Paul Miller’s lecture at Christianity & National Security 2023.

Paul Miller discusses Afghanistan, Christian realism, and secular realism. The following is a transcript of the event.

You all have been a great and patient and very intelligent audience. We have two great speaker remaining. Uh, the next is Paul Miller, professor at Georgetown University, who has served uh, in the military, in intelligence in Afghanistan, worked with Iraq, has written several important and great, uh, books, uh, including one on Christian nationalism, and is a popular speaker. We often send speakers to speak on college campuses and he is our most-requested speaker. So, Paul Miller, an old friend, thank you so much for joining us again this year. 

Thak you, Mark, and uh, thank you, to uh, IRD, for the opportunity to talk… talk to you all. Um, it’s been a fairly serious, and even maybe more grim morning or afternoon so far. Talk about Israel and Hamas, Russia and Ukraine, China and Taiwan. So I’m here to cheer you up by talking about Afghanistan. Uh, I really do appreciate the chance to talk with you all. I, um… 

You’ve heard already, uh, Reinold Neibuhr’s name and Paul Ramsay’s name. You’ve heard just war and Christian realism, and I’m going to continue in that vein, but hopefully give you what I think is a practical example of how to think through a specific policy issue with these frameworks, in the hopes that it equips you to think Christianly about world affairs. That, I think is the goal, because I hope and expect that many of you will be the future diplomats, the statesmen and stateswomen who are making the decision in the future. 

So, I’ll start with a quote with… By Paul Ramsey, who wrote: “The Christian influence in our nation, it would seem, should be in the direction of including within the scope of national policy as much of the world common good as… as realistically possible.”  

So, in other words, if we’re making decisions about the national interest, we should try to make our national interests align with the interests of everyone else, of the international common good. As I say those words, I understand that some of you may be a little hesitant because you’re thinking “oh that sounds a little bit globalist to me,” right? Are you saying that we should pursue other people’s interest? Shouldn’t we put America first? 

Well, I didn’t say “let’s not pursue our interests.” I actually said “let’s pursue our interest and try to make our interest aligned with other interests. As a Christian thinking about foreign policy, I think there’s no other option, because… Think of what happens if your interests diverge from others. Then we face a moral dilemma: do we pursue our interests at the expense of others, hurting others, causing injustice to others? Or, do we do the other way around: pursue others’ interest and neglect our own, which I think is irresponsible. We don’t want that dilemma. So, we should try as much as possible to make them align. That would be ideal for Christian statesmen and stateswomen. 

I think this is different from what I would call secular realism, which thinks that we essentially have no reason or no obligation to consider others’ interests at all, that we should pursue our interests, narrowly conceived int he short term, and again put ourselves first and not even think about others? Reinold Neibuhr disagreed with that approach. He called himself a Christian realist and criticized what he called the self-defeating realism of those who are myopically realistic, myopically shortsighted, like I am right now. Shortsighted like I am right now, shortsightedly realistic by seeing only their own interest and failing thereby to do justice to their interests, because our interests are often involved with the interests of others. 

We… we can defeat ourselves when we define our national interest so narrowly. So blink… in such a blinkered way… so myopically, so… so shortsightedly. We can actually defeat ourselves and not even achieve our interest if we define it too narrowly.  

That’s all a bit abstract, isn’t it? And what does that have to do with Afghanistan? Let me walk through some of the issues in Afghanistan to, I hope, illustrate how this argument actually works. How I think our short-termism defeated us in Afghanistan. The Taliban did not defeat us. We defeated ourselves with our… our short-termism, with our blinkered, narrow, provincial, myopic, solipsistic definition of our national interest. 

In Afghanistan, we went to war, justly so, as an act of self-defense against Al-Qaeda that launched the largest and most deadly terrorist attack in world history… Killed almost 3,000 people from 80-some nations in several coordinated attacks. It was good for us to go to war. It was… was right. It was just like Israel after the October 7th attack. We had every right to do something to protect ourselves from future attacks. The goal of the war in Afghanistan was actually never unclear, uh… Over four presidents, they all agreed on this, and I worked for two of them. 

The goal was to bring Al-Qaeda’s leaders to justice and also deter future attacks and also deny safe haven to terrorists of global reach. It’s those and also that maybe we sometimes forgot in our historical remembrance, it was not just “kill Al-Qaeda,” it was also “make sure this doesn’t happen again. Uh, and that is the key for the strategy that we should have adopted. 

We face a choice, a pretty simple choice. We either go in, option A, we go in guns-blazing to kill as many terrorists as we can, uh, and in the hopes that we could kill enough that they couldn’t come back, and we’d be safe. And option B is something… something very different. Option B doesn’t… doesn’t exclude killing the terrorists who need killing, but option B includes investing in Afghanistan, investing… something to build up an army, a police force, an intelligence service, and yes, a government so that it can deny safe haven to Al-Qaeda, and we can go home investing in conditions of lasting peace and justice. That was option B. 

I’m going to argue that that was the better option, but some of you might be under the misapprehension that that’s actually what we tried and failed. In fact, I bet a lot of you have that narrative in your head, that we launched a twenty-year foolish, utopian, nation-building crusade, proving the futility of ever doing that ever again.  

So I need to explain that no, we didn’t actually do that. That’s not at all what happened. In fact, for the first five years of the war, President Bush chose option A. Uh, our involvement in Afghanistan for the first five years was almost entirely killing terrorists, and again, that’s not a bad thing. Uh, but I believe more was needed. We chose the short-term, the self-interested, the narrow conception of our self-interest. Go to kill the terrorists. That was our immediate short-term concern… and neglected the longer-term conditions of peace and justice. We neglected the Afghans’ interest. 

For example, let me give you a couple examples specific in the war. One of the first dilemmas that we faced was what to do with Afghanistan’s warlords. When the Taliban fell from power, there was no government, there was no army, there was no police force. But there were warlords, guys with big militias and a lot of guns. Option A, hire them as our proxies against Al-Qaeda so that they could keep the pressure on, but the cost of that option is that they are not legitimate actors and they would end up undermining the growth of the legitimate Afghan government. Option B is to hopefully gradually sideline them while we build up the legitimate security forces: the army, the policy, the government, and thus invest in conditions of lasting peace and justice.  

You’ll be unsurprised to hear that we chose option A. We worked with the warlords, I believe, long after it became… Long after it was necessary to do so. It’s defensible to work with them in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but uh… Years and years and years later, we continued to work with them and undermine the growth of the Afghan State, the growth of the institutions necessary to build lasting peace and justice in Afghanistan. We chose the short-term, the immediate, the convenient, the easy solution of working with warlords to kill Al-Qaeda to the exclusion of the longer, broader-term interest of… of peace and justice in Afghanistan.  

Second example, fast forward. It’s 2009. President Obama takes office, and I am working in the National Security Council for him, at the time, uh transition straight from the Bush Administration. President Obama came into office promising to win the war in Afghanistan, something many people have forgotten. He actually said he’s going to escalate the war, send more troops, do a civilian surge, uh, give more money to the reconstruction effort. I think most of what President Obama said in his first year in office was actually quite correct. It was the right approach, and yet President Obama balked as… as it became clear what the true cost was of what he was saying.  

He backed off in his second strategy review, culminating in a speech in December 2009. Famously, President Obama announced that he was going to send a surge and within eighteen months withdraw them… withdraw them. So, he ordered a surge, a partial counterinsurgency strategy in only a part of the country. Limited in… limited in time, in scope, with fewer troops than the military recommended. Uh, he explicitly told the U.S. military “your mission is not to defeat the Taliban.” He explicitly told the U.S. military “your mission is not to defeat the Taliban.” He gave them orders not to seek the defeat of our enemy in wartime, and in writing explicitly disavowed nation-building, and all of this was captured, I think, with his withdrawal timetable. 

Now I’ve read a lot of military strategy books. I’ve read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, and I have yet to find a single book of military strategy ever written that says announcing your timetable for withdrawal in advance is a good idea. It’s not out there. Nobody has ever recommended it. So why did we do it? Because it served our short-term, immediate, narrow self-interest to the exclusion of the long-term broader interests of the Afghans, the interest of peace, the interest of justice, the interest of… of the world. 

It served President Obama’s political interest. He got to say on the campaign trail that he was bringing the war to a responsible conclusion in time for his reelection. It seemed like the more realistic option because it cut costs. It, uh, mitigated our investment, um, minimized our investment, and uh, it was cheaper. It had fewer troops in harm’s way, and we could see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it deflected criticism from Obama’s left, uh, and it did not make the investments in lasting peace and justice in Afghanistan. 

That is why, ultimately, why President Obama’s policy failed. The military surge actually showed some progress. You can look at metrics of success in 2010, 2011, into 2012, and it looks as if the war… that’s the moment when I believe we came the closest to a more acceptable outcome, something like victory, and we pulled the plug. We pulled the plug before it had time to fully mature and harden into a lasting progress. More time would have allowed the surge, uh, time to uh, uh, solidify its effects. More time would have allowed the, um, civilian surge to actually happen. More time would have allowed reconstruction programs to continue without the sense of panicked rush that turned them into prolonged exercises in waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption. This is when we tried nation-building, and it was a waste because of the withdrawal deadline. When we said we’re leaving, it communicated to all the bureaucrats on the ground, your mission isn’t to rebuild Afghanistan. Your mission is to spend money quickly and leave, and that’s a very stupid idea. No nation has ever been built on a timeline, uh, and no problem has ever shown effects in eighteen months. And that is why President Obama’s war failed. 

A third example from the war in Afghanistan… The Obama and the Trump administrations both reached out to the Taliban to open negotiations with them, and that is actually a good thing. It’s not a bad thing in itself. You always in wartime, should talk to your enemy. Uh, I actually felt differently at the time, and there’s many people who think it’s kind of gross and morally questionable to talk to the bad guy. Actually, no. You should always talk to the enemy. Always. Always keep a channel open. It’s always a wise idea to have a way of just talking to the enemy while you’re shooting them. 

Um, the problem wasn’t talking to the Taliban. Uh, the problem was that President Obama and Trump together replicated President Nixon’s error in… in his negotiations with North Vietnamese of negotiating with one hand while simultaneously withdrawing troops with the other. 

A very basic principle of wartime negotiation is that military progress is diplomatic leverage. You win on the battlefield, so that you can win at the, uh, at the negotiating table. And yet, President Nixon, President Obama, President Trump all did the same thing of pulling their… their military leverage off the table while trying to strike a deal with the Taliban. And the Taliban knew it, which is exactly why they waited. And they waited. And they waited. They even said this to American diplomats. Ambassador Kad told me that the Taliban told him “we’re not signing anything. We’re just going to wait.” 

It was very obvious that the negotiating dynamic was, as U.S. troops pulled back, the Taliban’s hand grew stronger and stronger until they signed the meaningless Doha agreement, and President Biden inexplicably chose to honor it. Why did we do that? Because it served our short-term narrow, selfishly conceived national interests of… and of ending the war. It didn’t end the war. Ending our participation in the war, getting American troops out of harm’s way, etc. Extricating ourselves from a war that the commanders and chief no longer believed was necessary, while it did nothing for the longer-term interests, the broader interests of the Afghans or ourselves, we shot ourselves in the foot. We did not achieve our interests by doing this. 

We handed the country over to the Taliban. Al-Qaeda has regained some measure of safe haven. There, yes, we killed Soleimani, we killed him in Kabul. It shows that Al-Qaeda feels comfortable moving back to Afghanistan after our withdrawal. The uh, tactic of uh, withdrawing and negotiating… While negotiating was shortsighted, it appeared to serve our self- our short-term interests, self-interests, and did the opposite. 

What lessons can we learn from this and from the rest of the war in Afghanistan? I suggest it… we should learn that uh… some themes emerge from this. As I worked on the war and as I interviewed, uh some seventy policy makers from the past three administrations from my book, um, I never doubted the intelligence, the hard work, the patriotism, the good will, the efforts of everybody who worked on the war. Uh, that’s not enough. That is not enough. Your credentials are not enough. They do not qualify you to be a policy-maker. You need more than that.  

You need wisdom to take the long view, prudence to discern what is actually practical. You… you need persistence and fortitude in implementation. You need courage to overcome groupthink and pride. You need temperance and humility to toil in unglamorous details, and above all the strategist and the policy maker must have a passion. A passion for justice. You need wisdom, courage, temperance, and injustice. Wisdom, I’m reminded of Reinold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer:” “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  

In our foreign policy landscape, I believe that secular realists have underestimated what we can change. They look at the world, they want to accept the constraints of the world, and they put out very little effort to change the conditions of the world. And I believe that liberal internationalists tend to overestimate what they can change. We need the wisdom to know the difference, I think. 

President Bush overestimated what he could change when he launched a second war before finishing the first. I think President Obama overestimated what he could change when he, uh, gave up on counterinsurgency and nation-building. Uh, he overestimated what he could achieve when he tried to prosecute a war on a timetable. We lacked the wisdom to understand what was realistic, what was really achievable, what we could change, and what we couldn’t. Courage, I think, that in some sense… We do need grandiose aspirations.  

That’s a very unpopular thing to say right now, as we have policy makers who are very fixated on what is realistic, what is prudent, what is practical, what is pragmatic. Actually, I think we need more of the opposite. We need grandiose aspirations, not as a pro… programmatic plan, something to achieve in time for the next election, that’s not what I’m saying. But we need aspirations as guiding principles, as inspirational stories, as orienting frameworks, the basic pole star towards which we patiently steer the ship of state. 

Decade after decade, we need these because need the inspiration to persist in the day-to-day grind, in the face of bureaucratic inertia, the face of enemy violence, the face of, uh, everyday realities. When Thomas Jefferson called America an “Empire of Liberty,” when John F. Kennedy said that we would pay any price to assure the survival and success of liberty, that was grandiose, maybe even hubristic. But it was necessary, because it defined our place in the world and it gave us an orienting framework that made our foreign policy more coherent, more consistent, and more effective. The words are aspirational, but the aspiration is how we challenge ourselves to strive and persist in the face of the naysayers and the obstacles.  

Third, we need temperance. Temperance, uh, it’s an odd word, isn’t it? We don’t talk about temperance much today. Maybe you’ve heard of the Temperance Movement against alcohol. I’m not quite talking about that. Feel free to drink up, if you’re of age, um. What I mean is we need to temper our appetite for glory, for the limelight, policymaking… the high, lofty councils of state when presidents make heroic decisions… It’s very alluring. We all want to be in the room where it happened, right? We all want to be there. Um…  

That’s actually not where foreign policy is truly made. Foreign policy is enacted in boring implementation when, after the president makes the heroic decision all the bureaucrats and the people in the field actually have to do it and… and it takes a lot of humility and patience and discipline to go through the boring grind day after day after day to get it done and get it done right, down to the last crossed “T” and dotted “I.” And we very much did not do that in Afghanistan. Uh, we need temperance to keep ourselves disciplined in the face of reality. 

Finally, I suggest we need personal integrity and a passion for justice. Justice to simply care enough. I confess I have a strange mix of admiration and a little bit of contempt for the American policy maker. Uh, admiration because again, uh, the intelligence, the hard work, the… the goodwill, the patriotism, but virtually everyone knew that the war in Afghanistan was not going well and yet almost no one put their careers on the line for it. 

One diplomat told me he said we knew it wasn’t going well, but that was above my paygrade. Uh, we kept doing our thing, and just hoped things would work themselves out. Um, I think that perfectly encapsulates the word “bureaucrat” in the worst possible way. It is passive complicity with bureaucratic drift towards failure. Don’t ever waste your life doing that. If you’re in a bureaucracy that’s failing, say something. Pound on a desk. Throw a chair. File a descent cable. Resign and protest. Do something and don’t just be passively complicit with stupid failure. Don’t waste your life that way. We need public servants who will put their careers on the line. There were just a few who did so, but I note that not a single Biden official has resigned in protest over the fall of Kabul.  

One Obama official told me, quote “in our private discussions, there was considerable reservations about the idea of a timetable.” And I kind of wanted to punch him in the face, because private re… reservations do not make policy or win wars. So speak up! I think the lesson applies to presidents as well. Presidents have to care about the wars they lead. That needs to be evident in how they talk about it. Presidents need to use the language of justice and victory – again, an unpopular thing. We don’t… wars aren’t won anymore. We don’t win. There’s no surrender ceremony in the deck of a battleship. I get that. But wars are moral contests.  

The only possible justification for killing another human being is if it is for the sake of peace and justice. And if justice is on the line, it’s a moral contest and it is moral to win. It is a moral imperative to win, and president’s have to say that. They have to believe it, and they have to lead like they believe it, which, I believe, four Commanders-in-Chief did not do. 

President Bush tried with Iraq, but not Afghanistan. This is not crusading. It is recognizing that, done right, war serves justice and if it doesn’t, yest we should go home. But I believe the war in Afghanistan was, or should have been, a just war. 

More than intelligence for education, statesmen and stateswomen need character. They… they need wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. You may recognize that these just happen to be the four cardinal virtues of classical Greek thought. I didn’t go into this book expecting to conclude that, but it emerged from the narrative of the twenty-year saga of our defeat.  

And if that’s really at the root of how and why we failed, it suggests that these lessons maybe aren’t an accident. They maybe aren’t a quirk of this particular war, uh, with this particular author, but these might actually be timeless truths of statecraft, enduring principles for you to learn how to wield power in the service of a just and lasting peace among nations. 

Thank you very much. Yes, right here. 


Question: Um, well thank you very much for that. I think the question on everybody’s mind probably is, uh, if lessons are to be drawn from Afghanistan, how might they be applied to Gaza? And, um, anticipating your answer a little bit, uh, is it possible for those lessons to be applied within a two-state framework? Yeah. 

Answer: Uh, just… excellent question which gets to the part of the talk I had to cut for time, so thank you. How do you apply this to Israel/Hamas, apply to Russia/Ukraine. Um, I… I… So, Israel has every right to respond to this terrorist attack. I’m very afraid that they’re about to replicate what we did in Iraq. I’m very afraid that they’re going to walk essentially into a trap, they’re going to launch a ground invasion, they’re going to win a conventional military victory, they’re going to kill a lot of people, and nothing will be solved. A lot of terrorists will be dead, and I don’t… you know, that’s, that’s not unjust, um, but uh… will… there will… that actually lead to more peace, more justice. I’m not persuaded it is.  

If I were advising Netanyahu, I would tell him that the right way to frame this war. This is a war to liberate Palestine from Hamas’s tyranny. This is a war to reunify Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate authority of the Palestinian Authority, which right now is not really capable of wielding that authority. I would even say this… This is the time for Israel to promise to recognize the state of Palestine, essentially as a… reward’s the wrong term. As a, um, sign of the peace that is to come in the aftermath of Hamas’s destruction.  

I very much believe in the two-state solution. That was the premise of the 1947 partition plan. The premise behind time, the 1995 Oslo Accords. We all know Palestine must exist. It think there will be and should be a Palestinian State. 134 countries already recognize the PA as the State of Palestine. That’s fine. Uh, the problem is that one part of Palestine is run by totalitarian terrorists and the other by corrupt authoritarians. So, I would hand… If I was Netanyahu, I would kill as much of Hamas as I can and I would hand Gaza to the United Nations, a transitional administration whose goal, right? Was uh, to clean up the streets, turn the power back on, feed the people, and prepare it for the State of Palestine, which also involves severely reforming the Palestinian Authority. 

So the, the lesson to draw would be to… to do nation building multilaterally, like via the UN rather than via Israel or the United States, or unilateral. I… the reason I’m hesitating is that multilateral nation building is, um… led to a high degree of incompetence in Afghanistan. Uh, so, when… when I say “invite the UN in,” I don’t necessarily mean put them in charge. You… I’m not sure what the… what the institutional arrangement should look like. I really don’t know. But I think the goal should be, yeah, peace and justice in Palestine as much as for Israel. 

Look. You’ve heard about just war theory, when we seek peace and justice. It’s actually not just for ourselves, by the doctrine. And it is a doctrine, not a theory. By the doctrine, we are seeking peace and justice for everyone: for our enemies, including our enemies. Think about after World War II. We rebuilt Germany and Japan, our former enemies. I think somebody has got to rebuild Palestine. Yes. Tell me how this ends unless it exists and has a competent government. Yeah. 

Question: Um, yes, thank you very much for letting us know about how incompetent American bureaucracy can be. Um, out of curiosity… the American people – you mentioned both Vietnam and Afghanistan – both the American public and American bureaucracy became sick and tired of working in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and I think part of the reason why we decided to eventually leave with… with heads… with our, uh, tails between our legs is because there was no public support for those wars when they… and when they eventually ended. How can the American policy maker really encourage the American people to keep at it when there’s not significant progress being made in the eyes of the people or in the eyes of the media? 

Answer: To answer your question most directly, uh, they should… they should actually try to talk about the war and its justice and its importance, which again, none of the presidents did. But I do want to take slight issue with how you’ve characterized it. It’s true that Vietnam was deeply unpopular by the end. About 60% of Americans opposed the war by 1973, and that… that number grew substantially in the years afterwards.  

In Afghanistan, it actually never got that high. Um, the American people didn’t oppose the war in Afghanistan, that’s the number one important fact about public opinion and the war in Afghanistan. He just didn’t care, they really didn’t care, and if any of the presidents had gone and said this is just… this is important, we’re going to stay with the amount of few troops that were there – we had 10,000 by 2015 – uh, and substantially not a whole lot of investment, almost no troops were on the firing line. Nobody was… not a whole lot of troops were getting killed. Uh… I don’t think the American people would have opposed that it would have been very sustainable insurance against the resurgence of terrorism. Um, okay. Um.  

I would say that the indifference the American people… it’s probably just a quiet opposition instead of a quiet support in some ways. 

Question: Dr. Miller, thank you so much for your talk. Um… My school is Grove City College. You had mentioned the importance of politicians using grandiose aspirations, and I totally get it. That’s a rhetoric thing that makes sense. That said, is stuff like Trump’s language of America first, MAGA type rhetoric… is that loss or victory. As you mentioned later in your talk, is that an example of grandiose aspiration? And if not, what is? 

Answer: It… So I don’t actually disagree at all with the idea that we should put America first. I just think the best and most effective way to do that is by investing in a just and lasting peace elsewhere in the world. We live in a community of nations, and putting America first should not mean putting America “only,” or alone. That’s exactly how to defeat us, defeat ourselves, put ourselves last. 

Putting ourselves first also means being… being cognizant of how we affect everyone else in the world with our… with our activity. Uh… and so, uh, investing in the liberal international order is the way to put America first. Um, uh, is it grandiose and aspirational? Uh, uh, that’s not the way I’d… That’s not the rhetoric I’d recommend, uh… I think that President Bush spoke well about this when he talked about the need to encourage – he called it the freedom agenda, right? — encourage freedom as the alternative to tyranny, uh the notion is that in democratic societies, people can express their grievances peacefully through the ballot box. And so, they don’t feel the need to go and kill people about it. That’s a…  

I agree. I think that’s a true statement. So that’s a good, grandiose aspiration. Now, we’re not going to do it overnight. We’re not going to democratize the world at the point of a gun. But it’s a good pole star to hold out. I think President Obama actually got this pretty good. Pretty in… 

He gave a speech after the Arab Spring. He have a speech. The no… his Nobel Prize speech was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. He just didn’t live to it… uh, so he I think… A… A few of them actually got… Look. Senator Joe Biden got this right in speech after speech after speech. He was the foremost champion of nation-building in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009 and then he’s flipped on a dime when he became vice president. So even Biden, I think, got it, or at least understood that sort of rhetoric.  

And the only president who really did talk about victory was Trump, and I give him credit for that. He said “victory” more times in a fifteen-minute speech than Obama did in eight years. And I think we need more of that. Uh, let’s go in the back somewhere, take a pick. 

Question: Thank you, Dr. Miller. Um, Todd McDonald, Virginnia Tech, also uh, 173rd Airborne Infantry veteran. Um, I’ve got a, uh, a two-part question and hopefully I explain it well, or uh… yeah. I’ll just go ahead off into it. So you talked about investing in conditions of lasting peace and justice. Um, from my understanding, to an extent we did invest in things like to where women in Afghanistan… Some at least were able to play the role of, of like, getting involved in health care. Some women were able to get an education, uh, and then, when the Taliban took power again, uh those, uh privileges but also benefits to society were taken away. So I was wondering, if um, there are any positive effects to those investments that uh, might change the hearts and minds today, to where we could see a change in Afghanistan in the future?  

And the second part of my question was when we think about investments and uh, conditions of… of lasting peace and freedom? Um, do you consider the indicators of success to be something like a Western conception of, uh, freedom and justice? Or would you accept something much lower? Uh, for example, um, I don’t know… Maybe women don’t have rights, but we have this or that, uh… Something else that would… Would, uh… You would accept as “this is victory,” but uh, you know it’s not on the same playing field as… as the way we see ourselves and the way we see justice here. Thank you. 

Answer: Yeah so I think I’m gonna answer your first part first. Um… if Afghanistan fifty years from now is a democracy, if it… if it escapes Taliban tyranny and someday gets a chance to rebuild something like a democratic Afghanistan, it will look back on the past twenty years as something to build on. And so that is the closest I can get to saying “hey, that we did something good,” right? It… It gave Afghanistan a historical experience that perhaps someday it might build on, right? If that answers your question. 

Um, the second part, right? How much of uh, nation building is actually Westernization? Well I observed that, um… It was the Persians and the Chinese who invented bureaucracy. Uh, roads are not Western. Electricity is not Western. Clean water is not Western. Um, police are not Western. The rule… you know that Hammurabi wrote the world’s first law code. Uh, there’s far less of this than you think is actually Western.  

Um, maybe when you get to women’s rights and religious freedom, that’s I think the stuff that is closest to being uniquely Western. But, you know what? Afghan women seem to love it a lot and they were 50% of the country. The people who say Afghanistan’s not quite ready for democracy and human rights, you know, who says that? Rich Pashtun men. Rich Pashtun Sunni men. Those are the ones who say that, because they’re the ones who benefit from the hierarchy that now exists and existed before. It’s always everywhere in the world. Rich men of the ruling tribe who say we’re not ready for democracy. Yet, and… it’s women, and it’s religious and ethnic minorities everywhere who were the strongest advocates for democracy, for human rights, for civil liberties. Happens everywhere in the world. And, uh, accountable free governance is no longer uniquely Western. 

Let’s go. Here. 

Question: Hello. Um… I’m Dee Bernett from Liberty University. And, I think you already mentioned this in your speech, I… I just don’t remember… but I was going to ask, uh… When was the turning point in the American history when we switch from long-term goals… goals like in Germany and rebuilding Germany and Japan to, like, short-term goals like in Afghanistan? 

Answer: Yeah, uh, the scholar in me doesn’t want to pick a date because surely there’s a blend and there’s a mix, and then we can see some short-termism before and some long-termism now, but I really just want to say 1991. Um, the end of the Cold War, because the Cold War was precisely when we had had a strategic concept of containment that was a mature, responsible, and I think moral strategic concept that was sustained across nine presidential administrations across forty five years. And it was successful in winning a just war without actually having to fight.  

I mean, well, we fought a couple of proxy wars, but it never turned into World War III. That was a good thing that we did, uh, and since then, I have not seen evidence of that uh, long-term perspective, that grand strategic thought. I think there’s been a couple of efforts. Uh, the Clinton Administration tried to reformulate American foreign policy on the basis of democratic enlargement and engagement that’s not a terrible ideas, um, but it was, uh, too beholden to liberal internationalism and utopian assumptions. He cut the defense budget by a third. It was stupid, um, you know? And I think that successively, as the years go by, we get more and more short, short term in our thinking, uh, and I’m… I’m not entirely sure why, but yeah.  

If I had to pick a date, I’d pick the end of the Cold War. Uh, there you say we’re short-term in our thinking, but, I mean, we’re spending 3.5% of our GDP on defense. We have troops in, you know, forty countries in Africa. We… you know, we’re the guarantor of security in the Middle East, I mean, we’re still… our… our overseas footprint is still as if Europe is still destroyed from World War II and we’re the only global Hedgemon that can control these things. Europe’s spending 1.5% on a good day for on GDP for their defense spending. We’re spending 3.5%. 

So I get that we have national responsibilities, but the… there’s this circular reasoning that goes “we have to have all this force projection because Europe doesn’t have it, and so, therefore anytime anything breaks, we’re the ones who have to go fix it, and then Europe doesn’t build force projection because we’re doing it for them.”  

So what are the limits? And I… I don’t… I don’t disagree that we have moral obligations abroad, but what are the limits on that as a country? Yeah, that’s a fair question. Where are the limits? But… do I want to offer a different perspective on the history here? Uh, actually we have the smallest military footprint abroad since 1939. You say 3.5% of GDP on defense, it’s been going down and scheduled to hit about 2.7% within a couple of years. That is the lowest number since before World War II. Uh, the number of troops we have, the amount of money we spent on defense is nearing an all-time low since the inter-war years. Between 1920 and 1940 our defense budget averaged between 1 and 3%, so about 2%, and that was the high tide of isolationism. And I just said our defense budget is trending towards 2.7%, so we have adopted the military budget almost of isolationism.  

You need to understand the historical context during the Cold War. Our defense budget was 7% of GDP in peacetime. If you count Vietnam and Korea, it was 9%. Now, I’m not saying we need that today, but I just do want to put it into context. After the Cold War, massive budget cuts that we’ve never reversed… Iraq and Afghanistan was a mild brief blip upwards that has now been reversed. So our… our military budget is actually quite small in historical terms, uh, uh, granted, uh…  

And the person we have to thank for the increase in mil… in Europe’s military budget in recent years is Vladimir Putin, who has put the fear of God into them. Um, where are the limits? That’s a fair question because we, um, can’t do everything, can’t be everywhere. Uh, as a conservative internationalist, not a liberal internationalist, I’m very comfortable saying “well let’s prioritize our interests.” Where our interests… it’s where the greatest concentrations of wealth, power, and danger. That’s pretty simple to me. That’s an easy rubric. 

Where is there the most amount of wealth, power, and danger? People, we can trade with people who can kill us. Wealth, power, and danger… and the answer is Europe and East Asia. That is still the case today. I ran the numbers in one of my previous books, and I found that 50% of world GDP is in Europe and East Asia, and we’re another 25%. And so, if you care about global… the global economy, you must care about Europe. You must care about East Asia. That means the war in Ukraine is far more consequential than the war between Israel and Hamas. It just is. And yes, it’s actually more consequential than war in Afghanistan as well. Right? 

I’ll admit that… um, and anything that happens between China and Taiwan, of course, is going to be hugely consequential. The third, by the way… the third geopolitical theater is not the Middle East. It is South Asia, India, Pakistan, yes, Afghanistan, Bangladesh that accounts for a much greater percentage of the world population, world GDP, military spending, nuclear power and resources than the Middle East. 

So, I would defend our engagement in South Asia. One more, no? One more, one more question. One more. Right there. Right behind you. 

Question: I thank you very much, uh, for your insights today, Dr. Miller. I’m William Roberts with the… uh… In Defense of Christians. My question concerns, uh, President Biden’s, uh, defense and justification for the war in Ukraine. Do you feel that he has adequately outlined to the American people the moral imperative and strategical imperative? And what would your advice be to counter the rising short-termism that has eroded, uh, American support?  

Answer: Um, I cannot claim to have listened to all of his speeches, but I did note his speech the other night, uh, where he tied the war in Ukraine to the ti… to the war in Israel, and gave this rather stirring defense of American leadership and the need to defend freedom abroad. And I thought those were excellent words. And I was so, so sad that the nation of Afghanistan was unavailable for comment. Uh, his words struck me as hollow. Uh, in the face of his choice two years ago, to walk away from Afghanistan were the words, right? The words were right, absolutely. I just wish we lived by them and that’s an example, in a sense, of short-termism where he… uh, maybe can’t even see the contradiction between his words and his actions. Uh…  

What is the solution? I mean, I don’t have the time to give you all of my ideas, uh… But I think living up to our own rhetoric would be a good start. Thank you very much.