Morgan Ortagus, former Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, joins the podcast this week to dissect the Biden Administration’s foreign policy. We discuss the recent protests in Cuba, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and whether or not inviting UN Human Rights Council “experts” to investigate racism in the U.S. sets a good example for the rest of the world.
Morgan Ortagus is a seasoned business executive, distinguished public policy and communications professional, and an active U.S. Naval Reserve Officer. From 2019 to 2021, she served at the Department of State as the Spokesperson for the United States of America. During this time, she worked closely with the White House on the historic Abraham Accords that brought peace deals between Israel and UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan. As Spokesperson, she developed strategic communications plans for every area of U.S. foreign policy. In February 2021, Morgan joined Adam Boehler in starting Rubicon Founders, a leading healthcare investment firm.
And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg and on today’s episode, Morgan Ortagus former spokesperson for the U.S. department of state joins us to dissect the Biden administration’s foreign policy. We’ll discuss the recent protests in Cuba, the withdraw from Afghanistan and whether or not inviting the UN Human Rights Council experts to investigate racism in the U.S. sets a good example to the rest of the world.
But before we bring her on, a little bit more about Morgan. Morgan Ortagus is a seasoned business executive, distinguished public policy and communications professional, and an active U.S. Naval Reserve officer. From 2019 to 2021, she served at the department of state as a spokesperson for the United States of America. During this time she worked closely with the White House on the historic Abraham Accords that brought peace deals between Israel and UAE and Bahrain and Sudan. And as spokesperson, she developed strategic communications plans for every area of U.S. foreign policy. In February of this year, Morgan joined Adam Boehler and started Rubicon Founders, a leading healthcare investment firm. Morgan, thank you so much for joining She Thinks today.
I’m thrilled to be with you. Thank you so much.
And I want to start with the important things first. You’re a new mom. How is motherhood going? How is your little girl doing?
She’s great. She’s eight and a half months now. She is full of life, laughter. She is crawling and spending most of the day terrorizing the dog, the poor doggy has been around for 12 or 13 years now and doesn’t understand this little creature that keep stealing all his bones and putting her hands in his water and food. They’re still adjusting to each other.
And how have you adjusted? What is it like to balance family life and work life? You have a busy workload. How do you manage to seemingly do it all? Although I think people often say, it’s not that you can do everything, it’s that you do some things one at a time. It’s not that women can always do everything all at once.
That’s right. Well, listen, I think it starts with the fact that I married well. So, I have a husband who is just totally, I wouldn’t even say he’s a 50% partner. I think he actually does more than I do sometimes. It might even be 60/40. So, I’m just incredibly lucky to have such a supportive partner, spouse and everything in life, and certainly in child-rearing. And then I just sort of realized what you just said. I think you hit the nail on the head, which is something’s got to give. You don’t have all the time that you had before you were single. And obviously children are a blessing. And so I can’t cram everything in that I used, but I try to get to as much as I can. And if something drops, something drops, right? But that’s, I guess, the way I look at it now.
Well, we so appreciate that you have fit in She Thinks with your busy schedule and I want to move on to what I think is interesting this week. And that is this week marks the sixth month of the Biden administration. So, Joe Biden has had six months to roll out what he believes in as an effective foreign policy. How would you grade him so far to this point?
So, as far as the grade, I think I’ll say a C for now. There’s some things that I like as it relates to how they are pursuing, I think, many of the policies from the Trump administration and Mike Pompeo’s state department that we pursued on China. And I think that the challenge of the Chinese Communist Party is the fact that they want to challenge not only America, but the West, democracy, and anyone who loves freedom—they want to challenge that in every institution and in every sphere around the world. So, the challenge of dealing with the Chinese Communist Party, the challenge is fact that they want to dominate not only the Asian region, but eventually the world, and have the world rules based order based on their rules, on the way the communist wants to write them. That challenge is too big for one party.
So, I’ve always said I’m going to cheer along the Biden administration when I think they get it right on issues related to China. But the problem is, is that nothing is done in a silo in foreign policy, nothing is done in isolation. So, when you look at what I think was a very disappointing and lackluster of response in Cuba, for example, to the protests there. When you look at that, that sends a signal to every other rogue regime in the world of what the Biden administration will and will not tolerate as it relates to people protesting for their freedom. And it really took them, I think, a good solid week to finally get their footing on Cuba. And it doesn’t make sense, right? We’re talking about something that could be a human rights catastrophe as Senator Rubio has talked about 90 miles from our shores of the United States.
So, I’d say, just because in some places I think they’re getting China right. But another places like Cuba, that wasn’t great. But I got to tell you, as it relates to one place that they’re dropping the ball in China and especially Russia is in the cyber domain. We have seen now, and we just saw the United States come forward and blame rogue actors in China for cyber hacks. And we obviously have seen that several large attacks on the Russian side. So, in the attack from the Russians, when they attacked the pipeline, when they attacked various critical infrastructure and Putin sort of shook his hands and said, oh, it’s not us. It’s not the government. It’s just these hackers. I would really argue, unfortunately at the time, that we need to be doing everything we can to hold the Russian government responsible for what happens on their soil.
And just sort of Biden is just giving Putin has pass and saying, well, it’s not him. It’s not the government, it’s these actors. And I just don’t understand what the Biden team, what the president himself and what his team is doing with that response. And I had said, what will happen is other actors, other people now we know it’s the Chinese, not just the Chinese, right? It could also be the Iranians, Russians. You name it. There’s a lot of people with sophisticated cyber capabilities. Whenever other rogue states see that there’s no consequences when you just sort of blame it on local cyber hacking groups in your countries, then that only begets more cyber activity.
So, I mean, I could go around the world. So, I won’t do that, it will go for hours. But I’ll just say, some places I like the policies that they’re pursuing as it relates to China to hold them accountable, by keeping some of the sanctions and things in place, especially as it relates to Hong Kong and the genocide and Xinjiang that we declared in the Trump administration. So, that parts, but there’s other parts of the world where I think it’s just a very weak sort of start out of the gate and they stumbled.
And on the cyber threat, one of the things that I have wondered is when we take a look at Congress, do we think the individual congressmen and women understand cybersecurity well enough to be able to figure out how to protect this country? Do you think that it’s essential for the private market, the private enterprise to be working hand in hand with the government? Because we are talking about things that are very technical, and unless somebody is skilled in it, understands it very well, it’s very hard to know how to craft legislation in order to protect the country.
Yeah. So, listen, I don’t know that I totally understand that as much as I need to. I mean, in dealing with cyber hacking is incredibly technical. We have hopefully some of America’s best experts working on this, but I think what you said is totally right. That we absolutely have to have the public sector and the private sector working together. But the real thing is that it doesn’t matter, in some ways, when you think about the doctrine of proportionality for an attack. It doesn’t matter if it is a cyber-attack on our critical infrastructure or if it’s a traditional bomb attack on our critical infrastructure, in some ways. What I mean by that is we have to think about what is the proportional response.
And there’s not, we keep talking about a cyber, at least I think the Biden administration does, in a way that focuses on it being like, so spooky. And we don’t know what our response is. And guys, it’s not 2009. The times when we have to potentially have to be this secretive about it, I think are behind us. Not that we have to come out and declare an operation, but we have to say, you know what? You did X, Y, Z to us, you attacked our critical infrastructure. And here is what we’re doing back to you. And you turn over the cyber hackers, Russia and China, or we’re going to continue to hold your government responsible for what happens within your nation-state.
So, that’s a big thing. I think that this administration needs to articulate to the American people what they view as a proportional response when there is a cyber-attack on our private companies, on our critical infrastructure. That needs to be articulated so that our enemies know that there are recourses. And there’s not a lot of public naming and shaming, and there’s not a lot of public recourse right now.
And it gets back to strong statements, a strong, steady narrative. That’s something that you know working as a press secretary, you worked for Mike Pompeo, who all always had very clear, strong stances on things. President Trump also had strong statements in reference to many countries. And you had mentioned earlier, the Biden administration’s response to the protest in Cuba. You said, took roughly a week for them to respond. And I found it very interesting that the rhetoric towards Cuba, even the secretary of state said for Cubans not to come to this country. And at the meantime, we do have people crossing our border. It seems that our narrative right now is not consistent, and it’s not strong enough against bad actors. First of all, do you agree with that? Second of all, how important is there to be a strong narrative against bad actors in order to help with our diplomacy worldwide?
Well, I think what you just said, sort of weaves in with the cyber conversation that we were just having. But what I think is really important is it’s not just words, but actions and the threat of force is needed that back up those words. So, let me explain to you what I mean. In the Obama administration and Ben Bro has actually talked about this today, whenever he was being interviewed, I think it was at the Atlantic Council. But in the Obama administration, they actually had a lot of really tough words. They would give beautiful speeches, condemning rogue actors, rogue nations, they would talk very, very tough, but the problem is, is that no one believed them. The stuff that they were saying about Syria, and everybody probably remembers the famous red line statement that President Obama made.
When he said that Assad couldn’t cross the red line as it relates to gassing his people, and then he did, and then we effectively didn’t do anything about it. So, what’s more important than words. And trust me, I think words and strong statements are very important, but to me what’s equally important and maybe even more important is that our competitors, our friends, our foes, our enemies, is that everybody knows that we mean what we say. So, I think for example, when we had to make the, I would say tough decision, I actually don’t know how tough a decision it was for President Trump. But when President Trump decided to take out Qasem Soleimani around leading terrorists, the state that is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. People refused to make that call for a long time.
I mean, he was probably, I think he was empowered like 20 years. And so he had been attacking… behind attacks that were killing American service members in Iraq. It had been definitely behind numerous terror attacks behind the IRGC Quds Force. And so there was all this conventional wisdom that you can’t take him out, like he’s untouchable. And Donald Trump in January of 2020 showed the world that nobody’s untouchable. And I think that, that sort of action is incredibly important, because whenever you say, ‘we’re going to continue to pursue our maximum economic pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ that means that the leaders there in that regime know that we mean what we say. Now, we can argue about policy and what we got right, what we got wrong all the time. But I almost worry about the tough talk without any of the action to back it up.
Well, one action that president Biden did stay true to was his withdrawal from Afghanistan. Actually happened sooner than what he had even telegraphed for us saying it was going to happen in September. Of course, it happened just a couple of weeks ago. And so I just want to get your insight into where things are in Afghanistan. What are the dangers of a potential rapid Taliban encroachment? What does this mean for our allies in Europe and potential attacks against our allies there? What is your take on how things are?
Well, Afghanistan is an incredibly tough situation. So, listen, I worked for a president, Mike Pompeo worked for our president who made no secret about his ambition to want to wind down what he saw as endless wars and wind down American military involvement in Afghanistan. So, I think Secretary Pompeo did what any prudent Secretary of State would do, which is how do I accomplish this mission for the president? And how do I also make sure that we meet our end goals, which is that a terrorist attack will never harm the American people, that emanates from Afghanistan, from that land. So, we empowered someone named ambassador Khalilzad, who’s an Afghan American actually, to begin negotiations with the Taliban, with the government to try and get to a peace arrangement. Now we were certainly not naive in that effort, but what we did know is that the status quo was untenable.
And I think that, that’s the problem that a lot of people in Washington were unwilling to recognize, which is that the status quo just leaving American troops there year after year after year. And we kill a lot of Talibs and then occasionally we have casualties as well. The American people were just not with us on that outcome, on that policy decision. So, therefore what we thought is we’re going to try our best to negotiate a real peace agreement with the Taliban, but we’re going to take the draw-down very responsibly. And that the draw-down is going to be conditions-based, meaning that we had a timetable to get forces out of Afghanistan, but that timetable could change if the Taliban didn’t live up to its commitments. And Pompeo was very clear with that.
So, that’s a long windup to tell you that we in the Biden administration kept ambassador Khalilzad on. What we sort of don’t understand is why the rest to just pull everybody out. Why there’s no effort to leave a residual force, because there are still elements of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan that could bring harm to Americans. So, I see it as a hasty and quick withdrawal of forces that may not have been the time, the way in which we would have done it under the Trump administration. There’s no doubt that we were planning, that we had a peace agreement and that we are planning on pulling out of troops out of Afghanistan. But again, it was all based on the contingency that we felt that there wasn’t an imminent threat from terrorist forces that could attack the United States.
And so, because there’s just a rapid pullout by the Biden administration, you’re all seeing in the news as the Talib take over district after district after district. And I think the unfortunate thing is that if we watch and say that an Al-Qaeda or an ISIS threat festers in Afghanistan, a lot harder to pull resources back in. You’ll remember in Iraq in 2009, when President Obama came in and he also campaigned on pulling forces out of Iraq, he pulled them all out. A few years later, ISIS was all over the place. They’re beheading journalists right on live television. And we had to go back in. Now we have more force forces in CENTCOM and that theater, is a little easier to do. We don’t have as many bases near Afghanistan. So, it’s a lot harder just to go back in if needed.
Well, before we continue the conversation, I’d like to take a moment to highlight IWF Champion Women profile series, which focuses on women across the country and world that are accomplishing amazing things. The media too often ignores their stories, but we don’t. We celebrate them and bring their stories directly to you. Our current profile is Congresswoman Lisa McClain, who represents Michigan’s 10th district. To check out her story, go to iwf.org to see why she’s this week’s Champion Woman.
And Morgan, I want to turn to another topic that shocked me. I didn’t expect this to come out of the Biden administration. And that was their recent decision to have the UN Human Rights Council investigate the United States about racism within the United States. So, first of all, did this surprise you as well? Or was this something that you kind of expected the Biden administration to do? Did they telegraph this in any way? And what do you think this means to other countries, especially countries such as China that has these horrific human rights violations against the weaker population? What do you think this means to have the human rights council investigate us on issues of racism?
So, I guess we should’ve seen it coming, because the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations did something that I, and many others, thought was quite disgraceful and concerning, which is one of her early speeches at the United Nations, where again, she’s representing the United States. She talks about how our founding principles and documents were founded on things like white supremacy. And I don’t have the exact quote and everything that she said in front of me, but that was the tone and the tenor of her remarks. And I just think that it’s, well, it’s ridiculous to say that. And secondly, what does it say to the thousands of people around the world who face real racism and who face real regimes that are just terrorizing and brutalizing their people? It goes beyond racism, which is terrible.
It’s just utter brutalization of those people. So, what does it say to the people of Cuba, the protestors in Iran that happened? What does it say to the people of Hong Kong? All of these cities and all of these places where there’s people protesting for freedom and human rights and an end to tyranny. One of the common themes is that these people hold the American flag often in their protests. They’re respectful of the American flag. And so whenever you have people around the world who live in dire, dire circumstances under terrible regime under tyranny, when they look at the American flag, that is their symbol of freedom, that is their symbol of hope. You could be in the worst situation in Hong Kong with the Chinese communist party thugs breathing down your neck, you see that American flag, and it gives you hope.
But when you, in turn, have the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations saying that actually, when you look at that flag, actually our founding principles, our founding documents are based on white supremacy. It’s ludicrous and it angers me because that’s not the America that we should be presenting to the world. We are the America that Ronald Reagan said is the shining city on the hill. And that doesn’t mean we’re perfect. No one’s saying we’re perfect. There’s not things to fix in our country. But when you think it’s appropriate to use that language about your own country, to the rest of the world, in one of your opening speeches at the United Nations, that just shows you where the mindset of this administration is. So, I’m disappointed in Blinken. I think that they, in some ways I sort of, I understand their logic that they’re saying listen, we’re not above scrutiny.
We’re not above examining our own flaws. We’re not above fixing terrible injustices in our country. And no doubt there is racism and terrible injustices in our country, but why do we need the United Nations to help us fix that? And by the way, we don’t. This is why we have freedom of speech. This is why we have freedom of the press. This is why we have an open society where you may get mad on each other on cable television. You may disagree with each other, but we have a society where we can openly debate what’s right, what’s wrong, how we fix things.
We don’t need a separate entity to tell us what to do to fix ourselves. And especially when that separate entity is the farce of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations. I mean, this is an Institute that had China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Pakistan. I mean, there’s literally a genocide, a genocide going on right now in China, in Xinjiang against Muslims. And these people are going to sit on the Human Rights Council and lecture us about racism. That will be a very hard pass for me, Beverly.
It’s laughable. My final question to you picks up on China itself. It’s interesting as we’ve had this conversation, China is a part of most of the questions that I asked and the answers that you gave, whether we’re talking about Afghanistan or Cuba, there is a China connection, and yes, it is very difficult for any administration to know the exact steps that one should take in dealing with China, because it’s very tricky to know exactly what to do. But the final question is what advice would you give to Americans? So, for those who are concerned about the rise of China, is there anything the average American can do? Is there anything you would encourage them to do?
That’s a really great question. First of all, I think it’s important to educate yourself and to be cognizant of the issues. One of the things that you can do is to look at where you consume products and make sure that you’re not buying from people who may be making products in China from the forced labor camps in Xinjiang. Now, that’s going to sort of solve itself soon a little bit, because there was a bipartisan bill in the Congress that passed that American companies can’t be involved in this. But there were some very, very concerning comments coming out of like Nike and Apple, and they really were excused, in my opinion, in many ways were excusing the forced labor in the genocide and Xinjiang. And you also have to look at Hollywood. I mean, Hollywood just completely is bought and paid for by the Chinese.
And as it relates to funding many of their movies and will not be critical. So, I think it’s important to be a conscious consumer. Nike, listen, well, I should work out more than I do, but Nike was one of my favorite brands and I’m just not buying it anymore, because I just think if you can have that casual of an attitude towards genocide because of the market available to you in China, there’s other brands that I can go to. The other one is to stay on top of the issues and be vocal, not just with your federal legislators, but be vocal with your state legislators as well. There’s many, many ways in which the Chinese communist party encroaches at the local level, they have these Confucius centers on campuses of many American campuses.
We tried, we did a lot actually to get rid of that and to put restrictions in place at the Trump administration. But be careful if your kids are at college. Talk to the guidance counselors, talk to the leadership at the college. Make sure that there aren’t Confucius centers. And if there is, you should, we don’t tend to go into it today, but research it, look into it and make sure that you don’t stand in colleges of those sorts of things. And then finally, I would say one of the best things you can do is to support Asian Americans and Chinese Americans. I got to tell you that two of Pompeo’s most senior advisors at the state department on China issues were two Chinese Americans. And both of them grew up in mainland China under that communist regime.
And they were better. I mean, listen, you could have worked your whole life as an American in China learned Mandarin, but you would never be able to compare to the knowledge that someone who was a native growing up in China, what they had and so their insight … And let me tell you, they were more conservative than Mike Pompeo. He used to laugh about that as well. I think you guys are to the right of me. And so I think it’s important to remember that our Asian American brothers and sisters here, many of them come from not only China, but places like Vietnam.
Talk to a Vietnamese American about what it’s like to live near the Chinese communist party and what that really means. Not just being someone inside China, but being a neighbor to them and what that’s like. And I think that there’s a lot that we can learn about countering China, the Chinese communist party in this era of great power competition from our brilliant and talented Asian American brothers and sisters.
And I, like you, I’ve stopped buying Nike. I’m still trying to figure out how to get Apple products out of my life, but they’re so ingrained in everything that I do from computer to phone, to everything. So, still thinking about that. But I think those are just really good suggestions on what each of us can do when we’re concerned. And so I just thank you so much for your insight on that and your insight on the Biden administration’s foreign policy. And of course, for joining us on, She Thinks. Morgan Ortagus, thank you so much for being here today.
Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And I could go on for another 30 minutes, but I’m sure you guys have better things to do, but I’d love to come back and be with you another time.
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