Carla Anne Robbins is former deputy editorial page editor for the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Marxe faculty director of the master’s in international affairs program at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs.
Despite the many thousands of words Ben Rhodes crafted for President Barack Obama as a speechwriter and foreign policy adviser, he is best known for two of his own intemperate utterances. In a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile, Rhodes boasted about creating “an echo chamber” of experts and journalists to validate the Iran nuclear agreement, and he dismissed the foreign policy establishment, including Hillary Clinton and other Iraq War supporters, as “the Blob.” That article, which dubbed Rhodes “the Boy Wonder of the Obama White House,” has been used by right-wing critics to claim that Obama lied about the promises of the Iran deal. It may also explain recent bizarre reports that opponents of the deal hired Israeli investigators to dig up dirt on Rhodes.
The young presidential aide — he was 29 when he entered the White House — preens less than I expected in his inside-the-bubble memoir, “The World as It Is.” He claims no Jedi mind tricks to bend the press to his will, as the Times profile suggested, but he also offers no apologies for his relentless criticism of Washington foreign policy expertise, which he dismisses as “that sense of groupthink that always seems to lead inexorably to more military intervention in the Middle East, to ‘bomb something.’ ” Rhodes also exhibits less self-knowledge than one might wish. He insists that Obama made the right decision to keep the United States out of Syria despite the many horrors President Bashar al-Assad inflicted on his own country. But he replays Syria so often — yo-yoing between his desire “to do something” and “world as it is” futility — that it’s clear (if not to Rhodes) he still has a lot to work through about Obama’s responsibilities and his own.
Rhodes convinced me that Obama’s considerable, major successes — many under assault by President Trump, including the Iran deal, rapprochement with Cuba, repairs to the United States’ battered global standing and the raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan — grew out of his willingness to buck the system.
The book also convinced me, despite Rhodes’s denials, that Obama overlearned the lesson of Iraq. The president’s fear of escalation and slippery slopes becomes the reason not to take responsibility for a post-Gaddafi Libya, or send lethal aid to Ukraine, or seriously consider options for Syria that might have weakened Assad or constrained the wholesale killing of his people. Rhodes offers one new insight into Obama’s much-deconstructed decision not to act after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and gassed a Damascus suburb, killing more than 1,000 people. As Congress considered whether to authorize a military strike, Rhodes writes, he realized that the president “was comfortable with either outcome. If we won authorization, he’d be in a strong position to act in Syria. If we didn’t then we would potentially end the cycle of American wars of regime change in the Middle East.” I’ve heard a lot of explanations for why Obama backed away from his own red line, but never that it was supposed to be a teachable moment, to break Americans of their appetite for Middle East wars.
Rhodes’s path to the White House began on Sept. 11, 2001. He was working on a master’s degree in fiction writing at New York University when he saw the first World Trade Center tower crumble. It was then he knew that he “wanted to be a part of what happened next.” He soon moved to Washington, got a job at a think tank, then helped write the Iraq Study Group Report, a congressionally mandated assessment that called for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces. President George W. Bush sent more troops. In 2007, Rhodes became a speechwriter for the Obama campaign, and after the election, he went to work in the White House.
While the book has a pedantic realpolitik title, Rhodes writes that he “wanted a hero” when he signed on with Obama, and in the early days he seemed to believe that Obama could change the world. When crowds filled Tahrir Square demanding the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, he writes, the younger White House staffers saw it as a “once-in-a-generation chance” for reform in the Arab world and thought “it would be a betrayal of what Obama stood for” if the United States chose the wrong side of history. Obama told Rhodes to “speak up” in meetings where Clinton and others wanted to stick with the Egyptian dictator. “You know where I’m coming from,” the president said. “And we’re younger.” When Rhodes drafted a White House statement in support of the demonstrators, Obama’s senior advisers edited out “every word about human rights and the grievances of the protesters,” Rhodes writes. “All that remained were the calls on the protesters to be peaceful, and expressions of support for the Egyptian government. Written in the margins was, simply, the word ‘balance.’ ” Rhodes writes with satisfaction that “Obama ended up using the draft I’d written, largely intact.”
The president’s enthusiasm for change in the Middle East didn’t last. He reluctantly signed on to a NATO air campaign to stop Moammar Gaddafi from slaughtering his people, making clear that the United States would “lead the effort to take out Gaddafi’s air defenses and ground forces at the beginning of the operation” but expected the Europeans to take over quickly. Rhodes writes that Obama turned to him and said, “Days, not weeks.”
As Syria unraveled, Rhodes made a losing case for military action. By early 2013, he writes, “I couldn’t answer” when Obama asked, “‘What happens after we bomb the runways and Russia, Iran and Assad rebuild them?’’ By the end of the book, Rhodes has almost bought into Obama’s argument that the Middle East is unfixable and that Syria is “a place where our inaction was a tragedy and our intervention would only compound the tragedy.” He allows himself a moment of doubt about Obama’s tepid responses in Ukraine and Syria. The president argued that at some point Putin would suffer for his interventions — from the money he spent on overseas wars, the sanctions on his economy and the corruption of his government — but for now “the issue had been framed as a showdown between Putin and Obama,” Rhodes writes. And in the politics of 2015, “we ended up looking as if we were reacting to Putin, and not the other way around.” He neglects to mention the cost of this perception to U.S. leadership and alliances.
Rhodes provides some new insights into his role leading secret talks with Cuba and his counterpart Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl Castro’s son. Castro Espin, a spook and a hard-liner, was “a mystery in the United States,” Rhodes writes, but he was also the possible heir to the Cuban leadership. “Most analysts thought he was the most powerful man in Cuba after Raúl and Fidel.” At one point in the discussions, the younger Castro proposed that Cuba take back the U.S. naval base and prison at Guantanamo Bay, along with its remaining prisoners. “Cuba is very good at holding people securely,” he said. (Rhodes seems unaware of how creepy that statement is.) Obama rejected the offer.
Rhodes doesn’t give us much new in his brief treatment of Russia and the 2016 election. When aides warned Obama that he was being criticized for not speaking out more on Russian meddling (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already had refused to sign on to a bipartisan condemnation), the president sounded alternately defeatist — “What else are we going to do? We’ve warned folks”— and seriously worried that Trump’s railing about a rigged election was resonating with voters. “If I speak out more,” Obama reasoned, “he’ll just say it’s rigged.”A few days before the Nov. 8 vote, the White House came up with a list of Republican “validators” to counter “the inevitable accusation from a losing Trump that we’d made up the Russia story: people like Condi Rice, Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker.” It’s hard to imagine, however, that that group would have had much sway with Trump’s base.
After Trump’s victory, Obama tried to deconstruct what happened. “We had it all teed up,” he told Rhodes, noting that unemployment was low, gas prices had come down, millions of formerly uninsured people had health coverage. He then spoke of a New York Times column he read asserting that liberals had underestimated the importance of identity to voters. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe,” Obama said. Rhodes pushed back, arguing that young people around the world are more tolerant. “They get it,” he said, adding, “Young people didn’t vote for Trump, just like young people in the UK didn’t vote for Brexit.”
Obama conceded that Rhodes might be right. “But,” he added, “we’re about to find out how resilient our institutions are, at home and around the world.” I suppose it’s good to know that in private Obama was as worried as the rest of us. It just doesn’t make me feel any safer.
as It Is
By Ben Rhodes
Random House. 450 pp. $30