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William Inboden is a Christian with sterling establishment credentials. Educated at Stanford and Oxford, he gained a history Ph.D. at Yale, worked as a congressional staff member, and gained George W. Bush administration appointments: Department of State policy planner, senior director on the National Security Council.
Inboden is now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he directs the Clements Center for National Security. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment.
He and his wife Rana have one child. I interviewed him in Austin.
Now that you’re 46, what’s the most important thing you know now that you did not know 20 years ago? I would start with the enduring value of family, since I didn’t get married until my 30s. Our first child is now 4. I’m very thankful for the time and experience I had in my 20s, but I don’t have any yearning to go back to so-called freedom.
How did your Christian faith influence your Washington work? I felt it very important to treat others with kindness and dignity and respect, to maintain my personal witness. That’s especially important when you’re involved in contentious legislation and some of the people you are working with are other Christians and many are non-Christians and very aware that you’re a Christian. I failed in all sorts of ways. At times I was too aggressive. Some of the political tactics we used to get the bill passed were not always honest with others. But there was also the level of thinking about Christianity and statecraft, and the Christian’s calling to use the power of the United States in ways that would produce benefits in the world.
You joined the Bush administration in 2002. My first few weeks at State I drafted a speech on North Korea human rights violations and had to have it cleared and edited throughout the departments. One State Department staff member I had not met in person sent it back with some vigorous and critical edits. I thought, “How dare she savage my beautiful prose?” I met her a few weeks later. A couple of years after that we got married. A word to all guys with big egos, which was certainly me at the time: Be humble in accepting edits. There might be a charming young woman at the other end.
Your book on religion and foreign policy showed how American leaders, in documents not designed for public consumption, thought about the Cold War. Scholars knew American political leaders sometimes used religious rhetoric in their speeches, but most thought the use was a cynical attempt to stir up public support. Thanks to personal letters, diaries, and newly declassified documents, I realized that most American political leaders genuinely believed the Cold War was a religious war, that the United States had a certain calling by God to resist Soviet communism and promote freedom.
‘[Cold War–era American leaders] believed in religious liberty and religious disestablishment, but that did not preclude religious values in forming American foreign policy.’
A lot of them had read Whittaker Chambers? That’s right. Witness was helpful and was a very influential book for me when I first read it in high school. Policymakers really did see a conflict between the militant atheism of the Soviet Union and the Christian values of the United States and the Western world.
They didn’t see the separation of church and state as a mandate to try to banish God? Not at all. They certainly believed in religious liberty and religious disestablishment, but that did not preclude religious values in forming American foreign policy: They fought to defend that.
Let’s turn to the biggest current antagonist to religious liberty: Are we moving to a bipolar world with China? The U.S.-China relationship is the geopolitical story of the 21st century. China’s future ascendency is not necessarily inevitable. It has a strong and growing economy, a strong and modernizing military, but a very fragile and in some ways weak government. What Xi Jinping fears most is not necessarily the United States, but his own people. That’s why he has been trying to accrue more and more dictatorial powers to himself. That’s a sign of internal weakness, not strength.
What’s your assessment of the Chinese economy? It has tremendous imbalances and corruption. China’s economic dynamism in the last 20 years may not necessarily continue. We are seeing a backlash against China. With China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea, more and more countries want to partner with the U.S. against China.
Pope Francis made a deal with China that Cardinal Zen called a betrayal. What would you call it? Horrible. As a Reformed Protestant I can’t speak for Catholicism, but yes, it was a betrayal. Pope Francis could have negotiated a better deal, but in international diplomacy as in buying a used car you don’t want to be the one who’s desperate to make the sale: You give up all your leverage.
So, it’s not inevitable that giving in to China is the only way to survive? We’ve seen this story before. The 1970s were a time of American decline but it was not inevitable, and American renewal came in the 1980s. I’m not saying that I believe in a cyclical pattern either. I’m wary of overall patterns in history.
How important was Ronald Reagan to renewal in the 1980s? I’m writing a book on President Reagan’s foreign policy. He advocated free trade, invented NAFTA, and was deeply committed to our allies. He thought America had an important role to play in the world, and that’s one reason he was so successful in helping bring down the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War peacefully. He was the complete antithesis of Donald Trump in every meaningful way in foreign policy.
Looking back now after 15 years, what do you think about the war in Iraq? I strongly supported the war in Iraq at the time. I believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a genuine security threat to the United States. I now think I was wrong to do so. Knowing what I know now, I certainly would not have encouraged or supported the war. That said, I have no regrets that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. If he had stayed in power, he certainly was a very bad actor with very bad intentions, and we don’t know what other bad things might have come out.
Do you think we are better off now because of that war than we otherwise would be? Iraq is now a fragile yet functioning democracy, and generally more aligned with the United States than other countries in the region. Iraq is not a threat to its neighbors, is not pursuing WMDs, is not supporting terrorism. The Iraqi economy has had its share of challenges but certainly with oil reserves is on a positive trajectory. We are worried about Iranian influence.
What should the U.S. do regarding Iran? I supported the withdrawal from the bad Iran nuclear deal that Barack Obama got us into—but it seems we withdrew from it without a viable backup plan in place. There would have been an opening to get the Europeans to support us in a new round of sanctions, but I think we blew that. I supported moving our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and that had been effectively called for the last 20 years anyway—but the means was clumsy.
So on balance? The larger question is: Were all the costs in blood and treasure worth it? That’s the one I have a harder time squaring. But we should applaud some very positive outcomes and not dismiss the war as a complete failure or disaster.