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Capehart and Gerson on the Taliban’s march across Afghanistan, dire climate change data

Washington Post columnists Jonathan Capehart and Michael Gerson join William Brangham to discuss the politics of the week including the Taliban’s march across Afghanistan, the latest startling report on climate change and how to convince all Americans to get vaccinated.

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  • William Brangham:

    With Afghanistan falling into the hands of the Taliban, the planet warming to dangerous levels, and the Delta variant running rampant through unvaccinated communities, this week may have felt chaotic to many. It certainly did to me.

    Luckily, to help us make sense of it all, we have the analysis of Capehart and Gerson. That's Jonathan Capehart and Michael Gerson, both columnists for The Washington Post. David Brooks is on vacation.

    Gentlemen, very good to see you. Thank you for being here.

    Jonathan, I want to start first with Afghanistan.

    You heard the ambassador from Afghanistan saying the sense is that they feel abandoned by the Biden administration, by the American government more broadly. The Taliban has basically galloped to complete, near complete control of that country. What do you make of all of this?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, it's horrifying, what we're seeing. I don't — I can't speak for anyone but myself.

    But to wake up to the news that the Taliban has basically retaken — excuse me — Southern Afghanistan and most of the country in a matter of days is shocking.

    What's happening to the Afghan people is shocking. What's happening to the Afghan people who helped the United States and the allied forces is horrific.

    I interviewed former Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland this morning, and I asked her, was he surprised by how messy and chaotic this is? And she said, listen, whether the United States had gotten out two years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 18 years ago, it was bound to be messy and chaotic.

    But I don't know if anyone really anticipated that it would look like this.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael, is that your sense as well, that it — that we're simply talking about the time frame here? I mean, could this departure have been managed any differently, in your mind?

  • Michael Gerson:

    I think you have to step back a step.

    This is a case where offensive combat operations for the United States ended in 2014. This was a residual force that was left to do two things, support the Afghan military and to fight al-Qaida. They had a C.T. role. They were doing that quite well. They were — risk of casualties quite low.

    There was a cost to that, but the cost that we are incurring now is far greater than the cost of maintaining 3,000 troops in the circumstance like this. We have troops all over the world. So, this was a completely unnecessary choice on the part of the president.

    NATO wanted us to be there. The Afghans wanted us to be there. No one was demanding us to leave. And so I think it was a mistake at that level, one level back.

  • William Brangham:

    President — go right ahead.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Well, I was going to say, I don't know if it's fair to say that no one wanted us to leave, when we know that a majority of the American people had been saying for years that they wanted U.S. military personnel out of Afghanistan.

    So, I just wanted to make that point.

  • William Brangham:

    But President Biden did say he wanted to have this anniversary of September 11, the symbolic day of when we initially got into Afghanistan, to be out.

    And the argument is that maybe we have really bungled that and imperil so many Afghan civilians, to think about the Taliban taking back over that country.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right. And that gets back to my original answer, which is what is happening in the country right now is horrific.

    I interviewed Hugh Hewitt, the conservative — our conservative colleague at The Washington Post, another columnist, who said: "Jonathan, it's not messy and chaotic. It's catastrophic."

    I disagree with Hugh on just about everything, but, on that one, I cannot — I cannot disagree.

    But for the American people, who want our people home, and to stop spending what we're spending there, for them, this is — it's a catastrophic choice, but it's a choice that they have been asking for.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about this U.N. climate report that came out Monday.

    This was a synopsis of the existing science. So, on some level, if you have been following this, it's nothing new, but yet it was such a red alarm bell for many. It basically said that we have this closing window of time to act to avert some of the more catastrophic impacts of climate change.

    This comes out while the Senate is negotiating the major infrastructure bill of the Biden administration, which would give the Biden administration many of the tools to fight climate change.

    Michael, is it your sense that this report either stiffens the spines of the Democrats and/or brings any Republicans to an agreement that, yes, we have to address this issue?

  • Michael Gerson:

    I think that's, unfortunately, unlikely.

  • William Brangham:

    Both those things?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Yes.

    I think this is a case — it's a hard issue under any circumstances, because you're making current sacrifices for future benefits. And you're not — a politician can't come out and say, we're going to solve the problem. All he can say is, we can mitigate it slightly less — or more.

  • William Brangham:

    That is not a winning political strategy.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right. Exactly. It's just inherently difficult.

    But it is also the issue, the first warning bell issue that we saw develop, this kind of anti-science, anti-truth attitudes within a significant portion of the Republican coalition. It started on this issue, and it's metastasized to a lot of other issues. And that is a huge challenge for our country.

    We have a significant portion of people that don't accept expertise, that don't accept the possibility of accessible truth.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, do you see it the same way, that this report doesn't really move anyone substantially?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    No, it doesn't.

    But the context in which this report came out, though, sort of highlights why the dire warnings need to be heeded. It comes out when Greece is on fire, the Pacific Northwest is on fire. Right now…

  • William Brangham:

    Hottest July on record.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right, hottest July on record, super severe storms racing across the country.

    I think that Democratic spines have already been stiffened when it comes to climate change. I agree with Michael. It's not going to change anything really when it comes to Republicans, although there is a story out in The New York Times this afternoon about how what is happening in terms of climate change is changing some Republicans' minds, but not on the basis of, let's protect the planet, but on the basis of, well, what can we do to protect the fossil fuel industry?

    I guess you can say any port in the storm to get something done on climate change in the United States, but that's that's not a huge swathe of Republicans who are coming on board.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael, does this seeming inability to address this in a meaningful way make you despair for our ability as a democracy to tackle these big generation-long problems?

  • Michael Gerson:

    I wish I could be more positive.

    I mean, this is a case where we can't get a significant portion of the American public to take a miracle drug that will save their lives in order to — because of their problems they have with the truth. It's hard under that circumstance to imagine people thinking decades into the future about the possibility of harm.

    I think human beings in general are very, very good at thinking about weeks and months of future consequences. I think it's much harder, when you look at the research, for people to think about decades and centuries of consequences.

    So, it would take real leadership, probably from the Republican side somehow, in order to get the kind of change that would be necessary. There are 70 members of the conservative Climate Caucus in the House of Representatives.

    It's not as though no people exist, but it would take a real sea change.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael is obviously touching on the issue of the vaccine and the incredible politicization we have seen over this.

    And I think — I asked Anthony Fauci about this yesterday, this feeling many of us felt that we were finally getting our hands around the pandemic and that we could maybe start to emerge from this.

    And then the Delta variant surges forward, and it reveals how vulnerable all those unvaccinated communities in this country are, and that we have, as Michael is saying, politicize this miraculous piece of medicine that we can all benefit from.

    Do you think we're going to get out of this morass? Are we going to convince enough Americans to get vaccinated?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I pray that we do, William, but the politicization of this vaccine, of this pandemic, of mask-wearing is probably one of the biggest shames of a shameful presidency, that you had President — you had then-President Donald Trump, who made it almost a symbol of manhood by not wearing a mask, and thereby convincing a lot of people that it was a hoax, that this was a hoax.

    Even when he got it himself, even getting the vaccine himself, not taking the extra step out there to say, get the vaccine, save your — save your life, protect your family, protect your community, and he didn't do that. And now we have gotten to a point — excuse me — where this pandemic is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and that you have states in our country that are — you have Republican governors who are actively putting people's health at risk, putting the public health at risk.

  • William Brangham:

    By blocking mask mandates and…

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    By blocking — yes, yes, putting children in danger in schools, for political gain.

  • Michael Gerson:

    It is hard to deal with in American politics.

    I completely agree with you. If our goal is, we need 50 percent of people to go up to 70 or 75 percent of people, and you have the governors of two of the largest states in the country that are preventing community institutions from pursuing lifesaving methods, that is killing people.

    And we're not used to that, dealing with that kind of thing in politics. But I — it has to be called out. It's a kind of — it's a lethal political development in our common life.

  • William Brangham:

    We try to usually end with a little bit of optimism. Neither of you have delivered optimism today.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    I forgive you.

    We will welcome you back next time.

    Michael Gerson, Jonathan Capehart, thank you.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, William.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Thank you.

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