Ben Sasse and Rich Goldberg Discuss 9/11, Afghanistan, and Civic Amnesia

The senator joins our foreign-policy columnist to talk about America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and how the nation’s short memory imperils its security.

An Afghan militia fighter in Balkh Province on July 11, 2021. FARSHAD USYAN/AFP via Getty Images.

An Afghan militia fighter in Balkh Province on July 11, 2021. FARSHAD USYAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Response
Sept. 30 2021
About the authors

Ben Sasse is a United States senator for Nebraska.

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the chief of staff for Illinois’s governor, and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer.

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic.

Last week, in response to Rich Goldberg’s September Mosaic essay on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we convened a discussion on the subject with him, the U.S. senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse, and our editor Jonathan Silver. Watch their discussion, or read a lightly edited version of it, below.

 

Jonathan Silver:

It’s easy for Americans of a certain generation to understand the feeling of December 7, 1941 when Japan bombed our naval base at Pearl Harbor, just seven miles away from downtown Honolulu. For a great many Americans, it defined a calling, national as well as personal, a calling to serve and to strengthen and secure what had all of a sudden come under attack. December 7, 1941 was an inflection point in the consciousness of a generation. So was the war in Vietnam for yet another generation. And so was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

And so was September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda operatives attacked the United States. For those of us who remember that event, we understand the threats to American security because on that day; those threats took thousands of innocent civilian lives. But what about a rising generation that does not remember 2001? That was not even born in 2001? Well, that question of national memory has been much on our mind as we, this month, commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Coinciding with that commemoration, President Biden has just overseen the withdrawal of American troops stationed in Afghanistan, putting an end to a twenty-year counterterrorism operation. Our essay at Mosaic this month brings together two strands of this moment, asking the practical and strategic question about whether the American withdrawal was prudent and wise or shortsighted and foolish, and asking the deeper question about civic memory and a democratic people’s penchant to forget.

September 11 from 1981 to 2031,” was written by the Mosaic columnist and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior advisor Rich Goldberg. Today, we’re joined by Rich and the senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse. Senator Sasse sits on the intelligence committee in the U.S Senate, and over the past few weeks he has been spitting fire at the recklessness of the American withdrawal. Spitting fire, that is, in equal measure at the Trump administration for incubating the strategy of withdrawal, the Biden administration for its shameful execution of that strategy, and at political leaders everywhere for failing to teach the American people just what is to be gained or lost by ceding the ground that was gained at such great cost.

Senator Sasse, Rich Goldberg, welcome to this conversation about the war in Afghanistan, our effort to commemorate 9/11, and what that effort reveals about us as a nation. I’d like to start by putting on the table an epistemological problem. It’s a problem that’s endemic to all forms of government, but it’s particularly hard for us democratic citizens to get a handle on—it’s the problem of memory. Now, if you are a college freshman who just started your first fall semester, having gone right from high school to college, if that’s you, then you’re probably about eighteen years old and so you were born in 2003 or 2004. 9/11, which happened two or three years before you were born, perhaps isn’t as remote as the Peloponnesian War or the Civil War, but it’s in that category of things that happened before your time, of things that you learn about some way other than by firsthand experience.

Rich, you and I are both members of what you call in the essay the 9/11 generation, and that event shaped both of us. I’ll just say for myself, 9/11 remains the single most important geopolitical event in terms of shaping how I think about America’s role in the world, how we relate to adversaries and allies. Rich, you write eloquently in the essay about the effect 9/11 had on you, including your service in Afghanistan. I’d like to begin by asking you to explain if you can what the problem is that your essay takes up and how you dimension it.

Richard Goldberg:

In the essay, I took a look at various decades, starting at 9/11, that pivotal moment you discussed just now as this geopolitical phenomenon that shaped all of our futures in the 9/11 generation. I was in my first week at university, in freshman orientation, when it happened. It seemed more like group therapy than a party session as we all sat around and talked about what we saw, what we thought about the New York and New Jersey students who had to drive all the way across the country because flights weren’t available, listening to them tell their stories and talk about their families. And there was a call to national service that we all felt at that moment. We felt that suddenly what had happened to our grandparents’ generation was happening to our generation.

For Jewish Americans like myself, this was even more powerful. The threat of Islamo-fascism, this evil that hated not just Jews and Israel, but America, the country that liberated the camps in World War II, that fought a similar evil generations ago, is now back and it’s fallen upon us to defend that country that fought for us, that liberated the camps, in fighting off this evil throughout the world.

I thought about how that first decade since 9/11 really shaped my career. Obviously, there was a call to service, as a staffer in the Congress—the House and the Senate—being in the Navy reserve. You met people at dinner parties, you met people at a Shabbat dinners, and a common question was: where were you when the towers fell? I mean, everybody remembers that being a central point of conversation. Like, “Who are you, where are you from? What do you do?” At some point in the conversation you got to, “Where were you on 9/11?” Then I thought about when I was in Afghanistan with a Navy squadron on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It was a very impactful moment—not a person there didn’t remember where they were, didn’t know why they were in Afghanistan that moment, and didn’t recommit themselves to that mission. It was very powerful to be there. But in that decade since then, as we were counting down to the twentieth anniversary, I thought to myself, “When was the last time I asked somebody, ‘Where were you when the towers fell?’ When was the last time they asked me, ‘Where were you when the tower fell?'”

If I track that as part of the national consciousness, it moves with our national political debate as well. Afghanistan, the war on terror, the idea that we are a nation under attack in a war that has not gone away and won’t be going away, has all just fallen out of our frame of mind. And instead we’ve seen leaders in both political parties at the top—the former president, this president—actively use political messaging to speak to people in ways that are unhelpful to sustaining that sort of commitment to our long-term national security.

That’s really the dilemma we face today. Now, a new generation that doesn’t remember 9/11 is coming up within a body politic, including the president of the United States and the former president of the United States, that speaks about endless wars and says we don’t need to be there. What did President Biden say before the general assembly, that “the threat that we faced on 9/11 just isn’t there anymore. It’s a new day, we don’t have to do what we did after 9/11 anymore.” It’s mind boggling, but there will be a generation potentially that grows up believing that. And my fear is, are we putting ourselves on a path to make the same mistakes we made a generation ago?

Jonathan Silver:

Senator Sasse, you’ve thought hard about what it takes for a nation to remember, especially about what it takes for a nation to remember things that we actually don’t remember, but instead have to be taught somehow. It has to be inculcated in us. It strikes me that Rich’s observations about 9/11 are an application of that problem, a particular national-security application of that problem that you’ve written about and thought about. How do you see it and what have you learned in the last twenty years?

Ben Sasse:

Well-framed, and so much meat in your first question to Rich and in his response. Instead of going deep on one of them, I might just name three or four big things that I think you flagged there. I mean, first of all, just your point about the problem of memory and its relationship to national security. “Never forget” really only works if you were there or you were taught it. And we have a generation of citizens who need to be taught it, and we don’t do that kind of teaching right now. Just the fact that you and Rich—I guess I’m ten to fifteen years older than you guys—both of you defining 9/11 immediately as your most formative national-security impression, that hit me as profound because I know we’re here to talk about that and it was incredibly profound to me.

And the story of where were you then, I’ve got a lot to say about it. I was a grad student in New Haven, but I was on a strategy-consulting project in San Diego and our first kid was seven weeks old. I just had that sense that I needed to be with my wife and kid, so I ended up just stealing my rental car and driving across the country, the 2,500 plus miles it was from San Diego back to Connecticut. The experience of Americana, of people anchoring American flags in the back of their pickups on I-40, on the shoulder of the road and just driving up and down, there’s a ton to be said about that.

But my most formative memory is November 1989. The fall of the [Berlin] wall made a much deeper impression on me, in part probably just because I was seventeen and had a new consciousness about it. Partly because—Rich, you mentioned all the people you knew who were in the towers—I grew up 50 miles from Offutt Air Force Base, which is where Strategic Command is now, then called SAC, and it’s where the AWACS planes flew. It was one of the two major targets the Soviet Union had in the cold war—Washington D.C. and South Omaha, Nebraska. We did bomb drills all the time when I was a kid because in our school the assumption was if there’s a nuclear war, we’re toast in three seconds from Offutt.

So November of 1989 was accompanied for me by much more national clarity than what you’re talking about in the post 9/11 two decades. Ronald Reagan regularly talked about this problem of memory. The line that he used in speeches way before he was a politician, going back to riding the rails for GE trying to explain to workers why you didn’t want Communist organizers taking over labor unions, was that the American experiment depends on people understanding that you’re always only one generation away from the extinction of freedom. It doesn’t get passed along in the bloodstream. You actually have to teach it to the next generation. So a republic requires a sophisticated, almost a theological anthropology about human evil, brokenness, and the fact that the wilderness and the wilds will return if you don’t preserve ordered liberty.

I’ll pull up here, but we haven’t had a meaningful conversation about that except for the first few months after 9/11 when President George W. Bush tried to lead the country effectively in that conversation. But for the better part of the last eighteen, nineteen, or twenty years since 9/11, we’ve had a lot of politicians grandstanding, saying BS like “endless wars,” calling things endless wars that were not endless wars, in the same way that Seoul, Japan, and Germany today are not endless wars. It’s prudent forward deployment and we were effectively suppressing jihadists by having an alliance with a nation that was a lot healthier than what the Taliban had been.

I think your point about historical memory is just incredibly important. For a republic to survive, you need every generation to relearn lessons of wisdom. And you’d rather do that by pedagogy and civics and actual shared stories than by having to go through another national-security crisis. We have a lot of ridiculously immature political leaders who seem totally willing to let a crisis come rather than pre-plan, explaining to the American people what a healthy republic looks like.

Jonathan Silver:

Rich, Senator Sasse makes a very important point, which is that part of the reason it’s so hard for us to understand intuitively the threat that our adversaries pose to us, is precisely because of how successful our men and women in uniform have been, and our intelligence gathering, and everything else. It strikes me that we could very well have been, in this sense, a victim of our own success.

Richard Goldberg:

In some ways that could be true, and I take the point. But I think if you look at the last 10 years, not specifically at Afghanistan, but when we saw the rise of ISIS—with a similar strategic mistake mind you, of a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, which created a vacuum and which was filled by radical jihadists—we had to go back into fight and eradicate the caliphate. We started to see that caliphate organize terrorist attacks, spectacular attacks that were horrifying in Europe, some here in the United States. They used new means to radicalize via the internet, to reach people. We saw this not just from ISIS, but other al-Qaeda elements as well—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), others.

I do think that in those periods we saw the American body politic shift again, where perhaps there was some exhaustion for more, this feeling of “I don’t want to hear about this, I don’t want to hear about Americans dying. I don’t understand why we’re doing this anymore. Nobody’s talking to me about it. Nobody’s reminding me about why this is important on a daily basis. In this 24/7 social-media environment, I’ve lost the plot, so to speak.” But when these events occur, you do see the political will return. Now, perhaps it’s short term, but it’s an opportunity for political leaders to remind people, this is what happens when we make mistakes.

But it’s not like we’ve had twenty years and the American public didn’t support prosecuting a war on terror at all during the entire last decade. I think there were pockets where, in response to attacks that scared us, rightly so, we did take action and our political leadership, backed by the political will, did take action. The question is why has that not been sustained on a more systemic, strategic-level basis? Why does it have to occur only after something bad happens?

Ben Sasse:

Can I jump in there? I think that short-term consumers can’t maintain a republic. If we as a public—tons of blame can be cast on politicians, and that’s where I’m actually going to head here—but I think we just need to start by saying if the public doesn’t actually want to have historical consciousness and a long-term view of why the blessings of liberty that have been secured for us by previous generations are worth investing in and maintaining, then you ultimately won’t succeed in maintaining a republic.

It requires more than just consumers living on social media to steward the blessings of liberty. I think it is amazing how badly politicians have failed to explain what was happening in Afghanistan over the last nineteen years. Because the truth of the matter is, people who do their “endless wars,” bumper-sticker nonsense of both the current and the most recent administration, those folks will use language like the American “invasion.” America did invade in the months after September 2001, and within eleven months there was a new government there with whom we’ve had an alliance and that wanted us to be there, helping make sure that a group like the Taliban couldn’t take control of the country again, a group that’s not in any way the popular representative government of the people. Without us the Taliban would have set up a country that they’ll govern so poorly that they will intentionally or just passively allow the creation of a safe haven for terrorists who aspire to global attack—and whether those people come back is a question that needs to be led by the people’s elected leadership having a long-term conversation.

And in the seventeen months from February of 2020 until July, August of 2021, while we were successfully still crushing different terrorists—a lot of Bin Laden-like wannabees whose names were just not household in America because they never succeeded at taking down a building like the World Trade Center, precisely because our troops and our intelligence operators were so effective—we lost not a single service member in seventeen months in Afghanistan. Name a single metropolitan police department in America where that’s true. The idea that there’s been this endless death and bloodshed in Afghanistan, it’s nonsense. What actually had been happening in the last couple of years is we were decapitating terror organizations again and again, and again and again with remarkably little loss of life compared to just domestic police operations in the U.S.

Jonathan Silver:

Senator Sasse, let me try to press you. Can you explain to us, in a way that leaders of both parties as you have just said haven’t effectively, explain to us how our presence—a forward deployment in Afghanistan that was not a large troop footprint, but our forward deployment there, its intelligence work—how it did serve America’s strategic interests? Let me ask you to do that by responding to a statement that your office released on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. You said that, “We mourn with the children who lost moms and dads, spouses who said last goodbyes and parents who buried their children. We thank them for their sacrifices, and now we teach our kids their stories.” I suppose my question would be what were their sacrifices for?

Ben Sasse:

We lost 3,000 Americans on 9/11/2001 and over the course of the next nineteen years, we lost ballpark 4,000 troops stopping attacks like 9/11 again and again and again and again. The reality is I don’t want any simple math, pragmatic utilitarianism about how to make sense of this, but the troops who lost time and dinners and Little League games away from their families suffered and sacrificed a lot. A lot of our troops and a lot of our operators gave the ultimate sacrifice, they gave their lives. What they did was, for nineteen years, keep groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, the Haqqani network, certain parts of the Taliban that are the most adventurous, and there are more. There are five, six different terror organizations that aspire to seize territory inside Afghanistan to attack nations that believe in universal human dignity, that believe in the rule of law, that believe in, just fundamentally, human dignity and the right of people to self-organize and volunteer as communities and have freedom of worship, speech, assembly.

Those troops did amazingly important work, but we have to understand that the word “military operation” or a word like the U.S. being the world’s “policeman,” requires a whole bunch of distinctions that go deeper than three or four words on a bumper sticker. Should the U.S. be the world’s beat cop? Obviously not. Should the U.S. want to be the world’s detective? Man, it’s been good for us and good for the world for the U.S. to have intel assets on the ground and air fields and special ops that could protect those people. I think the first distinction is to recognize that in a modern world with telecommunications and with global travel, there isn’t a world anymore where something like an ocean shoreline creates an isolated fortress around a country. That’s simply not how the modern world works because it’s shrunk. Time and space have gotten smaller and flatter over the last decades and centuries.

So the truth of the matter is you don’t have a simple choice between mass, large-scale deployment or isolation. There isn’t a choice here between hundreds of thousands of occupying ground troops and zero. We haven’t had a hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan in eleven years. We had 8,000 troops in Afghanistan before Trump drew them down from 8,000 to 2,500. Then Biden wanted to get to zero. Eight thousand troops is a remarkably small number compared to the 35,000, 45,000, and 50,000 we have in South Korea, Japan, and Germany, and we’re not at endless war in those places. We have an alliance, with U.S. air bases and with lots of intelligence-gathering capabilities and with shared training missions that make U.S. majors probably the most important military trainers in the history of humanity.

All over the world, freedom-loving nations have troops that go through the ranks, moving up because of rotations they get to take through U.S. war colleges. What was actually happening on the ground in Afghanistan was not nation building. Whether you want to sell it on idealistic grounds or realist grounds, both of those stories can be fully told because they’re both true. But even if someone’s not as idealistic about it as I might be, or other people might be, on straight realist grounds the cost-effective investment we had with an asset-light footprint that was forward deployed, was saving American lives and saving American’s money.

Jonathan Silver:

It seems to me that in the political debate about America’s presence abroad and America’s presence in Afghanistan, there are incentives that members of both parties respond to such that saying what you just said is not a popular thing to do. It’s not electorally popular for a variety of reasons. What should Americans expect from the political class?

Ben Sasse:

I don’t know that I agree with the premise, but let’s first agree with it and game it out and then I want to add more to it. I think the first thing to say is what you expect from people who have a calling to serve in politics for a time is for them to do their homework, exercise judgment, and explain it plainly. Tell the truth. If it were the case that Americans are really 65-percent or 70-percent or 75-percent isolationist and you get into government and you realize that’s stupid policy which is bad for America, then it’s your job, in a Burkean sense as an elected official, to exercise your judgment. Not to try to take a poll and figure out what you’re supposed to do every minute. If you just want to be a short-termist poll taker and try to stay in the office, then you may as well have a pure democracy and you may as well get rid of small-R republican representative government, and you don’t need to have the Congress meet at all. We can just do polls on every question.

The first thing is that elected officials owe their judgment. But I think the more basic point is we’ve got a ridiculously soundbite-driven, short-termist culture that is not serving our politics well, either in terms of national security or domestic policy. We’ve got a lot of people in politics who don’t actually have any big vision for why America is great and why the American idea is one of the most unprecedented blessings in the history of political organization. It’s your job to steward that and a lot of these people just want a job and they want to, short-term, figure out what looks like it might be popular.

So when the American public is given really small-minded polling questions, it sounds like they’re isolationists because you didn’t give them any context for what the alternatives are, the actual alternatives, in a world where jihadists are not going away next week, next month, next year, or even next decade. Some time jihad may die out as an ideology, but right now the enemy gets a vote and the jihadists who want to kill Americans want to kill Americans and there’s nothing they’d like more than to have safe havens from which to plot the killing of Americans. Politicians like the current president say this nonsense that al-Qaeda is dead. Think about Joe Biden’s shorthand, heading into the 2012 election, of what he wanted to have President Obama say when he was running for reelection: Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive. Well, today al-Qaeda is alive and they’re driving around in American vehicles looking to kill our allies.

That’s what’s actually happening in the world and it isn’t going away just because Biden tries to do some short-term press conference and move on. We know, and I’m not saying anything that’s crossing any intelligence classified line here, we’ve had leaders of the Pentagon say it at Armed-Services [Committee] hearings in the last two or three weeks, that ISIS-K and al-Qaeda are reconstituted organizations that are building and there’s been months to a small, single-digit number of years as the timeline that’s been publicly declared as the time by which they’ll be able to strike across oceans again. When you tell the American people that, it turns out they don’t want short-term nonsense bumper stickers. They’d actually like political leaders to invest in our troops and our intelligence leadership, to actually make sure we decapitate these organizations over there rather than have them bring the fight to us here.

Jonathan Silver:

Senator Sasse, you’ve been eloquent in castigating, criticizing members of both political parties and the political leadership of the United States for failing to think hard about the future threats that our country faces, and instead looking at one another and trying to win the news cycle. What I’d like to do now, in the remaining time that we have, is turn to the section of Rich’s essay in which he looks at the next ten years and the next twenty years and what some of the threats of a reconstituted al-Qaeda jihadist network might pose to the United States. Rich, can you just explain how you saw that part of the threat against us?

Richard Goldberg:

Yeah, absolutely. Now one of the things I did in preparation for the essay, and I hadn’t done it in a while to be honest, I went back and I reread a large part of the 9/11 Commission report. I think actually as a national civic obligation, it’s important at some point for people to go back and read it and listen to what people—experts, bipartisan, leading thinkers, going deep interviewing hundreds and hundreds of people looking at all the mistakes that led to 9/11 with recommendations for the future—what they had said at the time. It’s profound, especially in terms of where we find ourselves today.

One of the things that stood out to me was the criticism, the lack of imagination combined with the lack of prioritization. The lack of imagination that we did not really give the enemy credit for being able to innovate and to attack us in ways that would not be something we expected. As we now sit twenty years later and think about the world as it is today, we have to think about the world as it might be in 2031 and not as it was in 2001, certainly. We have to be thinking about cyber threats, we have to be thinking about EMP threats, threats to the power grid. We have to be thinking about any sort of threat we can think of, that maybe we don’t even know what we don’t know. But we look to, I think, leaders like the senator on the intelligence committee and others to be thinking about cyberspace. The Solarium Commission’s been doing a great job thinking about some of these threats, and there are others.

Obviously, there is the tactical military idea of what are we going to do? The idea of over-the-horizon intelligence capabilities was actually addressed in the 9/11 Commission as one of the failures of the Clinton administration’s strategy for counterterrorism and it dismisses that out of hand as something that’s going to work us. So I don’t hold much hope for that idea, especially in a landlocked country where we’ve seen over-the-horizon capabilities maybe work for 24/7 intel, ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] coverage in other countries, but that’s going to be very, very, very difficult to pull off for Afghanistan. But not just in that element; we need to think what are the other type of threats that will evolve that we need to be prepared for?

Jonathan Silver:

Senator Sasse, before I get you to respond to Rich, let me just ask you to bring into that the fact that, of course, America’s not the only nation that’s interested in the future and fate of Afghanistan. Other nations are too and it is quickly becoming a proxy ground for competition with China. I want you to address that too, if you can.

Ben Sasse:

Yeah, so many good things there. I’ll say something angry about Bagram Air Force Base at the end to your last point. But first I just want to underscore I think three things that Rich said, and some of them are things that the American people should be encouraged by. Namely things like this work of the Cyber Solarium Commission and the work of the Senate Intelligence Committee and how some of that work informs the information and human-capital sharing from the NSA to the CIA.

But first, just picking up on Rich’s really good point about rereading the 9/11 Commission report, one of the fundamental takeaways of that report was the mistake that had been made in the lack of creativity between 1998 and early 2001, in continuing to think about jihad as a problem that could be solved by American law enforcement after the fact, as opposed to by intelligence and special forces preventatively, in advance, not to allow the jihadists to build the capabilities and have the bases and the training operations that they aspired to. I think it was called “the wall” in the 9/11 report, the wall between domestic and international intelligence sharing.

Obviously, based on the mistakes and the abuses of the Kennedy administration, the Johnson administration, and the Nixon administration, the Church Commission in 1974, I think it was, ensured that we didn’t use international intelligence gathering on American citizens at home, and those protections need to be in place. But what happened beyond that is we assumed that any intelligence gathering that might have been gathered by people at places like the FBI, and we now have the National Security Branch at the FBI, that there didn’t need to be any handoffs to the intelligence community. Those were terrible mistakes. There was this wall that was impenetrable when we should have been making sure we were connecting the intelligence that we had about potential jihadists around the world across all of our intelligence agencies.

Today, with the addition of Space Force, we have eighteen intelligence bureaucracies. I’m of the view that we spend too little on intel and we have too little human capital, but we have way too many bureaucracies. We still have a big problem, but across those seventeen, eighteen bureaucracies, among the most important ones—the DIA, the National Security Branch of the FBI and main Justice, the CIA and NSA in particular—there’s quite a lot of good intelligence sharing that’s happening.

What we need to do is be sure that we continue to lead freedom-loving nations around the world in gathering and sharing intel. You saw the AUKUS announcement, something I’d give the administration credit for this last week: the Australia-U.K.-U.S. nuclear submarine plan in the Pacific, that really grows out of relationships that started in intel. The five-eyes space: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, U.S., and to a large degree, Israel, though not one of the English-speaking countries in this. We share so much intel so effectively, that other countries know that there is a way to pursue jihad-intended terrorists, even if they’re mobile across the globe,  and there’s a lot of good work happening there. More work has to be done.

We need better human intel. We are incredibly blessed to have Paul Nakasone, the Army four-star general that runs the NSA, and he’s currently dual-headed as head of cyber command. Some really good things are happening there to try to tackle that former lack of imagination. And the Cyber Solarium Commission, which I wrote the legislation for, we had it be chaired by Angus King, independent Democrat-caucusing senator from Maine, and Mike Gallagher, Republican congressman from Wisconsin. Really good work coming out of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia, is a really good chairman of the Intel Committee. There’s a lot of good things happening in venues that aren’t short-termist because we don’t have cameras. In cyber-planning and in offense and defense doctrine development and in intel oversight, good work is happening because there aren’t cameras. But what we need is public-facing politicians in the legislature, and we need people in the executive branch with enough courage to explain to the American people why these long-term national-security investments are good investments, and we’ve just given away an unbelievably significant strategic asset.

Obviously this conversation has been primarily about counterterrorism and the 9/11 aftermath and now the fall of Kabul, but the number-one existential national-security threat we face over the coming decade is the technological and diplomatic race with an expansionistic Chinese Communist Party. Bagram was an airforce base just West, not just of China in general but West of Xinjiang in particular, a place where there’s a genocide happening in our time and place. We’ve got all these naïve liberals who like to say things about “never forget” as they have ostrich-like moves to look away, to hide, and actively to forget the fact that there’s a genocide happening to the Uighurs right now. And Bagram was a really significant strategic asset we had, hopefully to deter any future conflict with China. But the administration just decided to give it away in pursuit of a bumper-sticker foreign policy. The American people need to demand better.

 

For more at Mosaic on the commemoration of 9/11, see the historian Wilfred M. McClay’s “What the 9/11 Memorials Missed, and What They Revealed.”

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