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Fareed Zakaria GPS
Thousands Of Afghans Attempt To Flee Taliban Rule; Chaotic U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Continues; World Reacts To America's Afghanistan Debacle. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired August 22, 2021 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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. I will be back later with my take and the rest of the show, but first let me bring in Jim Sciutto who's here to tackle the latest news.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Fareed. And here's what is happening right now inside Afghanistan.
The Taliban takeover has reached the one-week mark and multitudes of Afghans are still trying desperately to flee their country. Almost 20,000 are now at the airport in Kabul waiting in the brutal sun, hoping they get that golden ticket out. Secretary Blinken says 8,000 people were evacuated yesterday alone. All countries combined have now evacuated some 26,500 people. And the Pentagon announced this morning it had invoked something called the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which compels U.S. commercial airlines to assist with the evacuation.
Meanwhile President Biden is expected to talk to the American public again this afternoon about those efforts in Afghanistan. Tune in to CNN at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time to see exactly what he has to say.
Let's begin with my first two guests, Sami Mahdi is a top Afghan journalist who just flew out of Hamir Karzai International Airport in Kabul, and Rina Amiri was born in Afghanistan but has spent most of her life here in the U.S. She's a foreign policy professional who has worked to help her native country from abroad. Among other roles, she was an adviser to Richard Holbrook when he was U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Thanks so much to both of you. It's good to have you here.
Sami, I wonder if I could begin with you. Is it as simple as this, that for people like you, journalists as well as for Afghans who worked with the American military and the American government, that it is a question of life and death to leave the country? To live, you must go. Is that true?
SAMI MAHDI, AFGHAN JOURNALIST: Well, I think it's not just for me and other journalists, civil society activists or the people who work with the U.S. Military, it's a question for over 13 million Afghans around the country. The panic that you see around the Kabul airport, it is the fact -- it shows the fact that people do not see any future under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It's just a reminder of 1990s for people. That's why people have panicked and tried to, you know, get out of the country as soon as possible in whatever way possible.
That says a lot about the Taliban and the picture they have been portraying about this themselves that they have changed.
SCIUTTO: So, Rina, if that is true, and it is a consistent message and I'm hearing it as many of my colleagues and others are from Afghans still inside the country, about their loss of hope, about their fears for their own safety and their family's safety. If that is true, why didn't the Afghan army fight back? Why didn't the Afghan government, the president stay in Kabul to try to lead that fight back against the Taliban? Why?
RINA AMIRI, SENIOR FELLOW, NYU'S CENTER FOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS: I think the Afghan national forces were looking at U.S. signals. The U.S. signals for the last two years have been one where the indication has been that the U.S. was leaving, that the U.S., in fact, was closer to the Taliban than to this government.
The peace agreement has been with the Taliban. The direct engagements has been with the Taliban, and at the end when the issue of the withdrawal was put on the table, it was not something that was done in consultation with the Afghan forces as it should have been.
And the support that they had received all along from contractors, all of this was taken away at the height of fighting season. So at the end of the day, I think they looked at the signals and they thought -- step back and just note that signaling is incredibly important. And the signaling that they have received is that the U.S. is leaving, they've given it to the Taliban, and at this stage they felt that the cards had been written, and there was not very much that they were left with at the height of fighting season.
SCIUTTO: Sami, Rina makes a good point. It was two, in fact, two American presidents, Trump and now Biden, who made a decision to leave Afghanistan. And of course, Trump negotiated an agreement as you Rina saying with the Taliban for an exit of U.S. forces by this year.
I want to ask you, though, who do Afghans blame at this point?
Do they blame the U.S.? Do they blame their own government?
MAHDI: I think they blame both, the U.S. governments, and both government, Ambassador Khalilzad in particular, and also their own leaders, the Afghan government, and the way our national security forces were led by a bunch of President Ghani's advisers who didn't have any kind of military experience on the ground, military experience, and the kind of concentration of power inside the (INAUDIBLE) when it comes to -- I mean, to military management and command.
They, I think, blame all. But the problem is now, the fact of life is that they have to live -- I mean, my people have to live the results that your government, I mean, the decisions that your government made and the failures of my own government.
SCIUTTO: Rina, was there an alternative? Set aside for a moment this panicked evacuation now. Clearly this administration did not prepare for the rapid fall of the Taliban. But stepping back for a bit, was there an alternative to a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces? We know that some of Biden's most senior military advisers including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs that they recommended leaving a least a small force perhaps 2500, 3,000 there both for counterterror but also to provide that confidence for Afghan forces. In your view, would that have been the better path?
AMIRI: Yes, I do think that leaving the forces -- the 2500 forces would have provided the type of signaling and stabilization that was required. President Biden notes that he did not want to continue the fight. These were not fighting forces. They were training, assisting, and advising and providing intelligence. And it had reached the point of stabilization. And also President Biden has noted that, you know, there are terrorist threats in other countries, there's al-Shabaab, there's al Qaeda, there's Boko Haram. And that is true.
But he has sent a signal by taking out the 2500 troops that the U.S. is ceding ground to them. And if you look at the news, BBC actually reported this that they're all celebrating and saying, we are winning.
SCIUTTO: Sami, is it over? We have heard some reports in the north of resistance to the Taliban, of course a traditional base of opposition to the Taliban in the north. We've heard of protests, and great protests it must said, in some cities against Taliban rule. What follows, necessarily? Is it a country necessarily controlled by the Taliban? Is it the possibility of an ongoing civil war?
MAHDI: Well, the history shows that it's not the end. It has just begun. We are at the beginning of a new start. The resistance has started in the areas surrounding the Hindukush, the northern and southern Hindukush. But at this time I think the Taliban are not just being opposed by, you know, resistance forces in the northeast and north but also inside the major cities of Afghanistan. There is a very large urban population now in Afghanistan which didn't exist during the 1990s.
And, you know, the Taliban have shown little, you know, similarity to the lifestyle of urban people in urban centers like Jalalabad, like Kabul, Kandahar, and so many other cities. You can see now that people and youngsters within these large cities are standing their grounds against the Taliban and waving the national flag.
SCIUTTO: Yes. It's a different country. And that must be noted.
Amiri, thanks so much to you for the work you're doing. Sami Mahdi, thanks to you as well. And in the simplest terms, we're glad you're safe.
Let's go now to CNN's Sam Kiley. He is live for us this morning from Kabul airport. Sam, tell us what you're seeing there now in terms of numbers. We've
heard of thousands upon thousands waiting there. Is that still the situation?
SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is, and things are moving much more quickly. There isn't actually at the moment an accurate estimate of how many people are on the base. Yesterday there were about 14,000. There has been numerous aircrafts taking off all day. I've been here about an hour and a half now, seen about four of these D-17s taking off some to the United States of America, some other American aircraft. We're not quite sure what their destination is.
They have been able to take a lot of aircraft going into (INAUDIBLE) Qatar (INAUDIBLE) on evacuations. Of course yesterday there was also horrific crash outside the airport where there were at least seven people confirmed to be killed in that crash.
There is much more order, I have to say, inside the airfield, but a great deal of nervousness indeed because as the Pentagon has been saying they're insisting the so-called Islamic State, the Daesh as they're called here, there is active intelligence that they are posing a (INAUDIBLE) threat to the evacuations gathered in huge numbers outside the airfield and of course to the international community.
And of course, one of the interesting things about it, there was one thing that the United States and the Taliban already can agree on, that is the danger of Daesh, of ISIS. The Taliban has killed a lot of ISIS over the last few years. They've tried to regain a foothold here, and ISIS will be very happy to embarrass both (INAUDIBLE) drastic massive atrocity here. That is really seriously exercise in the minds of Americans and other allied commanders here, so much so that the Americans are now looking at what they're calling alternative routes to evacuate, particularly foreign evacuees, but also Afghans who have worked so closely with them.
Those aircrafts stopping right behind me, the anticipation is that this will go on all night as they are trying to clear their backlog, but of course (INAUDIBLE) the more successful the evacuation is the more people will fly to get evacuated. One of the real issues here is the paperwork is very hard to come by, difficult (INAUDIBLE), and given the huge humanitarian pressure to get people out. It's extremely difficult, the authorities here, to (INAUDIBLE). But it is looking certainly on the airside better than it did in the last few days -- Jim.
SCIUTTO: Yes. It's something of a Berlin airlift of humanity.
Sam Kylie, good to have you there. We know you're doing so at great personal risk to you and your team. Please stay safe.
And coming up next on GPS, in a rare bit of partisanship, criticism has come at President Biden from both Republicans and Democrats over his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. In a moment, we will get reaction from overseas.
SCIUTTO: On October 7, 2001, U.S. forces began to bomb Afghanistan to try to defeat both al Qaeda and the Taliban. The British were by their side, led by then Prime Minister Tony Blair. He released just a blistering statement yesterday that began like this, quote, "The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours." It then went on to get even more critical of the U.S. decision, arguing, quote, "Anyone given commitments by Western leaders will understandably regard them as unstable currency."
I want to speak now to Rory Stewart. He walked across much of Afghanistan in 2002 from Herat all the way to Kabul. He's a former member of the British parliament.
Rory, it's good to have you on. Few people have as much on the ground experience, face to face experience with Afghanistan as you have. You see the criticism there from Tony Blair. He says the U.S. not only abandoned Afghanistan but in effect abandoned the U.K. as an ally doing this without consultation. Do you agree?
RORY STEWART, SENIOR FELLOW, YALE'S JACKSON INSTITUTE FOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS: Yes, and it's been very disturbing, humiliating for the U.K. because of course we wake up to the situation and it's embarrassing. Essentially Britain believes very strongly, our defense secretary said that he thinks it's the wrong decision. He tried at the last moment to cobble together a coalition with the Italians and the Turks and others, struggled to do so.
But essentially the problem is that the U.S. has created over many decades a situation where the U.S. leads in and the U.S. leads out, and it hasn't really developed the idea that Britain and its other allies are going to have to develop a totally independent structure.
These structures are very, very dependent on American command and control, American airpath. And I think one of the things that's going to come out of this is nations like Britain are now going to have to think about how we develop a fully independent capability and begin disengaging ourselves in the U.S. strategic framework.
SCIUTTO: That is a just remarkable and sobering assessment because you'll remember that was the fear under Donald Trump, among many Republicans and Democrats here frankly, but many people currently advising the Biden administration and part of the intention of President Biden was to reverse that, to recommit the U.S. to its NATO allies, to say, we will be there for you. You're saying that this decision renders that difficult to believe?
STEWART: Yes, it's very, very sad. I mean, the British government reached out to the U.S. government on Sunday. Prime Minister Johnson, Boris Johnson, requested a telephone call. He didn't receive a call from President Biden until halfway through Tuesday, which was already three days into this crisis in Kabul. And that was just indicative of the way in which this has all been conducted. The U.S. from the beginning hasn't really believed it needs to have the courtesy of consulting.
President Biden having made that decision to withdraw did not really try to reach out and work out whether Britain, France, Germany, Turkey and others could take up the slack and replace the U.S. in Afghanistan or provide the (INAUDIBLE) to do that. He could have done but I fear there's very something strange going on in the way President Biden approached this. It's as though he's decided that if he thinks it's not worth his while, he's not going to give any assistance to anyone else for them do it instead.
SCIUTTO: Remarkable. Remarkable. We're joined now as well by Andrey Kortunov. He's the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank in Moscow. Of course I don't have to remind you that Russia had its own debilitating withdrawal from Afghanistan going back to 1980. I wonder, I want to know what signal Russia and the Kremlin take from the U.S. withdrawal. Do they read this as saying that the U.S. will not or is reluctant to defend allies abroad?
ANDREY KORTUNOV, DIRECTOR GENERAL, RUSSIAN INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS COUNCIL: Well, I think that the U.S. withdrawal was anticipated in Moscow, but the exact posture, the speed at which the United States decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the whole operation was, of course, a surprise. I think that it is clearly apparent to those who believe that the United States continues to be on decline and that all this talk about multilateralism is nothing more than talk.
So of course, it raises the issue of credibility of the United States as a strategic ally, but at the same time it means that the challenge of Afghanistan has been passed from global powers to regional players. So Russia should take a part of responsibility for what's going on in the country or what is going on around the country. Of course, together with other players like China and Pakistan and arguably Iran and major Central Asian allies of the Russian federation.
SCIUTTO: Let me ask you, though, let me press back for a moment here. Because part of the justification for leaving Afghanistan not dissimilar from what President Obama before him said, is that the U.S. has to refocus attention and resources, including military resources, on Asia, particularly the threat of a rising China.
This move, and frankly to counteract Russia in places where the U.S. believes that it is overextending, the Baltic States, et cetera. Can you not read this as a sign that the U.S. is following through on that, saying we're ending our focus on the Middle East, focusing on the real challenges going forward?
KORTUNOV: That's probably right, but, of course, even if you take countries like Ukraine, I think politicians in Kiev should be concerned about the credibility of the U.S. security assistance to this country because if the United States decided to let down one of its strategic allies in one part of the world, why wouldn't they do the same in another part of the world?
And again, you know, I would say that to some extent the U.S. policy is not very consistent because on the one hand, indeed, the United States would like to focus on containing China and Russia, but on the other hand, President Biden, at least that's what is stated here in Moscow, in Geneva asked Putin to assist him in using the military infrastructure in Central Asian states in case the United States needs to have a capacity for airstrikes in Afghanistan.
SCIUTTO: Rory, before we go, I want to play some sound from the U.K. Defense secretary describing the continuing fears as to whether the U.K. can get all of its people out, including its citizens, out of Afghanistan. I'll play it here briefly and I want to get your reaction.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BEN WALLACE, BRITISH DEFENSE SECRETARY: At the very least, our obligation has to be as many of these people through the pipeline as possible. But I think I also said, and it's really part of regret for me, some people won't get back. Some people won't get back, and we will have to do our best in third countries to process those people.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: I've heard Americans tell me the same thing. What does that mean for both the U.K. and the U.S., that they may not be able to get all those who need help out?
STEWART: It's heartbreaking. But what you see here is a situation in which Kabul airport is now surrounded by crowds of people. It's very difficult to see these horrifying scenes of people being crushed to death at the edge of the airport, and the U.S. and U.K. military are under pressure to withdraw even sooner. It's completely implausible that the U.S. and U.K. will be able under current plans to get even a proportion of the people to whom they are in obligation.
And this relates to the point you just made earlier. The reason that the U.S. credibility is shredded out of this is that the Afghan involvement was so light. It was 2500 soldiers compared to 25,000 in South Korea. It could have been sustained indefinitely. In South Korea they've been there 70 years.
The fact that the United States cared so little about Afghanistan or its obligations to Afghans that they were prepared to extract from a situation where no casualties have been lost since February 2020 and they were maintaining only 2500 soldiers on the ground implies that President Biden really didn't care at all about protecting any of the advances or fulfilling any of these obligations.
SCIUTTO: Rory Stewart, Andrey Kortunov, thanks so much to both of you.
And we're going to be back in a moment with former British foreign secretary David Miliband. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
SCIUTTO (voice over): It is tough to nail down an exact number in all of the continuing chaos, but it is estimated that tens of thousands of Afghans are trying to leave the country today.
How will those people all get out? Will they, and where will they go?
(on camera): My next guest, David Miliband, can help us understand. He is the former British foreign secretary, of course, now is the president and CEO of International Rescue Committee, which helps refugees both in Afghanistan and around the world.
Good to have you on this morning.
DAVID MILIBAND, FORMER BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: Thanks, Jim. Great to be with you.
SCIUTTO: I've been hearing stories; my colleagues have been hearing stories directly from Afghans trying to get out of the country. They're not getting answers about their visas. They can't make it to the airport. They have the Taliban going door to door looking for people who worked for the Americans and others.
You're one of the groups doing your best to help save these people's lives, get them to safety. How are you able to navigate the mess?
MILIBAND: Well, the International Rescue Committee has 1,700 staff inside Afghanistan. And the key for your viewers to understand is that there are two crises. There's a visible crisis, which you're seeing played out on TV, on the media, and with people trying to get to the airport in Kabul, those with papers, who are sometimes being turned back, and those without papers and without having completed the process.
There's also an invisible crisis in the rest of the country, where I'm afraid millions of people are dependent on humanitarian aid and are not yet getting it properly.
That includes over 2 million people who have been displaced by the fighting in recent weeks. And we're trying to battle both the visible part of the crisis, helping people get their papers, et cetera. Then there are people arriving a far-flung places as Uganda or Mexico, trying to help them there.
But we're also committed to stay in Afghanistan, not just for our 1,700 staff, but for the people that they serve.
SCIUTTO: I want to talk about that continuing humanitarian crisis. First, on the visible one, we've heard concessions from American officials, U.K, officials, that they may not be able to get everyone out who needs it, who needs rescue. Is that the most realistic future here?
MILIBAND: It's realistic, but when you make a commitment, you shouldn't concede on it. And the commitment that's being made by the U.S., by the U.K., by other Western countries, is a sacred one. The commitment was that, if you help us, we'll help you.
And the artificial deadline of the 31st of August is clearly not going to be met. The commitment that's been made, not just to American or British nationals but to those who worked alongside them, needs to be fulfilled, and it needs to be fulfilled with a fast processing system, a generous processing system and a humane processing system.
Some of that is beyond the control of Western forces because of what's going on outside Kabul airport, but there is a need for diplomatic and political muscle with Chinese, with Russians, with others, to help try and bring all of that -- Turkey, a very important country that was controlling the airport until recently.
And then there is the determination to ensure that those who do have the appropriate papers to claim asylum, who are fearful for their lives but are given the chance to rebuild their lives in another country.
SCIUTTO: And that's going to be quite a challenge going forward.
Now, to the ongoing domestic humanitarian crisis that will follow all this, because all these people can't leave the country. I wonder -- some have made the point to me that the Taliban will need aid, international aid, to address those needs.
We know how the Taliban operates. I don't want to invest them with any credibility they don't have. But does that give the U.S., the U.K., leverage over the Taliban going forward -- some leverage?
MILIBAND: I think the right way to see it is that it gives leverage to the Afghan people, actually.
The International Rescue Committee, my organization -- we've worked in Afghanistan since 1988. We've worked in Taliban-controlled areas and in what were previously government-controlled areas. Whoever is in control wants the support of local people. And the absolute key about the aid flows is that they don't go into central coffers where they can be victims of corruption but they instead support communities around the country.
MILIBAND: Afghanistan is a country of (inaudible) villages and valleys. And if you fund the local people, they'll spend the money well.
MILIBAND: We've shown how that's possible. The U.S. aid program is to increase -- it's, at the moment, flatlining. It should at least be doubled. And it needs to go into the right places so that American taxpayers can be confident that their money is going through reputable charities to reach the right people in need.
SCIUTTO: OK. Well, listen, we appreciate the work you're doing. It should be commended. David Miliband, thanks very much.
MILIBAND: Thank you very much.
SCIUTTO: And to you watching now, if you would like to help Afghan refugees, you will find a list of vetted organizations, including the International Rescue Committee, led by Mr. Miliband.
That is at CNN.com/impact. Please go there. These people need help.
And next on "GPS," Fareed will be back with his take on imperial over- reach and America's efforts in Afghanistan.
ZAKARIA: Here's my take. Quiz question: When and why did Great Britain annex Sudan?
The answer is, in 1899, after a decade and a half of fighting, British forces were up against Sudanese militias that had rallied under the banner of a charismatic Islamic leader who styled himself as the Mahdi and whom the British viewed as a fanatical terrorist.
There's a history lesson worth learning here about imperial over- reach, as the United States leaves Afghanistan.
Many voices warn that the country will once again become a base for terrorism, yet the truth is, since 9/11, Washington and most advanced governments have developed powerful capacities to intercept terrorists, track them down and prevent them from launching large- scale attacks.
Groups like Al Qaida and ISIS are in tatters, hunted everywhere and fragmented into local forces. They operate in various unstable countries, such as Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen.
This is an argument for global counter-terrorism efforts, not for the sustained occupation of any one particular place. But the mentality that drove the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq was an imperial aversion to instability.
During the late 19th Century, Britain worried that instability in Sudan, especially from Islamist terrorists, would spill over and threaten Britain's access to the Suez Canal in Egypt.
That canal in turn provided the lifeline to sea lanes to India, which was considered the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. As the globe's superpower, Britain had similar fears in many parts of the world. So London proceeded to send tens of thousands of troops to fight wars in Sudan and elsewhere, gaining remote provinces in Africa and Asia, including, by the way, Afghanistan, all of which turned into massive burdens for Britain. The British allowed the tail to wag the dog.
The parallel is not exact, of course, but the United States is the world's sole superpower for now. As we watch the tragedy that is unfolding in Afghanistan, keep in mind that American forces have spent two decades in Afghanistan. They've done what could be done, successfully degrading Al Qaida and killing Osama bin Laden. Ultimately, Afghanistan is not central to America's position as a global power.
Britain's greatest mistake during its imperial heyday was its failure to distinguish between its vital interests and those that were peripheral. By contrast, the most brilliant American strategist of the Cold War, George Kennan, always said that the Cold War depended on a small number of power centers.
He argued in the late 1940s there were just five, the United States, the United Kingdom, the West German region, Japan and the Soviet Union. As long as Washington could maintain the 4-1 ratio against Moscow, it would win the Cold War.
Kennan urged a steely-eyed focus on those centers of power. We must decide which areas are key areas and which ones are not, which ones we must hold with all our strength and which we may yield tactically.
Instead, Washington came to intervene in far-flung places all over the world to prevent Communists from gaining power anywhere. This was a fool's errand, and it produced only self-inflicted wounds. Strategy must be based on interest, not a reflexive response to any and all threats.
Henry Kissinger, a realist like Kennan, had been a skeptic of the Vietnam War as an academic. As a member of the Nixon administration, he supported vigorously prosecuting the war, while negotiating the withdrawal of American troops.
But in his private conversations with Nixon, he revealed that he did not believe in the central logic that had guided American intervention. It didn't really matter if South Vietnam fell, he told Nixon, and as long as it happened a year or two after American troops were gone, the American public wouldn't "give a damn."
South Vietnam did fall. It caused a humanitarian tragedy, but in the long run, it did not cripple the United States. Only a few minor dominoes fell to Communism in Asia, and 10 years after the fall of Saigon, the Reagan administration was negotiating from a position of strength with the Soviet Union. By 1991, the Soviet Union itself fell.
A key reason for the collapse of Moscow's empire, of course, was its intervention in Afghanistan, which bled the Soviet Union and sapped its will. The Russians got involved there for familiar reasons, an insurgency,
internal divisions, a fear of instability. Moscow should have paid attention to George Kennan's sage advice then, as we should now.
Go to CNN.com/Fareed for a link to my Washington Post column.
Next on "GPS," the pandemic has filled the world with death and despair. Well, I will talk to Laurie Santos, the professor who taught Yale University's most popular class ever about how to bring happiness back.
ZAKARIA (voice over): The pandemic has been challenging and painful for most people. Loss of friends, loved ones, losing jobs, closing businesses -- these are the life-altering events that have hit many of us in 2020 and into 2021. And the toll that's taken on our mental health is undeniable.
In December last year, the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression in a U.S. Census survey rose nearly 300 percent.
(on camera): So, how to bring happiness back?
Well, Laurie Santos is professor of psychology at Yale. Her podcast, the Happiness Lab, has a new season out this month.
Laurie, welcome back.
So let me ask you first about the pain. It's fair to say, and you deal with this, that some of this pain which is mental is actually very tangible and in some ways even physically apparent, right?
LAURIE SANTOS, PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY, YALE UNIVERSITY: Yeah, I mean, you know, we tend not to think about, like, mental health issues as a physical health issue, but it's worth remembering that, like, our brain is part of our body.
You know, if we're experiencing anxiety; if we're experiencing depression, these things are going to manifest in physical symptoms, you know, in things like how we're sleeping, you know, how we're digesting our food, right. Just all the anxiety we've been experiencing has been activating our fight-or-flight system, which has lots of physical manifestations.
And so the key is that we really need to treat mental health issues like we treat physical health issues. You know, if you broke your leg, you'd go to a doctor and try to deal with it. You know, if you stubbed your toe, you know, you'd put some ice on it. We need to treat mental health issues the same way and really take action and give ourselves some mental health first aid.
ZAKARIA: So what do we need to do in this -- you know, what are your sense of the best strategies to -- to build back better mentally?
SANTOS: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, the first step is to recognize that it's critical, right, that you need some strategies. And then some of the ones we talk a lot about on the podcast are things like, you know, taking time to feel a little bit more present, right, taking time to allow emotions that might not feel nice, you know, even allowing emotions like sadness, anxiety and so on.
The research really shows that trying to avoid those emotions is really bad for you. There's evidence that that can lead to things like cardiac stress and even memory problems. So one strategy is just be present even if it's not perfect. Just, kind of, allow those emotions to be there.
You know, another great strategy we talk about a lot is to experience gratitude, which can be hard in the time of a global pandemic, you know, especially right now, as, you know, are we backsliding; what's going on, right?
You know, we can tend to focus on all of the negatives, but the research really shows that this just, like, tiny step of redirecting your attention to the positives can have huge benefits both in terms of your well-being, but also in terms of making it easier to do things like eat more healthily, save for retirement. There is evidence that gratitude can help with our self-regulation. You know, doing hard things right now to protect our future self.
So these kinds of strategies can have lots of benefits.
ZAKARIA: What does gratitude mean, like taking the time to really think about the things that are going well or that you should be grateful for?
SANTOS: Yeah, I mean, even in the midst of an awful time like this, you know, there are things that are just wonderful in the world, you know, like the taste of a morning coffee, you know, the fact that your loved ones are alive, you know, your friend's smile, you know, summer weather, right?
These are just the simple kind of things that, if we train our brain to notice it, can be incredibly powerful.
ZAKARIA: You also talk in the podcast to Rob Lowe, the -- the Hollywood actor. And it turns into a fascinating conversation about nostalgia. And it made me think -- it actually has a lot of political implications, the power of nostalgia. So first explain what -- you know, what you talked to Rob about.
SANTOS: Yeah, well, nostalgia is this funny emotion because it's kind of bittersweet, you know, thinking back to the past in this sort of wistful way.
You know, historically people thought of nostalgia as a neurological disorder. You know, it was identified in the 1600s and people thought that it was the kind of thing that soldiers experienced, you know, maybe Swiss soldiers. They thought it was due to the clanging of Swiss cowbells, which was super-weird.
But it took folks a really long time to realize that nostalgia isn't a neurologic disorder. It can have these positive consequences. It can make us feel more socially connected when we think back to the good days of the past. It can even make us feel like we have a little bit more meaning in our lives.
But nostalgia can also be kind of negative, right, in part because our nostalgia for the past isn't an accurate representation of the past. There's lots of evidence that our minds edit our memories. You know, we focus on the good things and not the bad. In some ways, we even incorporate imagined realities.
The novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez talked about how we can become "easy victims to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia."
And I think this plays out on the political stage, when we can think back, you know, and think, "Oh, you know, the past was so great; let's go back there again." But we're thinking back to a past that in some cases never happened.
ZAKARIA: So that, you know, when you think about, obviously "Make America great again," that is nostalgia. But there's often been -- you know, there's often been this idea that there was once a garden of Eden, you know, and that we have fallen from it.
SANTOS: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, this is the way we think back to, you know, our society's old days, but it's also the way we think back to our personal old days, like our memories just don't incorporate the bad stuff.
It's what researchers call "rosy retrospection." You know, when we look at the past, we wear these rosy glasses and everything looks great. That means our individual decisions our bad. I might choose to take a vacation that, you know, really wasn't fun in reality.
But it means societally, we often want to go back to policy situations that in reality weren't good, and it's the fault of our memory that we're choosing to want to go back to those things.
ZAKARIA: And how does Rob Lowe fit into all of this?
SANTOS: Well, Rob is kind of a funny case. You know, he was such a famous actor in the '80s. You know, it was so cool for me to interview him because he was one of my idols. And his advice actually came, you know, from a lot of the work that he's done with his own addictions and his addiction treatments, which is the mantra of, kind of, being in the present moment, trying to make the present good so that it, too, will be filled with the kinds of events that lead to good memories down the line.
You know, and I think that's a really great message. You know, we can get the pleasures of nostalgia, but we often want to use our wistful thoughts about the past to figure out, what are we missing in the present?
You know, if you're thinking back to high school and, like, "Oh, my high school days with all my friends," you know, maybe that means you need a little bit more social connection right now. You know, if you're wistfully thinking back to a past job when you had fun, you know, maybe that means you need to build in a little bit more of the kind of things you enjoy in your life.
So we can use nostalgia in the present to figure out what we're missing, and then we can try to add those things back in.
ZAKARIA: Laurie Santos, always a pleasure. Thank you.
SANTOS: Thanks so much.
ZAKARIA: Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.