Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, at a White House press briefing in February. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

I’ve read a fair number of books on foreign policy in recent years, yet the one that has made the greatest impression on me was assigned in the sixth grade. It was Esther Forbes’s novel “Johnny Tremain,” and the lesson I took from it was the very one Johnny himself had to learn the hard way: “Pride goeth before a fall.” Maybe too late, I recommend the book to President Obama and his foreign policy team. Their pride has already turned to smugness.

For evidence, I suggest reading a lengthy interview with Benjamin Rhodes, the president’s supremely cocky foreign-policy speechwriter and, by his own admission, master manipulator of the moronic media. The interview, published in the New York Times Magazine, makes for gripping reading. It is not usual, after all, for a senior White House official to crow about how he deceived the press (and the nation) about when negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program actually began. It was not when the more moderate current regime took power, but earlier, under the auspices of more recalcitrant hard-liners. In effect, the White House lied.

The lie exposes a truth. Obama wanted the deal (almost) no matter what. He had not been beckoned into the talks by more reasonable Iranians, but had initiated them with the previous regime. In other words, he wanted the talks more than the Iranians did — a negotiating position of great weakness. It explains why nothing in the agreement thwarts Iranian efforts to support terrorism in the Middle East or continue to make mayhem in Iraq. It lowers the odds that Iran will continue to adhere to the agreement.

Rhodes, who had scant background in foreign affairs before typing his way into the heart of the president, is now so close to Obama that “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.” (One more interview like this and he’s going to find out.) Many say Rhodes and the president have a “mind meld,” and so the reader authoritatively learns of the centrality of Iran to the president’s thinking. If Obama can reach some understanding with Iran, he can rid himself of the pesky Middle East and pivot — a word that comes to mind — elsewhere. Whatever the case, American boots will not hit the ground unless it is to protect vital American interests — the sole standard for measuring success.

It could be that Obama’s foreign policy is a brilliant reassessment. It could be that the Washington foreign-policy establishment he so reviles — see Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in the Atlantic — is stuck in the amber of lessons learned from World War II and the Cold War. I know that I am, but I do not know that these lessons are irrelevant to our day. Hitler was evil. Stalin was evil. The reluctance and, in some cases, sheer inability of key aspects of U.S. leadership to appreciate these facts doomed millions of people.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest addressed claims that one of President Obama's top security advisers, Ben Rhodes, promoted misleading information about the Iran deal. “I haven’t seen anybody produce any evidence that that’s the case,” Earnest said. (White House)

Rhodes calls the foreign policy establishment “the Blob” and he, like the president, dismisses its fusty thinking and crows the cleverness of their own, especially — and amazingly — the success of their Syria policy. Their only standard is the number of Americans who have died there — very few. That is commendable, but it is false to assert by implication that an alternative policy would have done otherwise. The intervention in Libya cost zero American lives; so too the ones in Kosovo and Bosnia. The United States could have implemented a no-fly zone in Syrian skies. It could have grounded the Assad regime’s helicopters, which drop barrel bombs on civilians, eviscerating them with nails, pellets and scrap.

No one knows anymore how many have died in Syria’s civil war — maybe as many as 400,000. More than 4 million people have fled the country, swamping Europe and coming pretty close to destabilizing governments. The continent has turned sour, inhospitable to migrants yet hospitable to right-wing groups last seen in black-and-white newsreels. Russia now arguably has more influence in the Middle East than the United States does, and Iran and its proxies are everywhere. The United States hasn’t pivoted. It’s plotzed.

If this is success, what constitutes failure? When Obama and his mind-melded sidekick proclaim their own brilliance and the failure of almost everyone else, what are they talking about? Maybe the president could use some obnoxious aides who challenge him and don’t come at him, puppy-like. First, though, they could use some humility. In the Times piece, Rhodes is likened to Holden Caulfield. That’s not who came to my mind. I thought of Johnny Tremain.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.