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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Interview With Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley; Interview With Author Walter Isaacson. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired September 17, 2023 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: 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): On this week's program, I travel to the Pentagon for an exit interview with the top military adviser to Presidents Trump and Biden. After almost 45 years of service, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, will retire at the end of this month. I asked him about Russia, Ukraine, China, Taiwan. Plus his controversial appearance with Trump in Lafayette Park and allegations that the U.S. Military has become too woke.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I would tell you that the military I see is a military that's exceptionally strong, that's powerful, it's ready.

ZAKARIA: Then, Elon Musk, currently the world's richest man. He's also one of the most controversial. Critics say he has far too much control over everything from the war in Ukraine, to the voices that are heard online. The great biographer of our times Walter Isaacson got unparalleled access to Musk for a brand-new book on the billionaire. He'll tell me what he learned.


ZAKARIA: But first, here's "My Take."

The Democrats are confronting a crisis that could cripple their chances at the polls. At the national, state and local level. I'm talking about immigration. It's happening not only because Republicans are taking advantage of the problem, but also because Democrats are unwilling to accept that their policy ideas on the issue are wrong. Grossly inadequate to the challenge at hand.

Apprehensions at the southern border are surging again. Texas border towns have long been inundated by the waves of arrivals. But now that migrants are being bused into cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., local governments there are facing back-breaking expenses to house them.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams was exaggerating only slightly when he said this problem would destroy the city. The Biden administration's various efforts have amounted to band-aids on a massive open wound. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has repeatedly said that the asylum system is broken. But if that's true, we need a drastic dramatic overhaul of the system. And neither he nor President Biden is proposing anything like that.

To understand how to think about this issue, let's go back to basics. After World War II, the United States developed pathways for people who faced extreme persecution because of their race, religion or beliefs to take refuge in America. But there are two realities that are critical to turning this idealistic impulse into a workable system.

First, there are surely tens of millions of people around the world who could plausibly claim that they face persecution, and the U.S. cannot possibly take them all in. More importantly, the U.S. cannot be forced to give priority to people who break the law and enter the country illegally and then claim asylum status to legitimatize that entry as opposed to those who follow the rules, apply from their home countries, and wait their turn. But that is what is happening every day now at the southern border.

Second, these asylum cases must be special and distinct from the cases of people from all over the world who are trying to immigrate to the United States because they're fleeing poverty, disease or violence. People who fall into this category face a complex and elaborate process that entails several mechanisms for turning various kinds of visas and work permits, some of which can eventually translate into a green card and eventually citizenship.

But instead of going through that arduous, lengthy, legal process, many simply have decided it would be simpler to pay cartels to help them cross the border illegally, present themselves as asylum-seekers, and slip into the country while their cases are being adjudicated. According to the Homeland Security inspector general, in just one 17- month period between March 2021 and August 2022, the federal government released more than one million migrants into the U.S. and immediately lost track of over 177,000 of them who had failed to give an address or had provided an invalid one.


When the system of due process collapses, as it has, it is most unfair to those who have legitimate claims to asylum or legal immigrant status. There is only one solution to this crisis. President Biden should either ask Congress for authority or use existing executive authority to suspend entirely the admission of asylum-seekers while the system digests the millions of immigration cases already pending.

The British government has passed a law to this effect. Other Western countries will undoubtedly follow. The world has changed. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees there are more than 40 million refugees and asylum-seekers globally. We need entirely new laws, standards, courts and systems so that asylum can be granted but through some orderly rational process rather than just leaving it up to officials in countries that are overwhelmed by legal entrants at their borders.

The migrant crisis is exposing Democratic policy weakness at every level. From an administration that is scared to take on its progressive wing and take bold action to states like New York and Massachusetts that have right to shelter rules that are utterly unworkable in the face of this onslaught. Unless Democrats seize control of this issue, the politics of it will end up having the same effect as in other Western countries. Rocket fuel for the populist right.

Donald Trump's main solution to this problem just didn't work. The very fact that we have millions of migrants entering the country over the past few years proves that however much of his wall he actually built, it hasn't worked. But most Americans know that he sees the current situation as utterly unacceptable and is willing to take extreme measures to end it, and they know no such thing about his Democratic opponents.

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

Mark Milley is going out on top. The four-star army general is America's highest ranking military officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role, he is the top military adviser to President Biden, a job he also performed for President Trump. That role has entangled the general in politics in a way he's decidedly uncomfortable with. His almost 45-year career in the military started when he graduated from Princeton University and has taken him through many tours of combat duty.

Now he is retiring and returning to civilian life. We sat down on Tuesday at the Pentagon for a wide-ranging exit interview.


ZAKARIA: General Milley, pleasure to have you on.

MILLEY: Thank you, Fareed. Appreciate the opportunity to be here.

ZAKARIA: How long before you retire as chairman of the Joint Chiefs?

MILLEY: Just a couple of weeks now. I retired by law at midnight on the 30th and so what is that, 18, 19 days, something like that.

ZAKARIA: And then what's the first thing you're going to do?

MILLEY: Well, my wife and I will move out of our set of quarters on Fort Myer, then I intend to sleep, get rid of the bags under the eyes and be the best grandfather I could be.

ZAKARIA: Let's jump right into it. A lot of people on the Ukrainian side that I talked to last week when I was in Kyiv say we don't understand. We asked for these weapons, let's say HIMARS, and the West or the United States says no, no, no, and then finally gives them to us. But it's now eight months or nine months later. We feel like the same thing is happening with ATACMS, the same thing is happening with F-16s.

If you're going to give them to us, why not give them to us fast?

MILLEY: Well, I think, you know, over the period of time, we have given them considerable amount of military aid. About $40 billion worth so far. And over $100 billion in total aid if you include monetary and humanitarian aid. So that is just the United States. The United States has been extraordinary generous.

ZAKARIA: No, it has. But the question is -- if you want them to win, why not do it fast?

MILLEY: Yes. So the question is speed. There is mechanical issues there in terms of how fast you can marshal this equipment and how fast you can get it across the lines of communication from adjacent countries and then how fast they can absorb it. So it's not just sprinkle magic dust and this stuff starts showing up.

The other thing is need. So at beginning of this war, the greatest need was for anti-armor weapons, for example, to stop the Russian offensive and that's what they got.


And then as they shifted into what the current operation is, they needed tanks, Bradleys, Leopards, Gepards, those sorts of, you know, mechanized and armored vehicles of various types. And the West was very generous in providing those. And then you have to have the training to go on with them and spare parts, the munitions that are with those things. So all of that does take a period of time to do. It's not a question of, you know, it just all shows up at once.

ZAKARIA: What do you think of the current state of the counteroffensive? Do you think the Ukrainians are now beginning to push the Russians out of cities and towns?

MILLEY: Well, I think they've been doing it pretty consistently absolutely since last summer. The winter was a lot of fighting but not a lot of movement. And then this offensive, although slow, slower than the planners had anticipated, it has been steady and they have made steady progress through these various defensive belts, and they have fought hard up in Bakhmut, they fought down in Donetsk, and of course they're fighting down in Zaporizhzhia and down towards Melitopol and Mariupol and all of that.

So it has been steady progress. What I said months ago was it's going to be long, hard, bloody because the nature of this particular fight and the type of defense that the Russians put in, and the capabilities of the Ukrainians uttered for a very, very difficult, long tough fight. But the Ukrainians have been doing that. They have a lot of combat power remaining. The Ukrainians are not a spent force. And there is sufficient weather that allows them to continue to achieve their steady progress.

They have not failed. I know there's some commentary out there that somehow this offensive has failed. It hasn't failed. It's at least achieved partial success. They're already through several of these belts and they've got time left. So we'll see where it goes. But the Ukrainians are demonstrating an incredible ability of courage, resilience, toughness, and they are slowly but steadily working their way through some very, very difficult Russian defenses.

ZAKARIA: So a realistic goal that many believe Ukraine should have is essentially to gain access to the Sea of Azov, or, you know, go down south Mariupol, that area, so that it frees up Odessa as the port they can then start freely exporting all their grain from. You believe that's doable?

MILLEY: Well, we'll see. I think it's -- I wouldn't want to make a prediction on that just yet. We'll see what happens. Again, there is well over 200,000 Russian troops in Russian occupied Ukraine. This offensive, although significant, has operational and tactical objectives that are limited in the sense that they do not, even if they are fully achieved, they don't completely kick out all the Russians which is the broader strategic objective that President Zelenskyy have.

That's going to take a long time to do that. That's going to be very significant effort over a considerable amount of time. I don't want to put a time on it because a lot of things can happen in a war. It's action, reaction, counteraction. You could see a general collapse, you could see escalation, you could see a lot of different things happen in the future. But I can tell you that it will take a considerable length of time to militarily eject all 200,000 plus Russian troops out of Russian occupied Ukraine. That's a very high bar. It's going to take a long time to do it.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, the tension in the Pacific is palpable and it is focused on Taiwan. If China invades the island, what could the U.S. Military do? I will ask General Milley when we come back.



ZAKARIA: General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has not spoken to his Chinese counterpart in over a year. Since July 2022. That single fact alone speaks volumes about the dangerous tensions between the world's two most powerful countries.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in March, General Milley said that while war with China isn't imminent or inevitable, the U.S. needs to keep its military stronger than China's so that if deterrence fails, America can win.

Here's more with General Milley.


ZAKARIA: You have said that China is on track to have a military that might even be more powerful than the United States. MILLEY: That is their objective.

ZAKARIA: And you say they are moving in that direction?

MILLEY: They're trying to move in that direction.

ZAKARIA: Is it possible that we will look back and think that we overestimated them in the way that I remember estimations of Soviet military power, that in retrospect were wildly off.


ZAKARIA: I remember the estimates of Saddam Hussein's military that in retrospect were wildly off.


ZAKARIA: Are we -- you know, is it possible that because it's a bit of a black box and we don't know a lot but we tend to think our enemies are taller than they are?

MILLEY: Absolutely. I mean, that's very possible and the Chinese are not 10 feet tall. And notice, I said that's their plan, that's their desire, that's their aspiration. And if we stay still, if the United States stays still and the United States military stays still, and we don't modernize, then there is a reasonable chance that the Chinese would succeed in doing that.

But what you're seeing, Fareed, is probably the largest shift in economic power in well over a century since the rise of the United States economically in the late 1800s, perhaps even multiple centuries. The rise of the West and the fall of Rome something like that. You've seen an enormous shift in global economic power to China beginning with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in '79.


I'm commissioned in 1980s so 45 years ago, the economics of the world began to shift. So today you've got the manufacturing capital of the world, you know, without exception is China. And in the wake of that shift in economic power, the Chinese took that money and have invested in making a world class military. That's what they're trying to do. They want a military that's very capable in space, in cyber and then the traditional demands of land, sea and air.

They've developed fourth and fifth generation fighter bombers, really copying our designs. They're trying to develop a blue water navy, a subsurface navy, they've reformed their ground forces from an infantry, peasant-based army of the 1970s to a modern army with multiple commands, et cetera.

So they're on the path to do that and their goal is to exceed the United States Military capability in East Asia really by the end of this decade. Certainly by the middle of next decade. And they want the United States to exit East Asia militarily and diplomatically. They want us to cease being the arbitrator of outcomes in Asia, and then -- and they want to be the global challenger of the United States by mid- century.

They want to meet or exceed U.S. Military capabilities by mid-century. So -- but we're not going to stand still. The United States is going to continue to modernize, continue to invest. And I know it sounds a bit like a bumper sticker, but there is value in the phrase peace through strength. So the objective here is deterrence. You don't want a great power war.

We had a great power war in World War I, we had a great power war in World War II. We haven't had one in 80 years and we need to make sure that we avoid a great power war. And China, you know, can be evaluated a lot of different ways but great power is certainly what they are, economically, militarily they're capable, and we should try our very best to avoid open armed conflict with China.

ZAKARIA: The most likely flash point is Taiwan. Reports say Christian Brose's book -- he was an aide to Senator McCain, that the Pentagon has done many, many war games over Taiwan. The U.S. has almost never won in those war games. Is it possible for the United States to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?

MILLEY: It's entirely possible. Yes. So I've done a massive amount of war games over the years and, you know, I'm in my 44th year of service. War games start out with training objectives. A lot of times you're experimenting in them. You're introducing new capabilities so you've got to be careful with the conclusions from, quote-unquote, "war games." They're typically not exactly free play and they are designed to achieve certain outcomes to begin with.

So I would tell you a couple of things in an unclassified way about, you know, Taiwan. First of all, we the United States still maintain that the Taiwan Relations Act, the communication assurances that go with that, and we the United States want a peaceful outcome between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China, and whatever that is between those two peoples, that is the U.S. desire, right? As long as it's done peacefully.

So -- but militarily, I think China would make a grave strategic mistake if they attempted to attack to seize the island of Taiwan. That's not the only option, by the way. But to attack and seize the island of Taiwan is a very, very high bar. It's the most complex of all operations to do. And frankly the Chinese military capability is probably not there right this second to do that. President Xi in public unclassified speeches has challenged the People's Liberation Army and Navy and Air Force to develop that capability by 2027 is what he said.

It used to be the 2030s and then he moved it to 2027. That doesn't mean he made a decision to do it but that means that he wants them to have the capability to do it. And what that also means is they don't have the capability right this second. At least in his mind.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff is supposed to be an apolitical job. But Mark Milley has been thrust into politics regardless. I'll ask him about that when we come back.



ZAKARIA: General Milley was the Army's Chief of Staff in 2018 when he made history. He became the first ever chairman of the Joint Chiefs whose nomination was announced in a tweet. And the message then President Trump called both Milley and his predecessor Joe Dunford incredible men. Trump would come to turn on his chairman and embroil him in politics. He stayed on when President Biden took office. In a recent Rose Garden address, Biden said to Milley --


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I trust you completely. Completely.


ZAKARIA: Now more of General Milley's exit interview with me.


ZAKARIA: General, let me ask you about some questions relating to civil military relations because you occupy a unique position. You're a uniformed military officer but you are also the principal adviser to the president. You said after President Trump asked you to walk with him on that infamous walk through Lafayette Park and held up the bible that you made a mistake. You shouldn't have been there.

What was the -- what was the mistake in your mind? How would you characterize what you did wrong and what lesson you learned?

MILLEY: Well, I think the key thing is that the United States Military must be apolitical or actually nonpolitical, and nonpartisan. And the mistake I made was I walked into a political event. Unwittingly but a political event nonetheless. And I was in uniform. So that shouldn't happen. That is not President Trump. That's me.


President Trump is a politician. He can do whatever he wants to do. But as a soldier, I should never enter into politics.

And as soon as I recognized it, it lasted about 30 to 40 seconds. Photos were taken. It lasted a lifetime kind of thing. But as soon as I recognized it, I walked away. My agent -- security detail walked off to the right and got out of the way.

So -- but, yes, that shouldn't have happened. And I knew instantly once I realized that it was a political event that I shouldn't be there in uniform. And I thought the best thing to do -- I was already on preplanned speech for graduation for NDU and I inserted the part of it to try to make that as a teaching moment for our up-and-coming officers to make sure they knew that, you know, I had made a mistake and I regretted that.

ZAKARIA: And if you were to do it again -- the president --

MILLEY: I would not participate.

ZAKARIA: The president asked you to do something --

MILLEY: I wouldn't participate --


ZAKARIA: -- in the Oval office you would have said no?

MILLEY: Absolutely. There is no place for a uniform to be in a political event, period. Now, that doesn't mean, you know, that doesn't happen every now and again. I've been in, you know, the -- both sides of the aisle put me or my predecessors in photographs at various times, et cetera. That stuff happens. It is not necessarily great. But it happens on occasion.

I've been in campaign commercials and we've asked campaigns to please take us out and normally they do. So, the bottom line is the United States of America is a healthy independent democratic republic. We don't want our military involved in actual U.S. domestic politics.

It is true that war is politics but that is a different case. We're talking about U.S. domestic politics and the U.S. military has no part in that.

ZAKARIA: So, there are people -- critics of yours on the right who say, you say all that but you actually do inject yourself into politics. You talk about how the military is not woke. How the military officers should be reading Karl Marx. How -- you know, you've opined on things that for some of them they feel is not adhering to the kind of strict Huntingtonian distinction between civil authority and military authority.

MILLEY: Yes. You know, as a chairman, you're rendering advice but all of our offices operate inside of a political environment. So, injecting yourself into politics is not the same as being informed by the environment that you're operating in.

If you're operating or rendering advice to any civilian authorities you do have to be informed and have an understanding of the terrain that you're operating in. So, blissful ignorance isn't one of those courses of actions. You need to be informed of the society that you defend and the environment in which you're operating. So, a broad education, I think, is critical to any professional officer of this branch.

ZAKARIA: Is the U.S. military too woke?

MILLEY: No, not at all. So -- you know, I'm not even sure what that word truly means. But I would tell you that the military I see, is a military that is exceptionally strong. It's powerful. It's ready. In fact, our readiness rate is -- the way we measure readiness is better now than they've been in years. And what I see on a day-to-day basis -- right now for example, Fareed, in the last 24 hours we've had about 5,000 sorties of U.S. aircraft that are keeping the skies safe. You've had somewhere between 60 and 100 U.S. naval vessels patrolling the seven seas. You've got a quarter of a million U.S. troops -- ground troops, the army or marine corps, on freedom frontier sort of thing around the world maintaining peace and stability.

This is a military that's dedicated to maintaining our readiness or capabilities or lethality. And the thing that we also need to focus on is the modernization for the future character of war that I see fundamentally changing. But this -- military is a lot of things but woke it is not.

So, I take exception to that. I think that people say those things for reasons that are their own reasons. But it's not true. It's not accurate.

And it is not to say, by the way, that there is -- there is not some things out there that are -- could be fit into that category. But I don't think it certainly is -- it is not a broad-brush description of the U.S. military as it exists today.

ZAKARIA: And finally, are you going to write a memoir?

MILLEY: I'll probably write. I don't know that I would do a tell-all. A lot of people have mentioned that to me. Frankly, I haven't given a lot of thought to what I would do after 1 October. Right now, there is a lot of things going on. And we've got a couple of weeks left.

Bad things can happen in very short periods of time in the world. So, I have got to remain focused on the job and that is exactly what I'm doing.

So, I'll probably write some things in the future. A tell-all is probably not -- I think that's probably not something that a chairman or a general officer should be doing but I think that I'll probably write and make sort of a contribution. Right now, though, I'm focused on the job and I have got to run through the tape here all the way through 1 October.

ZAKARIA: General, pleasure to have you on, sir. Thank you.

MILLEY: Thanks, Fareed. Appreciate it. Appreciate the opportunity.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, love him or hate him, Elon Musk is one of the world's most influential people. Walter Isaacson got inside access for his new biography of the multi-billionaire.


He will explain Musk's vision for the future, how he thinks and what makes him tick after the break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Elon Musk is not just the world's richest man. He is one of the world's most influential people. He oversees a sprawling empire of companies that are shaping the future, touching on clean energy, space exploration, communication and now artificial intelligence.

He is a brilliant businessman and a visionary. He is also reckless, mercurial, at times juvenile, and some say dangerous. The great biographer Walter Isaacson set out to understand this complex figure. Isaacson has written a slew of acclaimed books about different geniuses through history. His new book is titled simply "Elon Musk." Walter, pleasure to have you on.

WALTER ISAACSON, AUTHOR, "ELON MUSK": Hey, Fareed. Good to be back with you.

ZAKARIA: So, I am somewhat skeptical of the idea that, you know, people's childhood -- that early ages forever shapes them.


But this one seems extraordinary. I mean, he said to you, adversity shaped me. And what he's describing is a pretty -- what you described is a pretty harrowing childhood.

ISAACSON: Right, right. And people can have perfectly wonderful childhoods and still be great innovators. But there is some correlation it seems to me sometimes between, you know, an Einstein or a Kissinger growing up, Jewish in Germany or, you know, Leonardo growing up gay in the village of Vinci and having to leave to Florence.

But in this case, with Elon Musk, it was such a brutal childhood in South Africa, lots of violence. He and his brother Kimbal would go to an anti-apartheid conference -- concert. The doors of the train would open and there would just be somebody sprawled there with a knife and they would have to step through the pools of blood.

And he got beaten up so often because he was very socially awkward as a kid. But the scars really came from his father who then took the side of the kid who beat Elon up. And when they -- Elon stand there for like an hour and call him stupid. So, there is a light and dark side to Musk that is really shaped by the adversity of childhood as he says.

ZAKARIA: And, you know, it seems to have produced a kind of punch back hard mentality. His brother describes his fascination with video games. And he says, the video games taught him lessons like empathy is not an asset, play life like a game, don't fear losing. So, these --

ISAACSON: And don't unplug. He just keeps going to the next level of the game. But even early on, there is something called Veld School in South Africa. There's like a wilderness, survival camp they send kids to. And the first time he goes there, he loses 10 pounds because they keep beating him up, taking all the food. They encourage the kids to fight over the food. The second time he goes he has gotten a little bit bigger and he said, I learned to punch people in the nose really hard and they would still beat me up sometimes. But if I punched them really hard in the nose, they would remember it. And that's almost a metaphor for now, which is you see him very successful but he is sometimes eager to punch people in the nose.

ZAKARIA: We have got to skip through the career because I want to get at to what seems to be the most fascinating parts of the book. One of his geniuses, it seems to me, is a kind of engineering genius. You know, even though he's a physics major I think -- but he -- but he -- like, you point out in Tesla, the key innovation might be that unlike every other car manufacturer in the world, he decided Tesla was going to make all its components itself. It was not going to have those hundreds of suppliers and that is in some ways what has created this kind of complete almost Apple-like closed universe, right?

ISAACSON: Exactly. And it is very much one of the transformations he has caused because when Tesla was first formed it was making the batteries in Japan and the battery packs would be in some barbecue place in Thailand and then go to England to be -- anyway, he said, no. You have to do it end to end yourself. And we can manufacture in the United States again.

And people at that point in the '70s and '80s, all of the car companies have outsourced almost 70 percent of what they did. And he says that, if you manufacture it, if you walk the factory line every day, and you make your designers have their desks next to the factory assembly line, then they can iterate hour-by-hour and see what works.

And so, to me one of his strengths, it is not the sexiest thing that makes the tabloid, is the ability to design not just cars but the factories and assembly lines that make cars and to show how those are connected.

ZAKARIA: And in a way he has also created the model for a Tesla which is really -- it's software on wheels and the software gets updates like a phone constantly.

ISAACSON: Yes. And it allows it to totally change -- and the big thing that he is aiming for, and as usual he is able to turn the impossible into the very late, it is going to take a while, is self-driving. The car that drives itself. And that is all a software issue.

And one of the big leaps he did right -- just a few months ago and sort of the near the end of the book, is they had hundreds of thousands of lines of code that taught the car how to drive. You see a red light, you stop. You see yellow lines, don't cross. Now they're doing it with machine learning like ChatGPT, generative artificial intelligence -- you know, it's filling up the computer with a billion frames of video a day of humans driving so the car learns to do what a human would do in the situation.

ZAKARIA: And when you look at something like SpaceX, you know, what do you see as the kind of fundamental kind of genius there?


ISAACSON: A lot of it but let's start with risk taking. I mean, he sets up the first three rockets. They all blow up. And he said, you know, everybody who came to America must -- came -- were risk takers. Whether they came on the Mayflower or came across the Rio Grande. But we lost the talent for being risk takers. We have got more referees than risk takers and regulators.

So, he is willing to try things. And it means that Boeing and NASA have not been able to get, say astronauts in the U.S. into orbit, into the space station, but he's able to do that multiple times. He sent up 5,000 communication satellites which are the only ones that work. And it is that ability to iterate and take risks that I think is just part one of the puzzle.

ZAKARIA: Stay with us. When we come back, I'm going to ask Walter Isaacson whether Elon Musk's success has a lot to do with the government even though he's kind of a libertarian himself. When we come back.



ZAKARIA: And we are back with Walter Isaacson talking about Elon Musk. People now think of Musk as something of a conservative because, you know -- and certainly a kind of libertarian around COVID. But I'm struck by his biggest businesses are all totally dependent on the government. SpaceX, the biggest customers are NASA and the defense department. Tesla, without the loan he got, Tesla might not have survived. But more importantly as a Tesla owner, you get a huge tax credit for buying it. And Solar, when he did it, said he was entirely based on, again, the federal tax credits, California tax credits. Does he reflect on the oddity of thinking of himself?

ISAACSON: Well, he definitely understands the role -- the government is even in favor of regulation including for A.I. now. He just went to talk to Chuck Schumer and others in the Senate. But there is a distinction I'm going to try to make here, which is Boeing and other contractors have cost-plus contacts which means the government pays you and if you're late you get more and you -- get a guaranteed profit. And if it goes, if the cost overruns you actually make more money.

What Musk did was that it is a fee for service. If you want the satellites up you pay me this much and I take the risk. And it is a new way of doing business which means the risk capital came from SpaceX and him, not from the government.

ZAKARIA: Though the Tesla loan he got from --


ISAACSON: Well, actually, he did not get an auto bailout in those famous auto bailouts. He got a Department of Energy loan that was paid back with interest. I'm not trying to defend it because I think you're exactly right. Government has to help incent certain types of economic activity. And certainly, when it came to the translation of electric vehicles Musk was right in the floor of that but there are a lot of government incentives.

ZAKARIA: Starlink. What I want to ask you about the Starlink case is -- so he -- you know, it's now famous because of your book that he told Starlink -- the Ukrainians, I won't let you use Starlink in Crimea if you start attacking it. You can use it in Ukraine, you know, not including kind of the parts that the Russians annexed in 2014, you can use the part they annexed in 2022.

The reason he said it is because he thinks -- he thought that that would cause World War III, that the Russians would respond with nuclear weapons. Well, the Ukrainian found ways to attack Crimea repeatedly, in fact, just last week, and the Russians have not used nuclear weapons. Do you think that -- does Elon Musk take feedback that is negative? Does he realize that he was wrong about that?

ISAACSON: Well, he does have this apocalyptic view of the world. That anything at any point could just become World War III and go nuclear. And certainly, that night in September when he's deciding not to enable Starlink, the Ukrainians don't know it is already been disabled, he thinks that it's going to cause World War III. They're going to go nuclear.

And in the end, as you say, that wasn't exactly true. But I don't know. You're more of an expert than I am. There was a nontrivial chance that it could have caused a more robust response. But it didn't.

Yes. And so, Musk, does take feedback not very well. One of his weaknesses, not enough people telling him no. But at a certain point he takes feedback. You've had Mark Milley earlier on this show. He talks to General Mark Milley. He talks to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. And they decide that control of Starlink should now be some of it transferred to the U.S. government. So that the U.S. government gets to make the decision on would it be too dangerous to allow it to be used that way.

So, I watched him over the past few months. He said, maybe there is too much power for a private citizen like me and maybe I don't know whether it is going to cause a nuclear war. Let's let the U.S. government do it.

ZAKARIA: We just have a minute but I want to ask you the central question one gets from your Jobs and Musk books is do you have to be an asshole to be a genius? What do you think?

ISAACSON: No, no. And I wrote, I hope somebody will read it. Jennifer Doudna of "The Code Breaker." My last book -- about the nicest person in the world. And she helps invent this technology called CRISPR that allows us to edit or genes, huge technology, and has the sweetest lab there is. And I think maybe one of your favorites might be Benjamin Franklin because he's so much like you. Benjamin Franklin is a guy who brings people together. So, if you write biography, it is not like you're writing seven secrets to how to be an effective leader.


You're writing about real people. Some of whom are kind and gentle, some of whom are rough around the edges, and you let the reader decide, OK, I get it.

ZAKARIA: Do you know what you're going to do next? You just had a slew of extraordinary books.

ISAACSON: You know, I want to be like always be at the intersection of science, humanities, and technology. And as you know, especially after Henry Kissinger, I go way back in history to Benjamin Franklin -- after Steve Jobs I go back in history. There's a part of me now that wants to go into the Wayback Machine.

ZAKARIA: The Wayback Machine. Walter Isaacson, always such a pleasure.

ISAACSON: Thank you, Fareed. Thank you.

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