When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

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Chris Harnisch: The ‘Surrender’ of Afghanistan

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Chris Harnisch: The ‘Surrender’ of Afghanistan

Chris Harnisch was the Deputy Coordinator for Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department during the Trump Administration. Among other various national security roles, he also was the Director for Transnational Threats and the Director for Afghanistan at the National Security Council.

Chris also is a part of the Army reserves. He served for 14 months in Kabul, Afghanistan, and worked for an intelligence task force that focused on corruption, organized crime, and insurgency.

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Chris Harnisch:

I think in large part the military went over we did what we were what we went over there to do, which was to eliminate a terrorist safe haven. And we were continuing to prevent a terrorist safe haven at a relatively low cost. But at the end of the day, because of political decisions, we ended up losing the war, and I think it's a really, really tough pill to swallow. For those of us that serve there, those of us that are still serving, and I think like I said, for potential recruits as well.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

My guest today is Chris Harnisch, who held various national security roles within the Trump Administration, including the Deputy Coordinator for Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department, and as the Director for Transnational Threats for the National Security Council.

While at the NSC, he also served as the Director for Afghanistan.

I asked him to come on the show to talk about his experiences in the final days of the Trump administration, and to offer his insights on America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Chris, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Chris Harnisch:

Thanks, Ken. Great to be here.

Ken Harbaugh:

So I want to set the stage first and get a little of your personal context. Because I realize I'm talking to my fellow vet, an OEF veteran. You served on the ground, in the army in Afghanistan. Can you share a little bit of your journey, your professional journey, and especially how that time on the front line set you apart from your colleagues at the State Department?

Chris Harnisch:

Sure, happy to. So I think a couple points that are important to highlight here for the purposes of this conversation, for the purposes of your audience's awareness is number one, I am a veteran. I don't want to portray myself as having fought on the front lines. I did not. I don't want to take away from those that did by saying that I did. I was located in Kabul, I was an intelligence officer. I'd say 80% of what I did was working behind a desk doing intelligence analysis for a counter corruption, counter organized crime, counterinsurgency task force. That being said, I was there for 14 months.

I think being there on the ground gave me a tremendous perspective that helped me both from a counterterrorism perspective in subsequent roles. And also, when I was at the NSC, it certainly helped me, I think, bring a unique perspective to my role as director for transnational threats and director for Afghanistan I think that policy makers, wherever they're serving, whether it's in the executive branch, the legislative branch, I think that if they're serving a national security role, I think it's kind of stating the obvious here, but they derive a lot of value of benefit from having spent time on the ground if they are in fact veterans.

So one thing I'd certainly like to see more of, over the course of my lifetime, is more veterans engaging in public service. Whether that's running for office and taking seats in Congress, or whether that's serving in civil service roles throughout the government. I think that having that unique vantage point of having served on the ground, working with foreign partners, understanding how the military works, understanding how the inter-agency coordinates with one another, that's all just invaluable experience and perspective.

Ken Harbaugh:

How rare was that experience of being in uniform in a combat zone when you came back and found yourself at the NSC or at the State Department? Were there ever moments where you found yourself translating for the civilian establishment?

Chris Harnisch:

So at the NSC, about 90 to 95% of the directors at the NSC, are actually detailed from other departments and agencies. So many are detailed from the DOD, either as civilians or as uniformed personnel. I myself was actually detailed there as an Army Reserve Officer that was mobilized in detail to the NSC. So at the NSC, you have quite a few people who actually have had on the ground experience in some sort of hostile environment, be it Afghanistan, or Iraq or Syria or other places like Yemen or the Horn of Africa. Likewise, at the State Department, it was probably a lower number of colleagues that had served in combat zones.

But certainly we had a number of diplomats and other colleagues there that had spent time in combat zones. And I frankly found those that had served overseas, whether it was in uniform or whether they served overseas to civilians, I found that it was actually, it was very easy to work with them. Oftentimes, even if we didn't necessarily agree on everything, because we had that shared experience, we were able to understand each other's perspective a lot better. And I do certainly tip my hat to all those diplomats, intelligence officers, USA ID officers who have served in difficult environments.

One of my former professors at Yale, a guy I think probably your audience knows well, General Stanley McChrystal, one thing that he was always very keen to point out was that we should celebrate the service of not only those who have served in uniform overseas, but those who have also served as civilians overseas as well. So I certainly was very grateful and appreciative of those civilians I served alongside in Afghanistan, and that I served alongside of the State Department, NSC, who had experience in combat zones.

Ken Harbaugh:

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan is still fresh on everyone's minds. Frankly, I hope it stays that way. I hope we spend a lot of time thinking about what we did and failed to do there. But given how new this experience still is for you. What is your short take, your hot take on our withdrawal? You've written a little bit about it in the aftermath. But can you weigh in on that for us?

Chris Harnisch:

Ken, I've just got to say it was devastating when it happened. It was saddening, and it made me angry at the same time. It was about a month ago, a little over a month ago that the surrender happened. And I don't even want to call it a withdrawal because yes we withdrew, but we really surrendered. We surrendered to the enemy. And it was so avoidable. We could have avoided this. There were just a series of just devastating political decisions, through multiple administrations that led to this ultimate surrender, and handing the country back to a group that was our enemy, and that hosted terrorists that killed 3000 Americans, and have killed many others around the world.

I think it was devastating, on so many different levels. On a personal level, having spent time there, it was devastating to see what's happening to the country. I think, a lot of veterans I know feel the same way. I think it was devastating from a national security perspective as well. I think that kind of from a counterterrorism perspective, we took a major step backwards by handing a country over to a group that's going to provide, or has historically provided safe haven to terrorists. I think we handed the global Islamic jihadist movement, a massive, massive victory. I think we'll probably see flows of foreign terrorist fighters headed to Afghanistan here in the coming months and years ahead.

I think from a macro strategic perspective it is also devastating. I think so because we lost a lot of credibility. I think the next time we decide, or the next time we have to fight a war, I think countries are going to question whether or not they want to partner with us and ally with us. I think we really did our NATO allies a disservice with the way we withdrew and without giving them a heads up in advance and giving them time to prepare properly.

I think from a human rights perspective, it's devastating. Clearly, we've already seen a number of egregious human rights violations by the Taliban since they've taken over the country. From a women's rights perspective, it's really devastating for very, very obvious reasons. I also think that it's going to have serious ramifications for our military, military recruitment. That's something that I am still very concerned about. I'm still in the reserves today, and I'm concerned about our ability now to attract new recruits, young recruits, to the military, when they see that if they were to sign up and they were to deploy, and they were to be willing to give their life for the country, all that might not be worth it in the end. The political leadership could pull the plug on their efforts. And I think at the end of the day, I'm going to put this really bluntly, and I don't certainly don't mean to offend anybody by saying this, but people don't want to play for a losing team.

I think from a military recruiting perspective, it might be a hard pill for them to swallow to go sign up to basically play for a team, fight for a team that just lost a 20 year war. When, and I need to emphasize this, when we didn't have to lose that war. We really didn't. I think go back to as recently as 2018 and the Taliban only controlled 4% of the country. And it was relatively stable throughout the country. Since going back to I think, 2014, when we moved into a train, advise, assist mission. All this was avoidable.

I think in large part the military went over we did what we were what we went over there to do, which was to eliminate a terrorist safe haven. And we were continuing to prevent a terrorist safe haven at a relatively low cost. But at the end of the day, because of political decisions, we ended up losing the war, and I think it's a really, really tough pill to swallow. For those of us that serve there, those of us that are still serving, and I think like I said, for potential recruits as well.

Ken Harbaugh:

You alluded to failures across multiple administrations. I really hope you can provide some detail there. Because you served as the director for Afghanistan, for the NSC under the Trump administration. When did those failures really come to a head? You used the word surrender often. Do you place enough responsibility on the Trump administration for the Doha agreement? And cutting out the Afghan government?

Chris Harnisch:

I do, yes absolutely. I think that was a massive, massive strategic mistake. When we look at the course of the war over the past 20 years, you can pick out a few of the really kind of watershed mistakes and errors, and I think that's probably number one or number two. I think ultimately the final withdrawal, the final surrender in August of this year, I think the way that went about, I think that was obviously the largest strategic failure of the war. But I'd say number two was probably the way we went about negotiating with the Taliban and the Doha agreement, and to your point, Ken, cutting out, not including the Afghan government in that process.

I think that with regards to your question on when things kind of took a turn for the worst, I'd say that when General McMaster was the national security adviser, I thought that he and his team (and I was not at the NSC at this point, I'm talking 2017 timeframe) I think he and his team there, I thought that they put together a very strong South Asia strategy, that was going to bring relative stability to Afghanistan. I can't remember the exact number of troops that we would have stationed in Afghanistan. But it wasn't huge numbers.

He was also very certain to make sure that all decisions with regards to troop numbers were based on conditions on the ground and not on timelines. They put a big emphasis on pressuring Pakistan to stop their support for the Taliban. So that was ‘17 timeframe. I think that the Trump administration was going in the right direction then. Then it was probably mid 2018, late 2018, where things really kind of started to take a turn for the worse. We were negotiating with the Taliban, through the Doha process. And the Taliban got everything they wanted in that negotiation, and I don't think we got much of anything at the end of the day. The legitimate government of Afghanistan that we had supported, we made sure that they were not included in the negotiation, which was just a terrible mistake.

Then another massive mistake in that political process, something that I was at the State Department when this was happening, it really bothered me at the time. And in retrospect I think I was right to be bothered by it, and that was the prisoner release part of the deal. Where basically, the Taliban had requested that the Afghan government release I believe it was 5000 Taliban fighters from prison. I can't remember the exact number of Afghan soldiers that the Taliban was required to release was a lot lower, I think was 1000 or 2000 somewhere at that level. And so sure enough, the US government, really kind of twisted the arm of the Afghan government into releasing these Taliban fighters. And when you release 5000 Taliban fighters at a time when the Taliban is gaining momentum in the country. That's just a massive jolt of support to the movement. And we know, it's been written about publicly quite a bit. that a number of those individuals that were released, went back to the battlefield. Some went right back to the battlefield without skipping a beat, some took leadership positions.

So again, I think a lot of just colossal strategic errors with the Doha agreement. I've served in the Trump administration, and I think I'm proud of a lot of what we did in the Trump administration, frankly, on a lot of fronts. But just objectively speaking, there's no way that you can let President Trump off the hook for what happened in Afghanistan.

But that being said, I think the ultimate decision to withdraw was left up to President Biden. He had his choice. He could have done a lot to kind of prevent the colossal collapse that occurred there in August, and at the end of the day he didn't. So to circling back to your question Ken, yes, I think President Trump deserves quite a bit of blame. But at the end of the day, the buck stops with Joe Biden on this one. And I think he deserves the preponderance of the blame for how things turned out though.

Ken Harbaugh:

I just want to make sure when we're floating words like surrender, that we understand the historical context and how that was a timeline, and the acquiescence to every single Taliban demand began in the previous administration. That's your reading as well, right?

Chris Harnisch:

Look, yes the path to surrender certainly started in the Trump administration.I can't put an exact date on it. But I would say probably that 2019 timeframe? Yes, that is when the path of surrender started. And it was, like I said, avoidable. I wish we had avoided it. If we look at the timeline, you're absolutely right.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I want to pick that apart as well, because the presumption there, and you said this straight up, is that this war was winnable. You talk about wanting to be part of a winning team. And I'm just wondering if that misunderstands the nature of our conflict there and what we were actually capable of doing in your mind, what would victory in Afghanistan have looked like after 20 years of empty promises?

Chris Harnisch:

So there was never going to be a surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri. Nothing that would ever look like that was going to happen on either side, right? We weren't going to surrender like that, nor was the Taliban. But what I do think that victory would have looked like is relative stability in a country in which there's not a significant terrorist threat to the US homeland. And I do think that we had reached that point. I think that we probably had to keep a small number of troops and ask our NATO allies to keep a small number of troops present there in an advise and assist role.

I think that it would have done us a lot of good to also keep some contractors on the ground, that we're providing basically, real basic maintenance support to aircraft so that the Afghan Air Force could continue operating. We've got to keep in mind that the Afghan National Army who we trained, we trained them to fight with air support, and we also trained them to fight with medevac support, and when we withdrew, we also pulled out our contractors that were basically maintaining those aircrafts. I think keeping a small intelligence presence on the ground would have also gone a long way, because the Afghan National Army was also trained to leverage our intelligence support. So that's the long way of saying that I think victory was largely achieved.

There wasn't going to be a day where you wake up and say, "Oh, we won the war." But I think that we would have, we did achieve what we went there to do. Which was to make sure that Afghanistan was not a safe haven for terrorism to launch attacks against the United States or allies. And I think we probably would have just required a very small presence and enduring commitment in order to maintain that victory that we had achieved.

Ken Harbaugh:

I guess the question most Americans would ask is, but for how long? I take it you have a problem with the term forever war?

Chris Harnisch:

I do. I think it's a misnomer, for several reasons. But the first of which is that when you use the word war, you're insinuating that there's active combat going on, on a regular basis. That our troops are engaged in active combat, and the reality is that US troops were not engaged in active combat, and they weren't going back until, like I said, I think it was 2014. It may have been 2015. But it happened under the Obama administration that we largely transitioned to an advise and assist, train, advise, assist role, as well as conducting air support and counterterrorism strikes without special forces. So yes, I think that the term forever wars is misleading.

To your question, ‘how long would we have to stay there?’, I think, it all would be conditions based, but I don't think it would be unreasonable to have a small presence there for quite some time. Years or decades, just like we have in so many other places where the United States military has gone and fought and won wars. Whether it be parts of Europe, Korea we never fought in Japan, but we've got a presence in Japan. Certainly places like Kosovo, and we've still got, I think it's the Pennsylvania National Guard that's still on regular rotations for peacekeeping missions in Kosovo.

So I think, yes, we'd have to keep a small presence there for quite some time. And I think it would probably come at a relatively low cost in terms of blood and treasure. And that's not to say that, anytime you say something like in terms of blood and treasure it can come off as if you're dismissing the sacrifice of those that would end up being casualties. And so I don't mean to dismiss the fact that, yes, there would be some cost in blood. I think, and those and you'd never want to see that. But I think it would be a relatively low cost in comparison to the returns that we'd be getting from that sacrifice.

Ken Harbaugh:

I guess the challenge I have with that analysis and the comparison to Kosovo, or Japan or Germany, is that Afghanistan is a fundamentally different conflict where you have a massively resourceful, at least in terms of manpower, enemy that has a safe haven across a border that as the fall of Afghanistan proved was poised to take over very quickly. I think there is something to the argument that the fall of Afghanistan, and how quickly it happened proved just how naive we were all along about the country.

Chris Harnisch:

So I think that you're right that Afghanistan is a fundamentally different place than those other countries. And I think if you look back at the history of Afghanistan, it's a place where there's never been perpetual peace. There's always been going back hundreds of years. I'm thinking back to the 17, 1800s right now. There's always been tribal conflict or conflict between ethnic groups throughout the country. Some of them have been more intense, some of them have just been small skirmishes. But it's never been a totally 100% peaceful country. And I don't think that- I think we'd be wishing or dreaming in chocolate rivers if we thought that Afghanistan was ever going to be a Jeffersonian democracy or as stable as a place like Germany or Japan. But that's not what we were striving for. What we were striving for was to keep the place stable enough that it's stable enough, and secure enough that terrorists did not have a safe haven there.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to pivot because you have redirected your attention, just in looking at your recent interviews and writings, to a different kind of terrorist threat, and that's domestic terror and white supremacy. I would imagine that January 6 was a bit of a forcing function for your thinking there. Am I right?

Chris Harnisch:

Well, look, I think January 6 was one of the darkest days in American history. I think it's probably certainly shaped my thinking a little bit more on this issue. But frankly speaking, my focus on the issue really picked up quite a bit in the summer of 2019. That was the summer which we had, within the course of a week, three mass shootings in the United States that had ties to political violence or political ideologies, or at least that was what the initial investigations suggested. So I'm thinking of the El Paso attack, there was an attack in Gilroy, California and there was an attack in Dayton, Ohio. Certainly the El Paso attack had ties to a very clear white supremacist motive, in which the perpetrator posted a manifesto online that laid out his ideology, which was a white supremacist neo-nazi ideology in which he held great reverence for other white supremacist terrorists. The two other attacks that summer, it was a little bit more ambiguous what the actual root cause or what the motivation was. But it was that summer of 2019, when I was deputy coordinator of counterterrorism at the State Department. When we said, we have got to take action, we've got to do more on this threat.

I should also mention that that El Paso attack, those three attacks, came on the heels of the Christchurch mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand. I think it was in March of 2019. So that's really when I started to focus very heavily on the issue. And when my colleagues at the State Department and throughout the executive branch really started to focus very intently on the issue and devising strategies and plans to combat this emerging threat. Certainly, I think that January 6 was a culmination of a lot of what we were seeing. January 6, it didn't fit exactly in line with these other types of attacks that I was referencing. I think they were other dynamics in the January 6 attack that kind of separated it a little bit from these other white supremacist neo-nazi attacks. But January 6 was certainly a day that I think, continues to shape our thinking on this problem set.

Then also it is a day that has I think brought a lot more attention around the country to this threat. I saw one poll that I think it was 65% of Americans now view domestic terrorism as a greater threat. Or they're more fearful of domestic terrorism than international terrorism. And I think that poll was done in March of 2021. So I think January 6 definitely brought more attention to this threat than had been previously. But we had certainly been focused on the threat for several years now.

Ken Harbaugh:

In the wake of El Paso, And Dayton and the other racially motivated attacks, did you feel that at the highest levels of the Trump administration, the threat was being taken seriously enough?

Chris Harnisch:

So what I can tell you is that that summer, we held multiple meetings at the White House on this issue. And there were meetings at a senior level. They were not meetings in which the President would attend. Typically, regardless of the administration, the president would not have not attended meetings at the levels at which these meetings were being had. But certainly, there was focus on this threat amongst senior officials within the White House. And I can wholeheartedly tell you that colleagues, throughout the inter-agency, and by the inter-agency I mean, the other executive branch departments and agencies that are focused on national security issues and homeland security issues, were keenly focused on this threat as well.

Ken Harbaugh:

Were they empowered? Were they enabled and encouraged? Because the public face of the administration at that time included statements like ‘good people on both sides’ or ‘proud boys stand by’. How do you square the two?

Chris Harnisch:

Well, what I can say is that at the State Department, we certainly had the Secretary's full support in what we're doing. At the end of the day we were the first administration that designated a white supremacist group, and its leaders, as terrorists. It was secretary Pompeo who signed that designation. It was our team in the counterterrorism bureau that put the package forward to him, and he signed it and he released a statement condemning white supremacist terrorism. We knew what our role in the authorities were and what our responsibility was at the State Department. And I can say without equivocation that we had the support of the secretary.

And when we move forward with the designation of that white supremacist group. I called members of Congress to tell them what we're doing (Republican members of Congress, I should say) and receive their support. And I also notified the West Wing what we were doing and received their support. I can't talk to the type of response that other departments and agencies got from the White House. I just don't know. I wasn't there, I wasn't in those conversations. I never received an iota of pushback from anybody in the White House, or any of the senior leadership of the State Department when we moved forward with these efforts.

Now, Ken I think you raise a really good point, that there were some very, very unfortunate things that the President said that I think definitely ended up being inspiration for those that adhere to the white supremacist neo-nazi ideology. And you hit on one of them when he said, I think he actually hit on both of them when he said there's ‘fine people’ on both sides after the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally. And then when he told the proud boys to stand back and stand by, as a counterterrorism professional, I view those two days when he made those statements as two of the worst days in the Trump administration. The worst day in the Trump administration, of course, was January 6, which certainly the President had a leading role in bringing people to the Capitol and inciting an instruction at the Capitol. I think we'd be lying to ourselves and to others to pretend that he didn't have a leading role. So that's the long way of saying Ken that I personally executed my roles and responsibilities as a counterterrorism professional at the State Department, I kept administration informed, I kept the senior leadership informed. We never received pushback. But I think it is safe to say that the movement itself, the white supremacist, neo-nazi movement, drew inspiration from words of the president.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm glad you landed there, because I was going to push hard to make a distinction between well intentioned policies, and it sounds like there were some. And providing moral support and quarter to terrorists. You started by drawing a very tenuous line between, I'll quote, “Unfortunate things the President said that ended up being inspiration to the unequivocal assignment of responsibility for inspiring an insurrectionist mob.” I think we have to be clear about that. It wasn't unintentional.

Chris Harnisch:

Yea look, I'll also say this: I've never met Donald Trump. I don't know what's in his head or in his heart. What I can say right now though, in early October 2021, is that the domestic terrorist threat to our country is as strong and as formidable as it has ever been. And I don't see that subsiding. I don't see that abating anytime soon. And I think one of the main reasons for that is because the movement feels like it has top cover, they feel like they have political top cover. They feel like they're being legitimized. They feel like they're being legitimized through both political leadership through commentators that are on political talk radio and on cable news. I think it's extraordinarily disheartening that we don't have more republicans that are willing to speak up and speak out against what happened on January 6, but also white supremacist terrorism at large. It's interesting, because back in the early 2000s, mid 2000s, when Islamist terrorist attacks would happen. A lot of commentators, a lot of politicians would... They would say, we need Muslim leadership to speak out and condemn these attacks, and speak out against violence and whatnot. And over the course of time, I think much of the Muslim community did. And you look at polls and surveys about the Muslim community's views on violence from about 2010 onward, and it's very low. And a lot of religious leaders, both in the United States and abroad, would make statements condemning terrorism and the use of violence to achieve religious or political and state. And right now, I just don't think we're seeing enough of that from the political right. And that gives a lot of these adherents. It gives them what they view as top cover and legitimacy. And I saw a poll that came out of the University of Chicago just very recently, it found that something like 9% of Americans believe that violence is justified to return Donald Trump to office. That should be alarming to any American that 9% of our population, almost a 10th of our population, believes that it's okay, that violence is okay to return somebody to office. And just to kind of put things in perspective here. In 2013 9%, of Iraqis believe that suicide bombings were justified to defend the religion and to achieve religious end state. So the same number of Iraqis in 2013 that thought that suicide bombings were justified, is the same number of Americans today that believe that violence is justified to return somebody to office.

To me, that's not a perfect apples to apples comparison, but I think it is telling enough that all Americans should be very concerned. And the reason I point out this 9% number is just to give the audience an idea of what size or what the chunk of the American population that does think that political violence is okay. And I think that we can push back against that. If we were to have political leaders, especially on the political right, who would speak out against this.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's no mystery why they are not having- had a couple of election cycles now in which to observe the behavior of senior Republican political leaders, and they need this part of their base to stay in power, because it is an increasingly minoritarian party. My question for you is understanding why they're doing it, I can't understand what they think is going to happen in the long run. This does not end well in any calculation.

Chris Harnisch:

What the political leaders who aren't speaking up, what they think is going to happen in the long run?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. What's going to happen to their party, to their country, to themselves? You already have republicans being driven out of office by the crazies in their party, and it's just getting worse. There is no energy for moderation. It's just a downward spiral and downward spirals don't reverse themselves.

Chris Harnisch:

Look, I don't know what their long term calculus is. I think that their short term calculus is pretty obvious. I think they don't want to upset one person. They have fealty.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's really that simple.

Chris Harnisch:

I think so. And that they don't want to upset one person, because they are afraid that that one person has so much power that he can derail their political career, and these people are putting their political careers over the safety and security of their neighbors, frankly. Which is sad. What their long term calculus is, I don't know. I think oftentimes, people aren't necessarily focused on the long term, they're so focused on the short term. And so they're making these short term calculations. I'll tell you, though, as a Republican, it makes me very fearful for the state of our party.

I think that we're going in a direction that I'm certainly a bit concerned about. And I think it's a downward spiral right now. I think there are a lot of very good leaders within the Republican Party still. But the more that we kind of play into racist, and extremist sentiments, the more the party loses its credibility. And I think you're also going to have a large chunk of individuals, not willing to be a part of the party anymore. Now frankly, I still believe in the republican ideals upon which the republican party has stood for so long. Individual liberty, individual responsibility, strong national defense. And I hope that the party can, I hope that it can circle back to those ideals and be willing to, frankly, stand for what's right.

Ken Harbaugh:

There doesn't seem to be a lot of motivation for that. If anything, the strategy seems to shrink the tent, but shore up the electoral machine, the process to ensure that even with a minority of voters, power can still be retained. Are you that pessimistic? And look, we've had election experts on here. I know this isn't your bag. But we've had an election around the corner. And I guess the question I'm getting to is, what is the worst case scenario in your mind? And it might be a return of Republican control?

Chris Harnisch:

Look, this is tough for me because- look I'm not just to be clear, I'm not a political scientist. And I'm not really very skilled at reading the political tea leaves here.

I'll tell you where my hesitation is coming in here Ken, is that, frankly I think that Joe Biden and his administration have not done a whole lot of good for the country over the past nine months. And so I think you're headed into a situation in 2022 where there is going to be, I think, quite a bit of voter backlash against the Democratic Party in 2022. So I think you probably end up having republicans take back at least one of the two houses in 2022. And my hope is that the republicans that do come into office in 2022, that they are true republican conservatives that are putting the ideals of the party in the constitution above fealty to one person, and I hope they also are individuals that are able to reject the most extreme parts of the party.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, as you well know, hope isn't a strategy, and as a card carrying Republican, do you see the moderates in a position to do that, or man, do you see what I see, which is the moderates being purged? We just lost- We're about to lose Anthony Gonzales in Ohio, you've got primary challengers against anyone who's standing up to President Trump. It seems like hoping against hope that moderation is going to return anytime soon, much less in 2022.

Chris Harnisch:

I don't know. I don't know. I guess time will tell. I'd like to see, personally I'd like to see some of the more moderate candidates succeed here. And I think we toss around this term ‘moderate’ a lot. I'm not necessarily, I want to be very clear here. I'm a republican and when I say moderate, I think there's-

Ken Harbaugh:

How about a pro-democracy?

Chris Harnisch:

There we go.I like that framing a lot more. A pro freedom and democracy, anti-authoritarian Republican. Republicans that believe in the Constitution. That's what I'd like to see win seats. Will they? Like you mentioned, you're going to have some much more informed political scientists, theorists on this show than me. I know what I'd like to see, I'm not sure what will actually happen though. I think there are people that follow these polls a lot closer than I do.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, here's hoping, and we try to end on a somewhat upbeat note, for every show. And I'm going to ask you the same question I ask every guest at the end, which is what is the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?

Chris Harnisch:

Look, I would say Ken, that I've been in some very fortunate situations, to have had the opportunity to serve my country, in ways that I think matter, in ways that I think are important and are helping advance the freedom and democracy for our country and for others around the world. And frankly, that are helping fight some really terrible people around the world. And all I'd say is that I've done my duty every step of the way. If some of those things that we've done have been considered brave, I think I'd certainly be grateful if others were to classify them as brave. But for me, and for many others that have served our country, I think we're just doing our duty.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, thanks Chris. It's been great having you on. Appreciate your time.

Chris Harnisch:

Thanks Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Chris for joining me.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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