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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Iran Vows Revenge For Assassination Of Nuclear Scientist; U.S. Saw One Million New COVID Cases In First Five Days Of December; President Trump's Lies And Refusal To Concede. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired December 06, 2020 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you live from New York.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the show, the assassination of a top nuclear scientist in Iran. A senior U.S. official says Israel was behind it. What really happened on that roadside near Tehran? And why did it happen now, in the waning lame-duck days of the Trump administration?

Also, 2,977. That is how many people were killed in the 9/11 terror attacks. This week the daily reported death toll from COVID in America was almost as high. On multiple days. Vaccines are coming soon, but so is the dark and tragic winter. How can we reverse the terrible trends the U.S. is seeing, and can we do it before Christmas? Harvard's Michael Meena has a plan.

Finally --


PROTESTERS: Stop the steal. Stop the steal.


ZAKARIA: The president and his allies continue to spread lies about widespread election fraud.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: At the highest level, it was a rigged election.


ZAKARIA: Think it's all innocuous? Think again. One great political lie helped bring about the downfall of German democracy in the 1930s. The great historian Margaret McMillan will explain.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZAKARIA: But first, here's my take. It's much too soon to be thinking about a post-Trump America. Donald Trump remains the most popular figure among Republicans and he will continue to play a huge role in American politics in the years to come. But it is not too soon to begin thinking about a post-Trump democracy. An American political system that learns from the challenges and threats it has endured over the last four years.

To those who think this concern is overblown, that America has proved resilient, I would simply say look out the window. Even now the president of the United States is attempting to use the powers of his office and public platform to overturn the results of an election. Happily, Trump's efforts have not borne fruit. The courts have refused to bend the rules. Even Republican-appointed judges have followed the law rather than their political party of choice.

Local officials did their job. All off this is encouraging. Even so, the past month has exposed fundamental weaknesses in America's electoral system. American elections are mostly run not by apolitical federal officials, but rather by local politicians, elected or appointed, representatives of both parties monitor elections and must collectively sign off on them. The system has worked because both sides have upheld their duty to certify election results that were free and fair no matter the winner.

But in this election the Republican Party, the president, the party's national chair, key senators and state party bosses put unrelenting pressure on these local officials to delay or reject the routine certification of results. In Georgia, the state's two current Republican senators called on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign simply because he affirmed the truth, that the state's vote was free and fair.

In Michigan, which Biden won by 150,000 votes, Republican Party officials hounded the two Republicans on the four-person Board of Canvassers that certifies results. In the face of this assault one of the two folded, it was only because the other Republican, the 40-year- old Aaron Van Langevelde, stood his ground that Michigan's results were certified. And remember the story is not over yet.

In all likelihood, Donald Trump will keep up his attack on those Republican officials and the key swing states who refuse to do his bidding. If Raffensperger and Van Langevelde are drummed out of politics, the message to Republican officials in the next close election will be clear. Put party over country or you can say good-bye to your career. The next set of local officials might prove to be less honorable. So might a younger and more partisan batch of judges.

America's election arrangements are rooted in a venerable Anglo-Saxon system in which citizens or private groups are periodically called upon to perform official functions. The Anglo-Saxon approach contrasts with the French continental system in which the state has more control.

[10:05:03] But this Anglo-Saxon system depends on the idea that citizens will place the public interest ahead of their private interest. Donald Trump has put that assumption to the test, plunging our democracy into crisis. We need a set of post-Trump reforms to bolster American democracy. Independent non-partisan boards should be established to manage elections rather than partisan officials.

Standardized rules should be set about voter registration, mail-in voting, ballot challenges and the reporting of results. We also need a broader set of reforms that draw on the experience of the Trump years, once that codify into law what have been traditions and norms and practices. Candidates should have to disclose their tax returns so that the public can be aware of any potential conflicts of interest.

Winners must be required to place any of their businesses or assets into genuine blind trusts. Additionally, we can now see that the lag between the election and inauguration is much too long. Far longer than most other countries where it's often a day or two. The incumbent enjoys far too much power during this transition period. The Trump administration has made the dangers clear by initially withholding funds for the transition and refusing to provide intelligence briefings to Biden.

Laws should be written to ensure a smooth transition and minimize the possibility that the outgoing president can act to enhance his personal fortunes or cripple his successor. By assaulting American democracy in so many ways, Donald Trump has shunned a light on its weaknesses. We should seize this moment to strength our institutions. That way, if another Trump-like politician, for example, Donald Trump himself in four years, tries to pervert the system again, American democracy this time will be better equipped to withstand it.

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week, and let's get started.

Israel was behind the assassination of Iran's chief nuclear scientist a senior Trump administration official told CNN. That killing was carried out on a road outside Tehran last Friday and Iran's supreme leader, its president and other officials have vowed revenge for it.

What comes next? Joining me now are three experts on these two sworn enemies. Dina Esfandiary is a fellow at the Century Foundation, she studies Iran's foreign relations. Martin Indyk was a long-time top- level American diplomat in the Middle East, including two stints as U.S. ambassador to Israel. And Ronen Bergman has filed a series of fascinating investigative reports on the assassination for "The New York Times."

Welcome, all. Let me start with you, Ronen. In your reporting it seems unclear whether or not the most dramatic James Bond-like account is correct. That is, that the Israelis used a robot, no human beings involved, in this assassination. What I'm struck by is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seems to argue or present the case that that was, in fact, what happened.

What do you think is going on? Why is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard putting out the story that it was done by robots?

RONEN BERGMAN, STAFF WRITER, NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: Yes, thank you, Fareed. Thank you for the invite. The Revolutionary Guards are spreading a story. The first one to tweet the story is a relative of one of the top commanders of the RGC, the Revolutionary Guard, that this was a completely remote-controlled unmanned robot killer assassination that was done with no assassins on site. Therefore, they can explain at least part of their security lap in protecting.

They were the ones who were supposed to protect one of the people that were directly threatened by Israel and by the United States, a person designated by the United Nations. They were supposed to guard him and they failed. They also failed to kill or harm or arrest anyone of the assassins. Now if it was only a robot on site, then it might explain some of their failures. But this science fiction version that there was no one and it was just robots controlled, they claim, by satellite from Israel, I think nobody in Iran really buys that.

However, I think that, and hopefully we will be able to report soon on the full details of the assassination and how this was done, this complicated new modus operandi, it seems that there was a local version of Nissan parked on site.


That Nissan indeed had a machine gun control, automatic machine gun controlled by a remote control from somewhere else, possibly a command room. After that being used, the Nissan exploded so it was used as a base for the heavy machine gun, and then as a car bomb in order to intensify the effect, and also destroyed the evidence. I don't think that anyone would leave such a complicated site just for a remote- control center. There would possibly be other posts where more people, more assassins would be present.

And yesterday in an interview the son of the late Fakhrizadeh indeed said that they are sure that there were assassins on site. So the family of the killed scientist do not accept the version released by his bodyguards and security details, and they say, no, there were assassins and implicating, hinting that Revolutionary Guard failed to arrest them or kill them on site.

ZAKARIA: Dina, what do you think this does within Iran? Because I have seen fairly plausible accounts that say this will not delay the program, the nuclear program much. It's a 20, 25-year-old program. There are hundreds of scientists are involved. What do you think the effect will be in Iran and will the Iranians feel the need to retaliate?

DINA ESFANDIARY, FELLOW, THE CENTURY FOUNDATION: You're absolutely right. I don't think the effect on the nuclear program is going to be significant at all. This is one man and the nuclear program, as you said, is a massive program with many scientists involved in it. So I don't think that the goal was to have any significant impact on Iran's nuclear program. I do think it will have an impact internally on Iran because there is going to be real pressure, particularly from the hard line camps in politics in Iran, to retaliate, to do something in return.

And it's going to be difficult for those officials that are in power at the moment under the Rouhani administration to hold them back. So I think they will want to because I think they will won't want to jeopardize the risk of -- jeopardize any kind of dialogue with the incoming Biden administration from January onwards. They don't want escalation at the moment. But it's going to be hard for them to hold those powers back and ignore that pressure that's going to be coming from all quarters in Tehran.

ZAKARIA: Martin, picking up on what Dina said, so far it seems to me the Iranians have been pretty restrained in their responses. They didn't really respond to the Soleimani assassination. And if you think about the places they could ramp up pressures, the militias in Iraq, the war in Yemen, you know, in Syria, they seem to be trying to -- they have been trying to outlast the Trump administration. Is that the strategy or is there something else going on?

MARTIN INDYK, FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think that's very much the strategy. President Rouhani has said that they are exercising what he calls strategic patience. And, clearly, from his point of view this was designed to provoke them so as to complicate what they hope is their Trump card, which is to negotiate with the Biden administration, the lifting of sanctions that are having such a profound impact on the Iranian economy. So I think that there is a struggle within Iran about how to respond.

But those who argue that this would just be playing into the hands of Trump and Netanyahu, in their efforts to scuttle any potential return to negotiations and the lifting of sanctions, I think is likely to prevail.

ZAKARIA: Stay with us. Next, I am going to ask this great panel what happens when Joe Biden, who says he wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, takes office. Will it work with tensions so high?



ZAKARIA: And we are back with Dina Esfandiary, Martin Indyk, and Ronen Bergman.

Martin, let me ask you to explain that is going on here from the point of view of Bibi Netanyahu/ Netanyahu let us say authorized this assassination, which complicates Joe Biden's life at a time when he's trying to rejoin the Iran deal, renegotiate it perhaps. He's also been fairly straightforward and blatant in opposing things that the Biden administration has said even before he's had a chance to talk to the president-elect in any serious depth about this.

What is going on and is it worth us noticing that there is a possible election going to take place in Israel one more time?

INDYK: That's right, Fareed. It looks likely that Israel will go to a fourth election, its fourth in two years, probably in March of next year, and so certainly Netanyahu cannot exclude that possibility. And I think he's basically preparing for it. And it seems to me, at least the way that he's positioning himself, that he's planning actually to run against Biden. He benefitted in the last three elections, although not sufficiently, from having the support of Donald Trump, whether it was recognition of Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights or movement of the embassy to Jerusalem or the Trump deal of the century.


All of that advantaged him dramatically. But now he is facing a Biden administration that is committed to returning to the JCPOA, the nuclear deal with Iran. And for him that is something that is unacceptable. He's made it clear in two public statements in the last couple of weeks that he will oppose that just like he opposed the original deal even by going to a Joint Session of Congress to speak against President Obama.

So it looks like he is preparing to run against President Biden on the issue of Iran, which he enjoys broad support in Israel. Across the political spectrum there is a feeling that the nuclear deal was a bad deal from Israel's perspective. So it's not a bad political tactic for him. (INAUDIBLE) Israel's relations with a new American president in his first 100 days in office, if that's what transpires.

ZAKARIA: Dina, what about in Iran? You have potential upcoming elections there as well. Is it likely that all this tension results in a much more hard line president? Does it matter? Because it is, in fact -- a hard line is in fact in control anyway.

ESFANDIARY: Yes, the elections in Iran are a major issue, and there is a lot of tension at the moment inside Iran to figure out which way the elections are going to go, although the hard-liners do hold most of the levers of power in Iran at the moment. I think the key issue with the incoming Biden administration is going to be, however, that the Iranians know that they're going to have to have some kind of dialogue with the United States.

The problem that we're going to have is the sequencing of that dialogue. The Iranians understand that they were in compliance of the deal, and so dialogue must come only once the United States has rejoined the JCPOA first and then the Iranians will embark on some kind of engagement and dialogue to talk about a range of issues and return to compliance, of course, with the nuclear deal.

Whereas I think the Biden administration has a different viewpoint. I think what they want is for Iran to return to compliance first and then for them to join the nuclear deal after that. And, of course, how that discussion goes, how they are able to resolve that difference will have a significant impact on the way the elections go in Iran in a few months' time.

ZAKARIA: Ronen, all this assumes, as we have been saying, that Iranians exercise the strategic patience that they have been exercising, but I assume that in Israel they are on high alert. And I wanted to ask you whether you think there are dangers of a retaliation. For example, Martin told me before the show began that Israelis are planning to go to Dubai for the winter break. In fact, they think that about 50,000 Israelis will be in Dubai.

Now Dubai is a place where there is a very large Iranian presence. Is that a potential area where there is a real vulnerability?

BERGMAN: Yes. Indeed, Fareed, and it's going to be less than 50,000 because many of those people hearing the alerts from the National Security Council, the Israeli one, saying that there is threat in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Emirates have cancelled their future plans for holiday. The UAE is designated as a green state. So no need to go to isolation when coming back to Israel. People are planning it and canceled then.

The Israeli authorities have warned former nuclear scientists to be aware and maybe limit their travel if at all during COVID because of the possible Iranian retaliation. But in general, Israel doesn't assess, Israeli intelligence doesn't assess that the Iranians are going to retaliate.

They think that they want to pass the next months and a little bit more than a month here in basically doing, maintaining low profile, including having their militias that support -- they support in Iraq calm down, not doing anything in order to pass the time and not play, according to what they believe, into the President Trump's hands, maybe giving him alibi to attack Iran.

Iran has maintained a very, very restrained approach. Israel is a little bit concerned that President-elect Biden will call Prime Minister Netanyahu and say whatever you have planned with President Trump for the next month, I urge you not to do that.


It's not a coincidence that a series of special operation and assassination and sabotage have happened in Iran in the last year all attributed to Israel or to America. And there will be people who might think that there is more to come, and maybe people who would think that President Biden will try to -- president-elect will try to warn Prime Minister Netanyahu.

From the point of view of the Iranian-Israel assess, they want to see what the president-elect will bring to the Oval Office. Will he give them the one thing that they want more than anything else? And this is a direct access to the frozen bank accounts, those that are under sanctions in western banks. They want to see if Biden is willing to sign a new JCPOA. I believe that he will be willing to do so --

ZAKARIA: All right.


ZAKARIA: We have to leave it at that, Ronen. We will have you back. Thank you, all of you, for fascinating conversation.

Coming up, how to beat this COVID spike when we come back.


ZAKARIA: Everyone is getting excited about vaccines, but we have many, many months to go before any hope of herd immunity. Meanwhile, Americans are being warned of an ugly winter filled with illness and death.

The country saw one million new cases in COVID in just the first five days of December. To put that in context, it took the U.S. around three months to record the first 5 million cases. Now we did it in five days.

My next guest says it does not have to be this bad. Michael Mina is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard. And his recent Time Magazine piece was titled "How We Can Stop the Spread of Coronavirus By Christmas."

OK, Michael, briefly, what is the system, the plan that you have in place that would actually reverse these numbers?

MICHAEL MINA, PROFESSOR OF EPIDEMIOLOGY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Thanks, Fareed. Well, the -- the idea is we have to stop spread. We have to stop one person from transmitting this virus to the next person. We can do that through vaccines once they become available. We could do that through social distancing and physical distancing and masks.

But a very powerful way to do it is by giving people the knowledge that they are infected in the first place. Empower people in America and across the world to know that they are positive.

And we can do this with very simple, cheap, inexpensive tests that can be produced in the millions. These are paper-strip tests that everyone could use in the comfort of their own home to indicate if they have coronavirus and if they have it at a level that is transmissible to other people.

ZAKARIA: Now, the -- they key that you are describing is what the vice president of Taiwan told us on this program, which was he said it's not enough to test or trace. The key is that people who have it then have to isolate themselves.

And so your plan, in a sense, gives people the knowledge. Obviously, not all of them will do it. But your argument is, if enough do it, you break the spread?

MINA: That's right. And the only way to really get people to know that they are infectious before they go on and infect other people is to test frequently.

You have to be testing every few days because people will spread this virus before they have any symptoms at all. So a small test like this one that's in my hand here is a -- is a lateral flow antigen test. And these can be produced for a dollar or two, sold for $3 by the U.S. government, for example.

And people could use them twice a week, for example, and be able to know before they actually transmit to anyone else that they have it. They can then make behavioral changes and modifications to either stay home or, if they must go out of the house and must go to work because they need to get paid, which is a big problem right now, then they can make behavioral modifications even in -- in their daily life.

ZAKARIA: Now, the biggest obstacle, as I understand it, to what you're describing is not the cost, not the technology; it all exists. It's that the federal government, the FDA, is not willing to approve these because they don't believe -- or readily make them widely available -- because they don't believe they are as accurate as the PCR nasal test.

Explain why you think that this is, sort of, mistaking; this is using medical thinking when what you are using is public health thinking?

MINA: That's right. And I -- I don't necessarily want to put all the blame on the FDA here. The FDA is in a position to authorize medical devices. But we are in a public health crisis. We have to use public health tools.

And as a medical director in a hospital, I wouldn't necessarily want to use one of these tests instead of the PCR test. But as a public health practitioner...

ZAKARIA: Yeah, I see that. I see that.

MINA: ... I absolutely want to do that.

ZAKARIA: When -- when you look at this -- this, you know, idea, do you believe that, you know, two tests a week, 10 or 20 million people, and how much time should we begin to see a decline in the -- the COVID numbers?

MINA: Well, if we could get these tests out to 20 million people a day, get them to deliver them through the U.S. Postal Service to people's homes, paid for by the government -- they just show up in people's mailboxes, for example -- we would start to see immediate effects.

Have half of the people in America use these tests every week. Within a week we would, you know -- every week we would see maybe a 30 percent -- you remove 30 percent of infected from the population for a a number of days. And then the next week you do it again, remove another 30 percent.

It doesn't need to be perfect. But each week you are removing more people who are infectious than are becoming infected. And that allows the epidemic to stop these exponential increases that we are seeing and start to go down again.

And eventually, over a number of weeks, say three are four, we will start to see massive gains in lower transmission of this virus, lower disease.

ZAKARIA: This is very, very important. I hope that people in Washington are listening. Because, as you say, the key is giving people the knowledge that they might be infected, which is very easy to give them, even if it's not 99 percent accurate. It is accurate enough that it could have a huge public health effect.

Michael Mina, pleasure to have you on.

MINA: Thanks so much, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: One note, I misspoke at the top. I said it took the U.S. three months to get to its first 5 million cases. What I meant was it took three months to get to 1 million cases, but we got to that 1 million in five days in December.

Next on "GPS," Donald Trump and his allies have been telling lies about the election. How does this kind of thing end? We will tell you about two dark episodes from the last century when political lies like these destroyed democracy.


ZAKARIA: As the president continues to refuse to concede the election, the lies he tells to justify his actions become more and more corrosive.

A few weeks ago in my take I told you about the so-called "stab in the back" theory, that was when Germans were told that their proud country lost World War I not in a military defeat but because liberals, including Socialists and Jews, sold them out.

It was a lie, but it took firm hold in the minds of many Germans of the day. And what was the result?

For that, let me bring in Margaret MacMillan, a great historian who studies the international relations of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is a professor at the University of Toronto, a professor emeritus at Oxford and the author of a brand-new book, "War: How Conflict Shaped Us."

Welcome, Professor MacMillan.


ZAKARIA: Tell -- tell us first about that moment in 1919. What actually happened? And why did the myth develop that Germany actually had not lost?

MACMILLAN: I think the myth developed for two reasons. First of all, the German public had basically been kept in the dark about how the war was going. And from the late spring of 1918, the war had been going very badly indeed for Germany.

Its allies were falling away and actually fell away in September and October 1918. And so Germany was left fighting on its own. Its troops were short of supplies. They were beginning to retreat throughout August. They were retreating in France miles back towards the German borders. They simply couldn't fight on. And they were short of men, short of supplies, short of everything they needed.

And so the German government sued for an armistice, which it got in -- on November the 11th, 1918. And the high command, in particular General Ludendorff, who had begged the government to get an armistice, then changed their minds and said, "Oh, we could have fought on."

They refused to take responsibility for the loss. And so that was the beginnings of this conspiracy theory that the Germans had never really lost. And the military, of course, had every reason to try and foster that theory.

ZAKARIA: And when does it start to become something that's politically powerful?

Because it -- it's part of the Germans, sort of, not wanting to accept the whole settlement after World War I, was it not?

MACMILLAN: It becomes part of it. And there were sadly enough Germans who were prepared to believe first that Germany hadn't lost the war and secondly that the only reason it had stopped fighting was because of traitors at home. And those traitors increasingly were singled out as the Social Democrats, who were one of the key parties in the new republic and really very sinister Jews began to be singled out as somehow having conspired against Germany.

ZAKARIA: And Hitler, by the '20s, starts to talk about the -- the need for revenge, the need to reject that settlement and the need to recognize that you -- we cannot parlay, you know, cannot deal with the people in Germany who -- who surrendered.

You know, it became part of Hitler's story and his rise to power?

MACMILLAN: It did indeed. And a lot of Hitler's attraction was to former soldiers, former servicemen who couldn't accept the defeat either.

And he did get support from some high-ranking officers. Ludendorff, for example, who had been so responsible for controlling the German war effort in the Great War -- Ludendorff became an early supporter of Hitler's.

The Nazis, Hitler's party, were a minority party, a tiny party, for most of the 1920s. But they began to expand particularly as Germany became more troubled with the Great Depression. They had an appeal because they had a very simple message. They blamed others for the problems Germany was suffering. Of course the main people they blamed were the Jews. And they had what appeared to be a very simple solution.

And so their use of the past and their use of theories about how Germany had not really lost, how Germany had never started the war, how Germany had been unfairly treated, became a very powerful mobilizing call.

ZAKARIA: Do you think that there are other places where you see the same phenomenon, which is a reluctance to accept the legitimacy of the opposition, the legitimacy of the idea that somebody else could win?

I'm thinking, you know, for example, of the Spanish Civil War, which starts because Franco and the -- the right wing, to put it simply, just never accepted that there could be a democratic socialist government in Spain, that there must have been something wrong?

MACMILLAN: It's very dangerous for societies when this happens because, if you get a large section of society, and often a section which has the means to cause trouble, as the military can do, then you get a weakened society.

You get people who simply will not accept the legitimate government that is in power. And I think that was why Franco moved against the Spanish republican government in 1936. He had never accepted, and there were enough people in Spain ready to support him who had not accepted it either.

And so it's a mark of a deeply divided society. And it's very dangerous, of course, for societies, because it can lead to the sorts of things that happened in Germany, or it can lead to civil war as in the case of Spain.

ZAKARIA: When you look at what's going on in America today, is it fair to draw this -- this conclusion?

Because I -- I bring it up only because I'm struck by the number of people. I mean, you have 78 percent of Republicans, according to some polls, who believe that the election was stolen. You still have the sitting president of the United States concocting these -- these lies and theories.

And it seems like this cannot end well because there is -- you know, there is no way they are going to suddenly wake up on January 20th and say, "Oh, right, we were wrong about all this for all these months."

MACMILLAN: It's playing with fire, in my view.

I mean, on the -- on the positive side, the United States has a very deeply rooted democratic and constitutional system. And it has strong institutions. And I think most Americans accept, indeed are proud of their institutions and their democracy and their republic.

But it is dangerous, I think, because it turns Americans against each other and it makes them suspicious of their own institutions.

As I say, I'm hoping, as -- as a friendly Canadian, I'm hoping that American institutions will withstand this storm, and perhaps not on January 3rd or 4th, but perhaps in a year, people will begin say, "Look, there really wasn't much evidence." But I think there's going to have to be a lot of work.

ZAKARIA: How do you approach this problem as a -- as a historian?

Your life's work is devoted to facts, to careful documentation, to proof. And here you have, you know, large -- you know, wide numbers of people who really can, you know, just believe black is white. What is the answer?

Do you think about -- you know, how is it that -- how does reason conquer unreason and fact conquer lies?

MACMILLAN: Well, you're asking one of the oldest questions, I think, in human experience. You know, we all know that it is in a way easier to believe in conspiracy theories, easier to blame someone else. It's a convenient and easy explanation.

In the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century, which killed probably half the population of Europe, a number of people believed it must be the Jews doing it or it must be foreigners doing it.

We search for simple explanations often, and we shouldn't. We need to try and understand that the world -- and remember that the world is a very complicated place. And I think it's something we should all be thinking about and worrying about. We need to understand it better and understand how we can perhaps begin to counter it.

ZAKARIA: Margaret MacMillan, pleasure to have you on. And the book is "War." And we will be right back.


And now for my book of the week, which is Joseph Henrich's "The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous."

This is a fascinating book that seeks to explain why one part of the world first became weird. That is, Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic.

Actually, he explains much more, why the West first moved from kin and clan to individualism and rule-based societies. It is well-written, brilliant and ambitious.

And now for the last look. The U.S., as we talked about earlier, is still failing at its effort to control COVID-19. But at the same time, it actually handled another aspect of the crisis comparatively well, the economic one.

America's GDP is set to contract only by 3.7 percent in 2020, according to the OECD. And while that is not an inspiring figure, it is better than Japan's 5.3 percent decline, Germany's 5.5 percent decline, or France's 9.1 percent decline.

In fact, of the other 10 largest economies, only China and South Korea can expect better results than the U.S. As I have reported, that is due to how effectively those Asian nations tamped down the virus.

So why, with the spread of COVID out of control in America, is the U.S. right behind them on GDP numbers?

A recent Atlantic article by Annie Lowrey explained it well. The American economy is large and diverse, so growth can be driven by any number of sectors, including health care and tech.

American exports are less important than in most other Western countries, so when they dried up, the U.S. did not take the hit that other more trade-dependent nations did.

But most important probably was economic policy from the Federal Reserve and Congress. The Fed was able to enact special lending programs and drastically lower interest rates. The CARES Act, that enormous stimulus package that Congress passed in March, put cash directly into the hands of American consumers.

Despite the reports of corruption and mismanagement of the Paycheck Protection Program, money did get into the economy, cushioning the crisis.

Congressional economic action was greater as a share of GDP than the initial relief provided by most other advanced nations, according to the IMF.

As one economist told Lowrey, the 2009 stimulus, by comparison, was less than half the size and took three times longer to pass.

Unfortunately, the CARES Act is also where major congressional economic action ended. Supplementary unemployment benefits expired in July and consumer spending leveled out. And although unemployment came down from the April peak of 14.7 percent, it is still at a staggeringly high 6.7 percent.

State and city governments have seen their tax revenues crater through no fault of their own. Businesses are shut or at lower capacity. Tourism is almost dead. And people are spending less.

Experts predict that American GDP successes will backslide by the start of the new year.

The irony here is that, during phase one of this pandemic, the U.S. handled the public health crisis poorly but the economic one well. In this second phase, with therapies improving and vaccines coming, it would be a tragedy if Washington reverses that, finally handling the public health crisis well but letting the economy fall into ruin.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.