Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
On the eve of Rex Tillerson’s first diplomatic trip to Moscow, we’ll speak with Russia and national security expert, Tom Nichols, about Russia’s U.S. election meddling, its possible support for the Syrian chemical weapons attack, and more.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with national security expert, Tom Nichols, coming up right now.
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Tavis: Tom Nichols is a professor national security at the U.S. Naval War College. He has written several books on Russia and U.S. foreign policy. His latest book is called “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” We’ll get to that later.
We start, though, with the latest developments in Syria and Secretary Tillerson’s upcoming trip to Russia. Mr. Nichols, good to have you on the program, sir.
Tom Nichols: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Let me start, as I said, right there. So Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his first visit to Moscow as Secretary of State. A lot of times there as head of ExxonMobile, but the first time there as our Secretary of State. What do you expect from this visit tomorrow?
Nichols: It’s hard to know because it’s unclear what the agenda is. Obviously, they have plenty of things to talk about. The strike in Syria, Russia meddling in the election, sanctions, which is what I think the Russians probably want to talk about. But it’s unclear that they went with any kind of definite agenda, especially right in the wake of this strike in Syria.
Tavis: What should be, that’s what could be on the agenda. From your vantage point, what ought to be on the agenda?
Nichols: Of course, representing my own view rather than the government here, my view is that we need to have some kind of new understanding with the Russians about the limits to Russian action, the limits to Russian meddling, not just in Europe. I mean, Ukraine is almost forgotten in all of this, but in our own elections. I think the Russians staged a direct attack on American political institutions and basically got away with it.
Tavis: If the issue that you raised earlier, the issue of Russian’s meddling in our elections, if that issue were to come up, it would be on the agenda, I mean, what’s Tillerson going to say? Where does that conversation go?
Nichols: You know, the problem is the Russians have an easy out to say, well, it wasn’t really us. It was WikiLeaks, it was other agents. We didn’t really have anything to do with it. I mean, either Tillerson has to say, yes, we know it was you or he doesn’t. I’m not sure that conversation goes much further other than us telling — as President Obama did before this — look, we know it was you and this needs to stop.
Because we can’t have a relationship between two peers, between two great powers, based on this kind of interference. And I think the Russians think they’re getting away with this and, so far, they kind of are.
Tavis: Is that basically as far as it can go? We tell them we know you guys did it, don’t do it again, and that’s it?
Nichols: Well, the problem is they’re already under sanctions for so many other things, it’s hard to know what more we can sanction. I think one way we can move forward is to say, look, there are other things coming down the pike here. Again, some kind of negotiation over the Middle East, some kind of understanding of a relationship with NATO.
But, you know, this one, I think with the Russian election meddling, this is one where they got away with it, but they don’t have to keep getting away with this kind of activity. So I think they have to both look toward the future because I don’t think there’s any point in trying to get even in that sense, especially when they’re under sanctions already.
Tavis: So there’s no price for them to pay then?
Nichols: So far, there hasn’t been a price for them to pay. We could try and put more sanctions on them. We could, you know, keep expelling people, but I don’t know that we’re going to get much farther with that, unfortunately.
Tavis: You said earlier the Russians would like to see sanctions on the agenda in what regard?
Nichols: They want them gone. They want the United States to start giving cover to other people who want to lift these things up. There’s a lot of money to be made. The Russians, obviously, are chaffing under this.
Now Putin so far, President Putin of Russia, so far has been pretty successful in telling his people that their miserable situation is because of the Americans in the west. That’s not going to last forever. At some point, even the Russians know that the whole world can’t be right and Russia’s wrong, or the whole world’s wrong and Russia’s right.
So I think there may be some sense there that they want to get those sanctions — again, to get the Americans to kind of lead the way. But they’ve also got to talk to the Germans and the European Union and others about that, but if the Americans break the ice, that’s probably something they’re hoping for. I don’t think they’re going to get it, for what that’s worth.
Tavis: To that last point, you don’t think they’re going to get it. Let me follow up on that because I wanted to go there. I can’t imagine. You’re the expert here, not me. But I can’t imagine, given the dis-ease that Americans already have about the role that Russia might have played in our elections, that there’d be any traction where that politicians would be wise to pursue any activity where we’d be lessening sanctions on Russia right now.
Nichols: Depends on which Americans you’re talking to, obviously, Because I think the president’s supporters don’t much care about this. You know, all during the election, the president said we need to have a better relationship with Russia and I think a lot of supporters said, oh, the Cold War is old news, Ukraine’s far away.
They don’t care about Syria, they don’t care about any of this other stuff. So there may be some constituency out there that says, yeah, just get this off the table.
I think, though, in Congress, that’s not going to be a popular move, especially with people that have been really pressing for some kind of price, either diplomatic or otherwise, for the Russians to pay. They may not pay a further price, but letting them off the hook, I don’t think, is going to fly.
Tavis: It seems to me, Tom, even before you get to talking about price, it’s that these investigations have not run their course yet. We don’t know what happened, who did what, when they did it. We don’t know anything yet, so how could even begin to talk about reducing or letting up on sanctions when there are too many that have not been answered yet?
Nichols: Right. There is no answer to this. There’s been no end to this…
Tavis: Is there going to be an answer to this, you think?
Nichols: I don’t think we’re ever going to get an answer that satisfies everybody. Because I think, you know, Americans have a tendency to think it works the way it does in the movies, right? Where you say, oh, finally, we got the smoking gun or we’ve got the picture of the Russian ambassador dropping a suitcase full of money or something. You’re not going to get that.
I mean, that intelligence work and this kind of interference doesn’t work that way. What you’re going to get is a kind of probable conclusion to say it’s likely with a high degree of confidence that this or that or another thing happened.
I think, for most people and certainly for Congress, that’s going to be close enough to an answer. But I think for people that want 100% certainty, you’re never going to get there because that’s just not the nature of the world. That’s not how these things come out.
Tavis: I think what I have a hard time swallowing — and I think other Americans may feel the same way — is that if you can get, to your point, to a high degree of certainty that Russia did this, then it’s hard to then ask me as a citizen to accept that they’re going to get away with this scot free.
And all we say is, okay, we caught you this time. Don’t do it again, particularly if their involvement in any way impacted the outcome of this election. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Nichols: It’s hard for old Cold Warriors like me to swallow. I mean, I began my career back when there was a Soviet Union. And when the Soviet Union fell, I wanted there to be a better relationship with Russia. I mean, I was really optimistic and trying to be hopeful about this. But I’ve gotten to the point where I think we’re basically in a second Cold War and I feel the same way.
It’s really a tough thing to have to accept that this brazen attack — because the thing that struck me about it was not that it was an attack on our institutions because we’ve played these kinds of dirty games with each other for a lot of years, but it was so brazen. It was almost like they were bragging about it and not even trying to hide it.
That’s the part that really astonished me and I think that they should have paid a higher price. But I think, in the wake of the election and all the others news that’s happened, I think that’s probably not going to happen unless there’s some kind of shocking or really direct revelation out of these Congressional hearings.
Tavis: Would you agree, though, that whether or not Russia pays a price or not, the American people ought not to be given anything less than some answers to what in fact did happen? Put another way, these investigations ought to go forth. There ought to be some results here.
Nichols: Personally, I think so. And I think it would be great if the American people would re-engage on these questions, to remember that Russia is out there, that Russia is a country that does not mean us well.
Just because the Cold War is over, you know, we can’t just sort of turn our backs on it and say that was yesterday and this is today. This is an ongoing problem and I think part of the reason this is happening, part of the reason the Russians have been able to get away with this kind of behavior, is people have been dis-engaging from foreign policy.
They’ve been dis-engaging from things about Russia and China and even from the Middle East to a certain extent. So I hope that these investigations go forward, but more to the point, I hope the American people stay engaged with this and want these things to come to a conclusion.
Tavis: Well, speaking of the Middle East, we’re all in now. We’re back in now in the Middle East at least. So we’ve talked about the meddling in the elections, we’ve talked about the lifting or not lifting of sanctions. Let’s talk then about the Middle East. So as we sit here for this conversation tonight, Russia has moved a ship with cruise missiles off the Syrian border. For what purpose would they do that?
Nichols: To basically show they’re doing something. There’s not much else they can do. They’ve already said all of the angry things they can say. They did step aside during the night of the cruise missile strike because I think they had to. I think there was no way around that. So they’re going to move a ship because that’s how great powers like Russia show their displeasure with things.
So they’re going to move a ship into the area. But unless something changes this situation, I don’t think that’s going to amount to very much. Now a lot of things could change that situation. If the president of Syria, Assad, decides to use chemicals again, we’re going to be in a really new game again. But unless…
Tavis: And Russia would do what?
Nichols: Russia would wonder what we’re going to do next. Because now we’ve laid down — we haven’t called them red lines, but…
Tavis: Well, Sean Spicer, if you can believe what the Press Secretary said — I’m paraphrasing here what Sean Spicer said earlier today at the White House, “If you gas babies, this president is going to respond.” So if Assad does this again, the president’s spokesperson says the president will respond again. And if — these are big ifs, of course — if he gasses babies again, if Donald Trump responds again, then Russia does what?
Nichols: It depends on what the word responds means, right. Because could man almost anything. Could mean we go to the United Nations, we try and increase sanctions, we do another military strike. It’s hard to say. I think a lot of observers of American foreign policy are trying to figure out if there’s a policy in this.
Was this a one-and-done? Was it an emotional reaction from the president? Is this the beginning of a new policy? I think it’s hard to say because it really depends on which administration official is speaking at any given moment.
If this happens again and the Americans say, well, now we’re going to respond, then we’re potentially in a very serious crisis. Because the Russians could say, you know, our guy had to take a beating once, he doesn’t have to take another one.
Tavis: And what might Russia do?
Nichols: Well, they could try and interfere with a strike, try to shoot down cruise missiles, try to move forces in the way of American naval forces. I don’t think they can threaten to retaliate against American forces because then we’re really talking about World War III.
Tavis: But even if they did what you suggested initially, that still pus us in an indirect conflict…
Nichols: Oh, it sure does.
Tavis: With Russia.
Nichols: And it puts us into a mess. It puts us into a real chaotic situation where, you know, things happen. The way bad things happen is usually not by direction. It’s by mistake. That’s actually what I worry about more than anything in these situations where all these people and all these forces are in close proximity to each other.
Somebody doesn’t get the word, somebody fires at the wrong guy and, the next thing you know, we’re in a crisis that neither the Russians nor the Americans wanted, and all sparked by a guy, Assad, who’s willing to do anything to stay in power. He really doesn’t care if it plunges the rest of the world into war.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago, in fairness to you, as one of a series of things, a list of things you laid out, this could have been on the part of the president. One of those things was it could have been an emotional response, could have been. That’s what you said. All right, do you agree or disagree with his decision to drop these 59 Tomahawk missiles on Syria? Good move? Bad move?
Nichols: Well, again, important to point out that I only represent my own view here.
Tavis: So I’m asking your point of view.
Nichols: I agree with the decision because I was actually pushing for this years ago. I always tell people that I date my hope that the United States would intervene in the Syrian war not by the number of years ago, but by the number of deaths ago.
I was pushing for intervention 350,000 deaths ago and I was really hoping the United States — I was hoping President Obama would act, I was hoping that the international community would act. So as far as I’m concerned, the only thing this strike really accomplishes is to pop the bubble of the myth that Assad’s regime is untouchable.
If that’s what it accomplished, then I think that’s a step forward and I think that sends a signal to the international community that this is doable, that there are ways to reach out and touch this regime for doing these terrible things. So I think it was a good first step, but is it a policy? You know, is there something else coming out of this that we can really cheer and support? I don’t know.
Tavis: Let me press back on this because I take your point, but I want to press a bit. We didn’t need to drop 59 Tomahawk missiles on Syria to know that his regime was untouchable. We are the United States of America. There’s no regime in the world that’s untouchable for us if that’s what we decide to do.
I mean, I’m mindful of the edict that it’s not about the right of might. It’s about the might of right. But if we decide that we want to touch somebody, we can touch anybody we want. So why do we have to drop those Tomahawk missiles just to make your point that they’re not untouchable? We know that.
Nichols: Because I think — I think, you know, knowing it hypothetically and seeing it happen…
Tavis: But it’s not hypothetical. If we wanted to wipe Syria off the map, we could do that. So to argue that we needed to drop those Tomahawk missiles just to show that they’re not untouchable, I’m missing something here.
Nichols: We always had the capability. Did we have the will to do it? Because this is an important part of deterrence. Do you have the will to do something? I mean…
Tavis: So it’s not skill? It’s will?
Nichols: I mean, the United States can reach out and touch anybody it wants, let’s face it, with varying degrees of cost. I mean, against a smaller power, no cost, against a larger power, perhaps with great cost to ourselves.
I think Assad actually did this strike because he was trying to establish to the Arab world and to his own people whom he’s trying to terrorize into submission to say look what I can do. Look at the things I can get away with and no one will ever touch me. And it doesn’t matter that America has a new president. It doesn’t matter that, you know, the French are having an election. It doesn’t matter what the Germans or the Russians or anybody else says. I can do this.
Now the damage could be that, if he says, all right, I did this, I got hit and then he does it again and then the Americans step back from their own — we don’t want to call them red lines or guarantees or whatever it is — then he’s going to come out of it looking stronger, to say, well, it really was a one-and-done. But I think up until now, he’s been getting away with saying no one has touched me yet and never will.
Tavis: So Obama made a huge mistake to draw that line that Assad crossed and not do anything about it?
Nichols: I think so. You know, I was behind President Obama in this. I wanted him to do it and I think that he would have had a lot of bipartisan support to do it. I know Congress — I worked in Congress, as you know.
I worked in the Senate years ago. Congress never wants the responsibility for these things. If you turn to Congress and say, “I’m unsure about whether to do this. What do you think?”, Congress is going to say, you know, you’re the president.
So I was really hopeful that President Obama was going to do this in 2013. I think Secretary of State Kerry gave a great speech about it, laying out the rationale. The problem is, if you set that line and then you don’t cross it after something happens, then you’re setting up a lot of bad things to happen.
Tavis: The irony of Congress’s — my phrase, not yours — the irony of Congress’s cowardice about wanting a hands off policy, you’re the president, is that the minute you do that, then they come after you for not getting the war powers…
Nichols: You didn’t ask us!
Tavis: Exactly, exactly [laugh]. So you’re the president. Excuse me. You can’t win for losing on that point.
Nichols: Congress always wants to be in on it when it goes right and have a trap door on it when it goes wrong, to say we didn’t tell you to do that.
Tavis: Precisely. So here’s the other question. In retrospect and even if you’re right about the fact that it was the right thing to do, it sends a message that they’re not untouchable, was it wise to go solo?
Nichols: That’s a great question. I think there was a problem with trying to get the rest of the world onboard because of the time factor. Because one of the problems here is that the longer that goes between the initial offense and the actual strike, the point gets lost.
You know, if it’s two weeks later and there’s a strike, or three weeks, or several debates down the line, then it’s almost like the international community says, wait, why were we doing this again? What happened to…
Tavis: But is it better to be fast or to be right? I think of John Wooden, the great UCLA coach, who said, “Be quick, but not in a hurry.”
Nichols: Well, I think they tried. On this, I think the White House deserves some credit. They tried to shave the difference between those, to say it was fast but small, which leaves the door open to doing it again. On the other hand, it does put you in the position of the rest of the world community which, of course, as you know, have been pretty supportive.
I mean, Canada, people that normally aren’t getting behind things like strikes, have been coming out saying this was a good idea. Well, if you do that and then it happens again and, again, you step back from that, then it’s going to leave the door open.
Tavis: But to your point, they’re saying it was a good idea, but they didn’t join in.
Nichols: And the question arises, if this happens again, will they join in the second time? Because now everybody’s kind of committing themselves to the notion that this was a good idea. Hopefully, we won’t have to test that a second time.
But if chemical weapons are used again, it’s going to be a really important question to the international community. Did you mean what you said, you know, a week ago when this happened? Did you mean what you said that this is a good idea? Because we might have to do it again.
Tavis: Let’s move to the issue of policy then. So we know what we’ve done in terms of strikes. You know, it appears that it’s one-and-done. To your point, what that accomplishes, I don’t know, quite frankly. What ought we be doing on the policy front?
Nichols: I think we need a policy. That’s the problem. On the policy front, it seems like we’re kind of playing catch-up ball. I mean, I think, for example, the person who’s enunciated the most coherent policy so far has been U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Her speeches on this have tended to be, I think, really self-contained, good explanations of what’s going on.
The problem is, the U.N. Ambassador doesn’t set policy. The Secretary of State is the cabinet officer responsible for it and, in the end, it’s always the President of the United States. Whatever the president says is policy.
So I think on the policy front, the first thing the White House should do, in my view, is have a consistent policy across all of its cabinet officers, all of its representatives rather than this kind of where are we today, you know, are we doing regime change? Is this just a chemical weapons response? Because I think it allows our opponents to cherry-pick what they’re paying attention to and it keeps our friends kind of confused.
Tavis: But to your point about Nikki Haley and I could add Rex Tillerson and a few others, it sounds to me like what we’re talking about now is regime change. When we dropped those Tomahawk missiles, it was about punishing him for what he did to his people. Now as I hear her and others, I’m hearing regime change.
Nichols: But then Secretary Tillerson says, “But our policy hasn’t changed.”
Tavis: Yeah. It’s schizophrenic.
Nichols: Again, it confuses our friends and it gives our enemies an out, and I think there has to be some consistency there. And I hope some emerges because this is the kind of situation, once you’ve used force, where there’s a lot of landmines that you’re laying out there for yourself and consistency is a really important guide to getting through maze.
Tavis: Link this conversation that we’ve just had to “The Death of Expertise and the Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters”.
Nichols: Well, in the book, I argue that people have decided they don’t need to listen to experts anymore. You know, the president campaigned against experts. He said pointblank on foreign policy, he said, “What if I didn’t have experts? Would it be so bad?” I was really concerned that he was going to try and prove that point in real time. Now it seems…
Tavis: Some think he has, but I digress [laugh].
Nichols: You know, I think especially in that first month, with the executive order and the phone call to China and other things that really did look this was totally lacking of any kind of expert advice, it looks like he’s learning a lesson that all politicians learn eventually, that there are only so many hours in a day. You need people who know the terrain, who know the subject, who know the issues, who have to advise you.
I mean, I worked for a U.S. senator. Those guys do childcare in the morning, they do nuclear weapons in the afternoon and they do foreign trade by dinner. One person cannot master all those issues. So, hopefully, we’re not going to go down that road here.
But the public, unfortunately, has gotten it into its head that experts are the source of all their problems, whether it’s doctors, whether if’s professors like me, whether it’s journalists like you. They seem to think that experts are the root of all social problems in America now, and they’re just wrong about that.
Tavis: And with all due respect to the public who I depend on to watch this program every night, it’s as if everybody believes now that all opinions are created equal, and everybody is an expert because they can download something on the internet and everybody knows everything.
Nichols: You know, it doesn’t have to be — I would never argue for simply doing whatever experts say. None of us do that. I mean, you don’t go into your doctor and say, “Go ahead, doc. Whatever you want to do.” I think people who watch a program like this are trying to become more informed.
That’s what I suggest people do. Listen to a lot of voices, take in a diverse set of views, read as much as you can. You know, the internet is a great tool. Just be careful how you use it because there’s a lot of great stuff out there. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there.
Tavis: But hasn’t it complicated this notion?
Nichols: It has completely complicated that notion because people think that the second opinion on an expert issue is not to ask another expert. It’s to ask the internet. And the internet, the way that searches, for example, are structured, it’ll give you any answer you want. That’s part of the problem. Or it’ll give you the answer that somebody has figured out how to put first in a search.
It’s kind of the same problem with watching media. You can change the channel. Any time you hear something you don’t like, you can change the channel and you can start hearing something you do like. I think it’s really important to listen to things and read things that you don’t agree with. That’s what keeps you sharp.
Tavis: Is there a campaign against established knowledge?
Nichols: I think in some areas there are. I think, for example, the people who have attacked the idea of vaccines have been very organized about it and have done a lot of damage because there are some diseases that are starting to re-emerge.
I think there have been campaigns on things like GMOs, climate science. There have been people who reject climate science who’ve been very organized about it. So I can’t say there’s an overall campaign against experts, but there are definitely campaigns against expert views even in other forms of medicine and public policy and things like that.
Tavis: The book is called “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters” written by our guest tonight, Tom Nichols. Tom, I appreciate your insights on these complicated world affairs tonight. Good to have you on the program. We’ll do it again.
Nichols: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always — now more than ever — keep the faith [chuckles].
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