Washington Wednesday: National security

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 11th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today, Washington Wednesday.

Eighteen years ago today terrorists carried out coordinated attacks unlike anything ever seen on American soil. 

NEWS MONTAGE: This just in: You are looking at—obviously a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center….
GUMBLE: So you have no idea—
WOMAN: Oh, there’s another one! Another plane just hit! [gasps]… flew right into the middle of it! Explosion… That, that definitely looked like it was on purpose.

Counting passengers aboard in New York, and at the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field, almost 3-thousand people would lose their lives that day. 

In an instant, George W. Bush became a wartime president.

BUSH: I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you… and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon! [cheers]… U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Soon the Department of Homeland Security would come into being and national security would play a role in every presidential election since then. 

But is the world more or less safe today? And what’s the state of U.S. policy as we enter another presidential election season? 

Here to discuss those questions with me is Will Inboden. Previously, he served at the State Department and the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush. He’s now executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Professor, thank you for your time today and good morning to you.

INBODEN: Good morning to you. It’s great to be here. 

EICHER: I’d like to start with your personal 9/11 memories. At the time, you’d just accepted a position in the Bush State Department. What was that day like in D.C.? 

INBODEN: Well, it’s very vivid 18 years later. Like it was yesterday. I was in Washington, D.C. that day. I had not yet started my government position, so I was still working at the American Enterprise Institute, the think-tank. 

And my morning commute took me right past the Pentagon on Interstate 395, so I had gone literally a couple hundred yards from the south end of the Pentagon about a half hour before it was actually hit. And then arrived at my office and was seated at my desk, starting on the day’s work when my intern came running up to me and said something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. 

And at first we thought it was just a small commuter plane accident or something like that. But a few minutes later when we heard that a second plane had hit and then I ran out on the roof of our building, because we heard about the Pentagon being hit and we were—the AEI headquarters are just 2-3 miles away from the Pentagon across the Potomac River. I remember looking across the Potomac at the Pentagon and seeing this towering black plume of smoke, almost biblical, I suppose, in its eeriness. 

And then that’s when everything hits you that we’ve never had anything like this before. So the sheer terror—the literal meaning of terror—starts to envelop you.  

EICHER: I remember the route, too. We lived in Arlington. Of course, this was a decade—well before 9/11—but that same trip made by many, many people. 

Now, we know, 9/11 splits time in the United States. We look at so many things as “before 9/11” or “after 9/11.” I have a vague recollection of a commentator saying there are September 10 people, who don’t fully appreciate the hostility of the world, and September 11 people, who do. But I’d like to know, professor, would you say that the September 11 people have managed to make the world more secure or less secure today than it was on that day back in 2001?

INBODEN: Well, as much as there’s plenty of things to worry about in today’s world and we can talk some about that, but I say absolutely that we’re more secure now than we were on September 10, 2001. So, in that sense, I suppose I would be a September 11th person. 

And the fact that 18 years later we can be sitting here and know that there have not been any further mass casualty attacks on U.S. soil 18 years later, I think, is a testament to the aggressive counter-terrorism policies and successes primarily of the Bush administration, where I was honored to serve. 

But, again, let’s give President Obama some credit and even the Trump administration since then, because the threats are still out there. They’ve evolved, they’ve mutated, but they’re still out there and yet our government is much more effective now in anticipating and preventing those attacks at least thus far. 

EICHER: Let’s talk about—Break down the Trump national security doctrine for me. How would you describe the approach that President Trump takes? 

INBODEN: Well, I have a hard time saying ‘doctrine’ per se when it comes to President Trump. I just don’t see a lot of strategic thinking or a real conceptual framework he’s using. The word that comes to mind, rather, is transactional. 

So when he looks at different world leaders—whether it’s Putin in Russia or Xi Jinping in China or Kim Jong Un in North Korea—he’s usually thinking in narrow, transactional terms about what can I get from this guy and what do I need to give him. 

And so it’s hard to see a coherent, conceptual framework here for his vision for the country and our security and where he wants to take us and the world. 

EICHER: When we talk about moving the foreign-policy levers, we typically think of military power, diplomatic power to move them. But there’s also economic power. The president’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow likened the trade war with China to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And he made a comparison between his current boss and his old boss—Ronald Reagan—who was told at the time there is nothing you can do with respect to the Soviet Union. You can only hope to contain the USSR. Similarly, we’ve heard with respect to China that you have to accept unfair trading practices and technology theft as the cost of doing global business. But Trump seems determined to see this through, and that’s the Kudlow view. What do you say?

INBODEN: Well, economic power is hugely important for foreign policy, right up there with the diplomatic and military power and intelligence for that matter. 

I would reject the Kudlow analogy on two grounds, though. First, I’m writing a book right now on Reagan’s foreign policy, so I’m spending a lot of time thinking about that and I think there’s some—on every major indicator—profound differences between Reagan and Trump. Reagan was very pro-allies. Trump is against them. Reagan was a very committed free-trader. Trump is not. And Reagan knew how to wield American economic power both as an inducement to our allies but also a way to put pressure on our adversaries. 

I’m quite hawkish on China, so I’m not bothered that Trump has shifted our overall posture to be more confrontational towards China. I support that. I just think he’s doing it in some foolish and counter-productive ways. 

So, for example, when he withdrew us from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that was an economic partnership bringing all of our allies in the Asia-Pacific together—Australia, South Korea, Japan, especially—and not including China. But that was an own goal on the United States as an easy win for China. It was a squandering of our economic power. 

Or even the trade war right now. The problem with China is their predatory economic practices, especially in the high-tech sector. Their theft of intellectual property rights, their forced technology transfers. Trump’s not doing anything about that. That’s where we need firm-level sanctions rather than these blanket tariffs on lower cost, cheap manufactured goods which are not a big part of the problem. And so, while I’m at it, since you asked. I also think he’s missing a huge chance to confront China on the human-rights and democracy and religious freedom question. Xi Jinping fears his own people more than anything. He fears his own people more than the United States. He fears those protesters in Hong Kong more than he fears President Trump. 

Let’s use that. It’s the right thing to do in terms of our values, but it’s also a page out of the Reagan playbook in how he put pressure on the Soviet Union and the Kremlin—supporting the political dissidents there. That’s what dictators really fear and that’s where their vulnerability is. 

EICHER: Let’s talk about the Democrats—that large field of Democrats running for president. So far most candidates are focused on domestic issues. Have we seen anyone take the national security mantle? 

INBODEN: We haven’t. And that’s been a surprise. I suppose the only exception would be Vice President Biden has given a couple speeches on foreign policy, trying to differentiate himself from the Trump approach, and that’s part of Biden’s claimed appeal is his foreign policy experience. But it just doesn’t seem to be a motivating issue for voters right now. 

EICHER: Before I let you go, two-parter: You say it’s not motivating right now, but we’re one international crisis away from it becoming motivating in the 2020 race, right? And second, just generally, what role should national security play?

INBODEN: Sure. Well, the first part and what might happen—a lot of it will be driven by events. So if there is some sort of significant foreign policy that erupts—whether it’s another large-scale terrorist attack—we’re seeing a reconstitution of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria right now, as well as–ironically—in Afghanistan. So something like that. 

As far as what should be taking place, I would wish there were candidates certainly among the Democrats—and I’d like to see President Trump doing this as he’s gearing up for reelection—want to have a more honest conversation with the American people about fundamental questions about our role in the world, since it does feel like our country is at a crossroads right now. I’ve often thought that as much as Obama and Trump are quite different stylistically, on a lot of the substance of their foreign policy there’s some similarities. Similarities I don’t really like. 

For example, they both were very skeptical of America’s allies. Both accused our allies of being more free-riders and burdens rather than assets. And I don’t think so. Neither one did much of anything on promoting human rights and democracy, and I think President Trump is missing some big opportunities right now with the protests in Hong Kong, with the domestic oppression inside China, with the protests against Putin’s rule in Russia. 

Maybe some American people don’t want our country supporting human rights, religious freedom, democracy. I disagree, but we need to have that conversation as a country, and I’d like to have some political leaders pressing us on that.

And another one is what are we doing with our defense budget. Obama cut it quite a bit—about 20 percent over eight years. Our military’s really been hollowed out. To Trump’s credit, he and then Secretary Mattis bring back the Pentagon budget somewhat, but it still is under-funded and it’s still not being done in a sustainable way for the longer-term investments and the next generation of weapons platforms or training and equipment that our troops need. Again, it’s expensive, but it’s a lot cheaper than the threats and harm that could come to us and our allies if we don’t have an adequate defense.

EICHER: Will Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor, thank you for your time today.

INBODEN: Thanks. I enjoyed it. Great to be with you.

(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File) In this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo, smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in New York City. 

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