANTING] 

ANNOUNCER: January 25th, 2011.  The Arab Spring spreads to Egypt.  With a day of rage. 

PROTESTOR:  Freedom!!  And we’re gonna take our freedom!! 

 

[HOPEFUL MUSIC BEGINS]

 

SOLTAN: I had to be there. So, you know, talked to my professors, got permission and, you know, I booked a flight and went to Tahrir.

 

That’d be Tahrir Square in Cairo. By the time Mohammed arrived, hundreds of thousands of protestors were gathering there 24-7, in a show of force against Mubarak. 

 

 [HUGE CROWD CHANTING]

 

 

And then, on February 11th, he joined a march to Mubarak’s presidential palace.  

SOLTAN: And for me, the moment that Mubarak stepped down, I was actually at the presidential palace, right there up front at the, at the protests. And […] when the announcement finally was made that he was stepping down… 

CLIP: [CHANTING] 

SOLTAN: And everyone was chanting, “Raise your head up higher,” in Egyptian, it had a completely different meaning for me because, for the first time in my life, the pride in my Egyptian identity had just been refilled and revived. And that dream was finally coming together, and I… and I was there not just to witness it, but I was there to partake in that dream becoming a reality.

 

It seemed like the beginning of something big.  Maybe a wave of democracy that could roll across the Middle East.  A year later, a man named Mohamed Morsi did indeed become Egypt’s first democratically-elected President. 

But just a year after that… 

[HOPEFUL MUSIC ENDS]

…he’d be ousted by his own military.

And for the crime of speaking out about it, Mohammed Soltan… would be thrown into an Egyptian prison.

For Egypt and for Soltan, it was a head-spinning fall — from hope to despair.  In a few minutes, I’ll tell you how it all unfolded.   

But first I need to give you some background.

Because while the problems of the middle east aren’t all America’s creation… we’ve helped perpetuate a cycle of authoritarianism, war and radicalism there… for decades.

[ MUSIC BEGINS]

Imagine if a foreign power gave your government over a billion dollars a year, knowing it’d be used to oppress you.

That’s what our country has done in Egypt.

In fact, Egypt gets more financial assistance from America than any nation on Earth, except Israel. 

Why? Partly it dates back to the Camp David accords: Egypt promised to help keep the peace between Israel and the Arab world… so we help pay for Egypt’s security.

But it’s also part of a decades-long American policy to keep the Middle East quote-unquote “stable”… 

…By supporting repressive governments like Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s so long as they align with U.S. interests. 

Which… to put it bluntly… amounts to keeping the oil flowing and the terrorists away. 

Rula Jebreal says it should be no surprise… that this eventually turned Arab sentiments against America.

JEBREAL: So Middle Eastern foreign policy have always been about authoritarian stability. That was the approach. “Whatever stable regime we have there, we will back that regime regardless — its human right violation, regardless…” Not understanding if you don’t tie your foreign policy in, in terms of promoting the rule of law, human rights and justice? You will always have backlashes. Period. Simple.

In fact, Rula argues we actually helped create anti-American extremists.  When autocrats, financed by us… jailed their Islamist enemies in brutal prisons.

JEBREAL:  Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Sayyid Qutb and all of the above, all of these masterminds of jihadism, they are the byproduct of those regimes, that those regimes’ policies paved the ground for a generation of people to be radicalized. Their prison cells birthed these radicals. Sayyid Qutb — Egypt. Zawahiri — Egypt. Baghdadi — Iraq.  Zarqawi, Abu Musab Zarqawi — Jordan. 

Rula says it was only a matter of time before some of them attacked the United States.  

JEBREAL: It goes back to Zawahiri’s book, “Milestones,” the most-read book in the Middle East as we speak now. What does it talk about? Unleashing jihads against basically these Arab rulers… and whoever backs them. Whoever supports them.

That happened, of course… on 9/11.  

[EXPLAINER MUSIC ENDS] 

And in response, George W. Bush’s Administration… managed to make things worse.

BUSH:  Our war on terror begins with Al Qeada, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. [APPLAUSE] 

As we know, George W. Bush used 9/11 and his war on terror to justify two invasions. 

One in Afghanistan, to root out al Qaeda and topple the Taliban.  

And another… in a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. 

BUSH: “My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. 

[TRANSITION]

BRENNAN: I think it was the single largest foreign policy debacle that our country has ever engaged in.

That’s John Brennan. Former CIA Director and White House counterterrorism advisor.

BRENNAN: It was wholly unnecessary. And I do believe that there were individuals who came in with President George W. Bush, who had a predetermined policy course that they wanted to pursue. Unfortunately, they pointed to the 9/11 attacks as being a reason to go forward with that. But that American invasion of Iraq was the catalyst, then, for subsequent events that not just led to the chaos that ensued inside of Iraq.

Events like the formation of “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”  A jihadist group created in direct response to our invasion. It later became… ISIS.

BRENNAN: So, I do fault the United States for that very unfortunate decision to go into Iraq. It had not just dramatic impact, negative impact on U.S., United States reputation in the area, but also on stability throughout the region. It is so difficult to repair the damage that was done.   

That damage is impossible to overstate. 

[PIANO MUSIC BEGINS]

Thousands of Americans…and over a hundred thousand Iraqis….dead. 

Trillions of dollars spent. That’s plural: *trillions.* 

The principal beneficiary in the Middle East? Was a country hostile to the U.S….Saddam Hussein’s arch nemesis…the Islamic Republic of Iran.  

The Iraqi people suffered horrific losses that continue to this day. And another casualty….was American credibility. 

Bush had sold the war as an attempt to stop Saddam from using weapons of mass destruction… which turned out not to exist.

Then he tried to frame it as an effort to promote democracy….which made it seem like democracy was something America imposed at the barrel of a gun. 

And at the Obama White House, it weighed pretty heavily on our minds…

[PIANO MUSIC ENDS]

 …As we watched those protests unfold in Tahrir Square, in February twenty-eleven. 

CLIP: [CHANTING] 

We watched Egyptians calling for an end to Mubarak’s reign. Trying to claim democracy for themselves.  

And even then we were divided over what to do about it. 

Should we stick to the standard American script and declare support for Mubarak? We’d retain a known ally, but then he’d crack down hard and kill his own people.  

Or should we support the people in the streets and call for Mubarak to step down peacefully… without knowing where a democratic revolution would lead? 

Obama sided with the voices calling for change. 

OBAMA:  …And what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now. 

It was one of my best days in the White House. It felt like the new beginning we’d imagined in Obama’s Cairo speech.  Not just for Egypt, but for America, too.  

We’d trusted the people, instead of despots who subjugated them.

But suffice to say… it made other despots around the Middle East — very worried. 

Especially when Egyptians chose Mohamed Morsi as their first democratically elected President. 

He was an Islamist. Exactly the kind of leader Middle East autocrats have feared. 

[MUSIC BEGINS]

Which takes us to Tahrir Square, a year later: July 3rd, twenty-thirteen. 

NEWS CLIP: REPORTER: President Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian Military.  A spokesman now tells us he’s been arrested… 

If you remember this moment, you may remember being confused.  

Hadn’t Egypt just gone through a democratic revolution? Then why was its elected President getting forced out by the military?    

And why did so many Egyptians seem to be celebrating it?

Among the people who were confused… was Mohammed Soltan.  Who’d now graduated from Ohio State, and moved to Egypt, to help his Mom recover from cancer.

SOLTAN: I went to Egypt and I kind of just focused on my mom and work, until July 3rd happened. And I saw that dream that I had in 2011 kind of get reversed, and the military coming back into political space so aggressively.

Now, Morsi hadn’t turned out to be Soltan’s idea of a perfect leader.  

Morsi had tried to amend Egypt’s Constitution to give himself broad new powers. Secular Egyptians worried he’d turn the country into an Islamic state. 

But whatever Soltan’s feelings about Morsi, he didn’t think a military takeover was the answer.

SOLTAN: And I thought that didn’t represent me. I didn’t mind if Morsi left through a democratic mechanism, but I… definitely wanted it to be through a democratic mechanism, not through a coup.

So he started attending protests. And live tweeting about the new government’s increasing brutality against protestors. The tweets went viral. 

Then, came the massacre at Cairo’s Rabba Square.

AL JAZEERA NEWS CLIP: the sheer scale of the violence took everyone by surprise — including journalists. This was something the Egyptian government did not want the world to see. 

A thousand protestors were killed in a single day. Soltan was shot in the arm — he’s sure because he’d been targeted as a troublemaker.

SOLTAN: Eleven days later, I’m at my dad’s house in the Maadi suburb of Cairo, and… with three journalist friends, and the, y’know, state security police storm our house and they arrest us. And the guy kind of looks at– takes my American passport — the general that was there — and he’s like, “You think this is going to save you?” and… “It’s not going to do anything for you.”

Soltan was thrown into prison. He was tortured. His jailors encouraged him to commit suicide.

SOLTAN:  I still wake up today, you know, frantically in the middle of the night to like the sound of shaking keys or slamming doors. ’cause it stays with you. And all of that happened to me, and I’m an American citizen — and you can just imagine what sixty thousand political prisoners in Egypt are going through right now for, for daring to have the same dream that I had. The, the most basic, […] universal right to self-determination, to a dignified life.

Meanwhile, A general – Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – became Egypt’s dictator. 

And instead of backing the people protesting this, like we did in Twenty-Eleven? The Obama Administration wouldn’t even call what happened in Egypt a “coup.” 

Even though that’s exactly what it was. 

[MUSIC ENDS]

What had happened?  

Why hadn’t the U.S. stood up for democracy?  

I hated and opposed the decision at the time.  

But I understood why it was made: and it of course, goes back to our endless middle east conflicts… that futile pursuit of… “stability.” 

If we acknowledged there’d been a coup, we’d have had to stop sending Egypt billions of dollars in military aid. That would’ve alienated the new military dictatorship. And we needed them to help keep the peace with Israel. And help us in our war on terror.

So we picked stable authoritarianism over Islamist democracy.

Rula Jebreal says, that was a false dichotomy. We could have made another choice. Like brokering a compromise between Morsi’s Islamists, and secular politicians like Mohamed El Baradei.

JEBREAL: Look, I was in Cairo during that period on and off. I think we needed to push harder for both sides to come together… I remember talking to the Islamists, to Morsi. They were so scared of the United States. They were willing to compromise. We did not push on them to compromise and create a power sharing formula where they have with El Baradei and others. 

But there was another factor at play. The coup had actually been financed… by America’s other two closest Arab allies – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Both regimes with enormous influence in Washington. Both worried the U.S. might abandon them… if their people rose up and demanded democracy. 

So they drew a line at Egypt. They funded anti-Morsi media campaigns. They paid people to turn out in the streets and protest him. Then they pledged billions of dollars to support the new military government, and dismissed anyone who dissented as jihadists. 

Rula says that’s a tactic that’s been adopted by others in the Middle East, ever since. 

JEBREAL:  I mean, look at, for example, Assad. If I think of Assad, why did Assad start releasing jihadis from prison? Because he wanted to frame the conflict as “me against these jihadists.” It’s not “me against pro-democracy activists.” So he starts releasing jihadis because he *wanted* to frame the conversation — especially to the West that was so fearful of jihadists — like, “OK, you know what? I’m know what’s standing between you and these jihadis. So you have to support me.”

And in Egypt, that’s why actual democracy activists — people like Mohammed Soltan — had to be silenced, and jailed. And labeled as jihadis themselves.  

[MUSIC BEGINS]

Soltan spent nearly two years in prison.  

But it turns out, that officer who originally came to arrest him? Was wrong. Soltan’s American passport did matter.  After an outcry from U.S. statesmen like John McCain, and a direct plea from Obama to Egypt’s new leader — Soltan was finally freed.

But not before he staged a hunger strike.  

And not before he experienced something that, to me, epitomizes just how absurd America’s Middle East policy really is.

SOLTAN: ] You know, when I, when I had heard about Senator McCain speaking out on my behalf or gave a floor speech or whatever… On that same day?  An ISIS recruiter was brought into my cell and I was not allowed to talk to anyone, or anyone was allowed to see me. And he was trying to convince me that, like, this nonviolent hunger strike doesn’t work. All of that.

Yes, an ISIS recruiter.

So the same Egyptian government to which we send over a billion dollars a year to fight terrorism?  

Was letting terrorist recruiters into its prisons… to try and breed more terrorists.

Presumably, so there’d continue to be terrorists… for us to pay Egypt… to help us fight. 

This is the insanity our endless wars have created. Incentivizing everyone involved to keep the wars going… forever.

How do we break the cycle?

The steps we need to take, up next on Missing America. Stay with us.

[MUSIC ENDS]

 

— ADS —

 

ACT TWO

It may sound strange, but sometimes Donald Trump says things that are hard to disagree with: 

TRUMP: Great nations do not fight endless wars. 

Seems pretty good, right? There’s more good news. Trump’s got a plan: 

TRUMP: The plan is to get out of endless wars.  

Riiiiiight….There’s just one problem, though. There are a lot more American troops in the Middle East today than when Trump took office. 

[MUSIC BEGINS]

See, Obama may not have ended the war on terror. But he did withdraw 150,000 troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Trump has sent an additional 20,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East.

He’s also doubled down on American support for authoritarian allies — calling Egypt’s military leader, “my favorite dictator.” 

And he’s basically outsourced America’s Middle East policy… to the Saudi Crown Prince who ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

TRUMP: It’s a great honor to have the Crown Prince with us. Saudi Arabia has been a very great friend, and a big purchaser of equipment and lots of other things…We’ve become very good friends over a fairly short period of time.

In other words, if you’re looking for a new beginning in the Middle East? It won’t be coming from Trump.

But what hope do we have to ever extricate ourselves from these endless wars?  

I have some ideas. 

[MUSIC ENDS]

Step one? We’ve got to prevent the next Middle East war. The one Trump was eagerly ginning up before the coronavirus came along. The one with Iran.

NEWS CLIP: (IranAirstrike)Tens of thousands of Iranians on the streets of Tehran, this is after the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military and intelligence leader in an airstrike… 

NEWS CLIP:  AMANPOUR:   What is the strategy?  Is this going to be an accidental slouch into a war in the middle east? 

A war with Iran would be more than a little ironic: After all, we made that country a powerhouse in the region… by taking out its biggest enemy, Saddam Hussein.  

The better alternative to jumping into yet another quagmire? Would be to reinstate our nuclear deal with Iran. The one Obama brokered without firing a shot… and that Trump tossed out. 

That could help stave off this war…and help us extricate ourselves from others – like the one in Yemen. Where Trump insists on giving Saudi Arabia a blank check of US support for its proxy war with Iran that has put millions of lives at risk. 

Chris Murphy is one of the Senate’s leading progressive voices. 

MURPHY: Reestablishing that dialog with Iran is important not just because it may ultimately get us to a nuclear agreement that makes the region safer, but also because it’s just better in general to have that line of dialog to make sure that small scale military confrontations don’t escalate into war, to be able to work on projects like Yemen, which you just can’t do from the U.S. perspective if you don’t have a line into the Iranian foreign ministry. So just reestablishing that diplomatic pathway will be really important to protect a lot of different interests for the United States in the region. 

In fact, Murphy says, sending diplomats into the Middle East… is pretty much always a better idea than sending troops, even if there are powerful interests that profit off of war. 

MURPHY: You know, every forum that I do with a big Washington think tank is sponsored by one of these defense companies that is really glad to have troops deployed on the ground in the Middle East. There’s an industry in Washington devoted to the idea that every Middle East problem has an American solution, and likely an American solution that involves troops. There is absolutely no evidence over the course of the last 70 years that that is, in fact, true. The American military has been dispositive in many places around the world, but it has not in the Middle East — especially in the last 20 years. And in fact, American troops, more often than not, when deployed to the Middle East, make the situation worse, not better. And so I think the first challenge for the next administration is to pay attention to history instead of the Washington foreign policy establishment, which in many ways is paid for by the very industries that benefit from more U.S. military engagement in the Middle East. 

So once we’ve implemented diplomatic alternatives to more Middle East wars… Step two?

 We make it harder for Trump — or any President — to launch these wars in the first place.

[MUSIC BEGINS] 

SPEAKER: (BANGS GAVEL) The House will be in order.  The prayer will be offered by our chaplain.

September fourteenth, Two Thousand One. Three days after 9/11, the House of Representatives gathered to debate a special “AUMF” — Authorization for the Use of Military Force.  

It would allow the President to use force against quote “Those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 9/11 attacks.

That’s a lot of potential enemies. The authorization had no expiration date.  

It was debated for all of five hours. Congresswoman Barbara Lee spoke before the vote and urged caution.

LEE: Some of us must say, “Let’s just step back for a moment.  Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.”

But she cast the only vote against the AUMF.  The Senate approved it unanimously.  

And guess what? It spiraled out of control.

U.S. officials have invoked it dozens of times — under the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations — to justify military actions in countries across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. 

In 2001, Barbara Lee ended her speech with a quote from a Reverend:

LEE:   “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”  

I’d argue it’s time Congress take that to heart. And replace the AUMF with something more narrowly tailored, and definitely not open-ended. No President should get a blank check to send the military anywhere, for basically any reason they choose. 

And by the way, this isn’t some unattainable pipe dream.  Last year, House Democrats — along with conservative Libertarians — actually did repeal it… before their bill died in the Senate.

KHANNA: Well, there’s a broad consensus in the Democratic Party now, and even among quite a few Republicans, that a lot of our military interventions have not been authorized. 

Congressman Ro Khanna helped write the repeal bill in the House. 

KHANNA: …And that it is not correct to rely on authorizations going back to 2001 or 2002 when few people were in Congress who are currently serving, to justify these wars. Joe Biden would have a chance to be historic in modern times by reasserting congressional prerogative on matters of war and peace.

And as a longtime Senator, a President Biden might be uniquely prepared to do it.

[MUSIC ENDS]

With that done, Step three in our Middle East playbook? Is one we should have taken a long time ago. Align our policies with our values. 

Because remember what Rula Jebreal said? 

JEBREAL: If you don’t tie your foreign policy in, in terms of promoting the rule of law, human rights and justice, you will always have backlashes.

She’s right. And to me, that means we stop offering money, weapons and political support carte blanche to regimes that brutalize their own people. Chris Murphy has led the charge against giving a blank check to one of those regimes: Saudi Arabia.

MURPHY: Trump’s perspective on Saudi Arabia is that anything that Saudi Arabia believes is good for them, must be good for the United States. That is fundamentally not true. It has never been true, but it is probably less true today than ever before. If we pick and choose where we join the Saudis, the sky’s not going to fall. The Saudis aren’t gonna walk away from us. They’re not going to stop selling oil to us. And we’ll send a signal to other dictators around the world that if you run afoul of U.S. interests, then that’s where our alignment and our alliance ends.

We need to send that signal, fast. Because right now, more than ever, there’s so much at risk if we don’t.

REZAIAN: It undermines everything.

Jason Rezaian was a Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran. He was imprisoned by the Iranian government for years. He also worked with Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist whose murder was ordered by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. 

REZAIAN: We’ve had this ongoing relationship for decades. It’s not as though folks at the State Department, or in previous administrations, or in Congress, had no access to what was going on inside of Saudi Arabia. Right. I mean, they didn’t start public beheadings just last year. I mean this’s been going on for a long time. What’s different now is that we have a better window into all societies of the world. Right? And a better understanding of what’s going on. And so I think not actively standing up and condemning some of the worst behaviors of these regimes essentially gives off the impression to the world — which may have already been true — that our security and business interests trump our ideals.  Probably, you know, a fair argument to be made in that direction for every administration going back to the beginning of time. But as we say, it’s much more transparent.

And the backlash this time… could be against democracy itself….. 

REZAIAN: If that’s the way we’re going to run things, it’s completely natural that the rest of the world is not going to look at us any differently as they do China or Russia. And what we had going for us, before, was this rhetorical notion that we’re different. Whether that was ever true or not, I’d love to get back to the time when the rest of the world actually believed it was true.

[MUSIC BEGINS]

Me too. 

We can’t “fix” the Middle East or undo our mistakes. But if we take these steps — Re-engage Iran; End the AUMF; Make human rights a guiding principle — we’ll at least be headed in the right direction.  

Ultimately, though, the hardest change America will have to make… is our mindset. Confronting the all-consuming fear of terrorist attacks that lead us to launch these wars — and back these brutal regimes — in the first place. 

Avril Haines was Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor. If Joe Biden is elected, she’s already been picked to run his foreign policy and national security transition team. 

HAINES: To my mind, the challenge of counterterrorism is less about the actual specific threat, but more the reaction of society. Because as tragic as the particular attacks are, it’s the fact that the society has such an enormous reaction to it that really ultimately ends up justifying the amount of time, and money, and effort that we spend on these issues. Domestic terrorism is a far greater threat than international terrorism — it’s still a lot more likely that you get shot by, you know, a common criminal essentially, than that it would be a terrorist incident.  So trying to right-size the way people perceive it is, the sort of great challenge that everybody tries to work through in this context. 

A first step, she says?  Stop calling it a “war” on terrorism.

HAINES: All of the words that we use, all of the ways in which we express ourselves, everything else is framed in this very sort of hyperbolic perspective. Right? “It’s a war. We’re at war.” That’s an existential threat, that’s something that needs to be addressed from that perspective. I think that adds to the problem. 

Yes, there is a threat from terrorism that has to be taken seriously. I get it. I was in New York. I witnessed 9/11 with my own eyes. 

But after a pandemic has killed more Americans than any terrorist ever could, now is a time to reset our priorities…and our approach. John Brennan: 

BRENNAN: I think we have, greatly, underutilized those elements of American soft power, our educational, scientific, cultural, technical capabilities that I think we should be able to leverage much more readily around the world, because I do think that speaks more to what America is, as opposed to U.S. military dominance.

That means we stop treating the young people of the Middle East as potential terrorists. And start helping them transform their region for the better. Because that’s what they want to do themselves. 

Remember Mohamed Soltan? As dark as that Egyptian prison got, what kept him from becoming another ISIS recruit was his faith in a cause bigger than himself. Something he was reminded of by a friend’s younger sister. 

SOLTAN: She made me a little bracelet and she sent it to me. And it had a verse from a song which translated to like, ‘If we stop dreaming, we’ll die.’ So long as we continue to have this dream, this dream of having a dignified life for all Egyptians, for all people, human rights, rule of law, democracy… I think history will be on our side. Time is on our side. We’re young.  And, this is a dream that we fulfilled once. And if we fulfilled it once, we’ll fulfill it again.

That sounds a lot like what we used to call the American dream.  

In word and deed, we should be reminding the world’s young people —constantly — that it’s a dream we share.  

So they’re inspired to free themselves… 

…and so we can be freed from fighting them or fearing them, forever. 

Next time on Missing America… immigration and xenophobia. Welcoming immigrants was once central to the American story.  Now, as migrants flee from the chaos we helped create in the Middle East, we’re leading the charge… in rejecting them.

TRUMP: I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win… they’re going back.  They’re going back, I’m telling you.  They’re going back (APPLAUSE) 

What that means for us and the world — next week.

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Missing America is written and hosted by me, Ben Rhodes.

It’s a production of Crooked Media.

 

The show is produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein.

Rico Gagliano is our story editor.

Austin Fisher is our associate producer.

Sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez.

Production support and research from Nimi Uberoi and Sydney Rapp.

Fact checking by Justin Klozco 

Original music by Marty Fowler. 

The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Tanya Somanader.

Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett and Jon Favreau.

Thanks for listening.

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Missing America