Ben Rhodes and the Crisis of Liberal Foreign Policy

Ben Rhodes and the Crisis of Liberal Foreign Policy

The Blob

Ben Rhodes and the crisis of liberal foreign policy.


The left, as a rule, has been sharply critical of US foreign policy. Ask anyone who supports free universal health care and abolishing ICE about America’s role in the world, and they’ll probably recite a long list of coups (Iran, Chile), wars (Vietnam, Iraq), and trade policies (NAFTA, TPP) that amount to a global imperial project with an appalling body count. Every US president since at least the Second World War has been complicit in this project, and the next one will be, too.

And yet, if that president is a Democrat, she or he will have pledged to enact a substantial part of the left’s policy demands. This will require the left to formulate not only a domestic agenda, around which there is an emerging progressive consensus, but a foreign policy as well. The next Democratic administration will also likely include a cohort of millennials who have never served in government before—and whatever their feelings about the American empire, they will suddenly be charged with managing and shaping it, with surprisingly few checks on their ability to do so. They may question their right as Americans to wield such power or seek to mitigate its effects. But, nonetheless, they will have to wield it.

The last young idealist to gain so much influence so quickly over international affairs was Ben Rhodes, who joined Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign as a speechwriter at age 29 and closely advised the 44th president throughout his two terms in office, serving as deputy national-security adviser and playing a key role in the crafting of Obama’s foreign policy. Before that, Rhodes’s foreign-policy experience had been limited to writing speeches and reports for former longtime congressman Lee Hamilton, the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank; before that, Rhodes had published one piece of fiction and had just completed an MFA in creative writing at New York University.

If you have a liberal-arts education and have spent any time in DC, you’re familiar with this guy, and maybe you even identify with him. If so, Rhodes’s story, recounted in his new memoir, The World as It Is, will lead you to consider what you might do if you suddenly had the opportunity to help remake the world every day for eight years. What long-suppressed progressive foreign-policy goals would you try to advance? What imperial wars would you try to prevent or end? Where might you succeed and where might you fail, and how would it weigh on you?

Anyone who has followed international news over the past decade is familiar with Rhodes’s work. His unique position as speechwriter and adviser allowed him to function as a kind of translator between the president, the foreign-policy establishment, the media, and the public at home and abroad. When Obama, in Cairo, announced a new era of engagement with the Muslim world, it was Rhodes who drafted the speech. When Obama opted not to launch air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, Rhodes was his most vocal defender against an enraged chorus of Beltway hacks. Rhodes was also instrumental in selling Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran to Congress, led the secret negotiations to restore US-Cuba relations, and played a significant role in normalizing relations with Burma.

It was also Rhodes who was primarily responsible for the messaging debacle that allowed the attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi to be turned into a right-wing conspiracy theory; Rhodes who was called upon to defend drone strikes to the public; Rhodes who championed the pro-democracy protesters of the Arab Spring and then watched helplessly as the popularly elected president of Egypt was overthrown in a military coup backed by US allies; and Rhodes who was the frequent implied target of derisive, typically anonymous media leaks chastising the Obama administration for an incoherent and naive approach to foreign policy.

The criticism directed toward him was in part the result of Rhodes’s own tendency to put himself forward as the avatar of Obama’s foreign policy. Perhaps the most infamous example was when he granted extensive access to the journalist David Samuels, an editor at Tablet and an outspoken critic of the Iran deal, who then wrote a profile of Rhodes for The New York Times Magazine in 2016. Samuels portrayed the youthful aide, with a mixture of admiration and contempt, as a Holden Caulfield–esque prep-school brat and a dark mastermind manipulating the press into appeasing Tehran and allowing Syrians to be slaughtered.

“The aftermath of the Samuels piece was basically a two-year information campaign against me,” Rhodes told me in a phone interview, adding: “And yeah, I do think Samuels intended that.” Rhodes regretted his cooperation, and most in the Beltway agreed that Samuels did not make him look good. In Foreign Policy, for example, Thomas Ricks wrote a piece headlined “A stunning profile of Ben Rhodes, the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru.”

However, at least to some of us on the left, Rhodes didn’t come off so bad. “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru”—the title of the Times piece—sounded like a pretty cool gig. In a capital defined by blinkered groupthink and reflexive military interventionism, Rhodes seemed refreshingly independent and thoughtful. He wasn’t a leftist, and he didn’t categorically object to the use of American power abroad, but he appeared to genuinely want to work toward a more peaceful world, and he also seemed to have internalized Obama’s “Don’t do stupid shit” maxim—both of which distinguished him from many of his peers.

The Samuels profile was also where Rhodes introduced the term “the Blob” to describe the permanent DC foreign-policy establishment that he and Obama saw themselves as challenging, which was largely committed to perpetuating its own power and reinforcing the status quo. It was a memorable and apt phrase: If people like former CIA director and defense secretary Robert Gates and Senator John McCain were complaining about Rhodes to their many friends in the press, and if Samuels was attempting to warn pro-Israel hawks not to trust him, then—again, at least to some of us—that spoke well of Rhodes. While many on the left would have preferred a more radical vision for US foreign policy, what could be more aspirational than going from writing fiction in Brooklyn to personally helping to reopen relations with Castro’s Cuba and pissing off the Blob along the way?

One surprising thing about Rhodes’s book, however, is that Rhodes himself is much more representative of the Blob than Samuels’s profile had implied. Samuels wrote that, for Rhodes, “the Iraq war was proof, in black and white, not of the complexity of international affairs or the many perils attendant on political decision-making but of the fact that the decision-makers were morons.” He neglected to mention, however, that Rhodes had originally supported the war. Samuels did note, in a memorable opening paragraph referencing Don DeLillo’s Underworld, that Rhodes’s life was changed the day he watched the Twin Towers fall from the Williamsburg waterfront, but he skipped over the part where Rhodes briefly considered enlisting in the military. Likewise, Samuels asserted that Rhodes wanted to “create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey,” but did not mention that Rhodes had once been a member of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.

Samuels, in other words, made Rhodes sound a lot edgier in his Times piece than Rhodes makes himself sound in his memoir. In fairness, the world has changed a lot in the past two years, and Rhodes is no longer in the White House personally advising the president. Instead, he’s yet another former Obama staffer reduced to rhetorically defending the liberal order as Donald Trump casually annihilates it. Two years ago, Rhodes derided the Blob, but today he doesn’t totally dispute that he was—and is—a part of it.

“You know what that New York Times story got wrong?” Obama told Rhodes after the Samuels profile appeared. “The notion that there’s something wrong with storytelling—I mean, that’s our job. To tell a really good story about who we are.”

Rhodes, like Obama, always wanted to be a storyteller, and The World as It Is is not a typical 
Washington memoir. For one thing, it’s good: Rhodes really is a gifted writer, equally talented at capturing mundane late nights in his windowless West Wing office, chaotic mass demonstrations around the world, and tense meetings with international power brokers. He makes sharp observations about other government officials, especially the president himself. Few, if any, White House staffers had a closer personal relationship with Obama, one that was commonly described as a “mind meld.”

Obama emerges as a nuanced character here, not an object of blind worship, even though Rhodes clearly has a deep love and admiration for his boss. As captured by Rhodes, Obama is frequently more candid about the role that race played in shaping his political circumstances than he ever permitted himself to be in public. He is prone to flashes of irritation, both at Rhodes and at his various political opponents, and he is sometimes stubbornly committed to a course of action that Rhodes, at least in hindsight, questions. But he shares with Rhodes a constant appreciation for his role in history, for the vastness of the power at his command, and for the unique opportunities the presidency affords him to make a meaningful impact.

Alone among the serious Democratic candidates for president in 2008, Obama had opposed the Iraq War from the outset, which likely played a critical role in his narrow victory over Hillary Clinton. In his debates with Clinton, Obama was critical of Washington’s hawkish foreign-policy consensus, most notably stating that he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Iran, Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea. For progressives, especially in the then-robust anti-war movement, Obama seemed to offer an opportunity to reverse not only the Bush administration’s aggressive militarism, but also the decades of failed bipartisan policies that had preceded it.

According to The World as It Is, Rhodes’s close relationship with Obama was cemented by his own criticisms of the Beltway worldview. The two met in May 2007, when then-Senator Obama had announced his presidential campaign but had yet to catch fire. Holding a debate-prep meeting in Washington, Obama solicited opinions from a group of experts as to whether he should vote for additional funds for US troops in Iraq; Rhodes was the only person who urged him to vote no. Obama followed this advice, and thus began a long partnership in which Rhodes’s consistent purpose was to hold Obama to the high ideals he had campaigned on.

This proved to be far more difficult than either Obama or Rhodes had anticipated. From deploying more troops in Afghanistan to failing to close the prison camp at Guantánamo, at almost every turn Obama and Rhodes would find themselves submitting to the Blob’s consensus. Often, though not always, they would be persuaded that the consensus was correct.

One telling passage in particular opens an early chapter of the book. “What is American foreign policy?” Rhodes asks.

Day in and day out, it’s a trillion-dollar annual enterprise that plows forward like an ocean liner, shaping the lives of people in its wake whether they know it or not. The embassy in New Delhi tries to help U.S. businesses get into the Indian market. The USAID mission in Nairobi meets with the Kenyan Ministry of Health to help the fight against HIV/AIDS. A scholarship student from Indonesia boards a plane bound for an American university. The U.S. military conducts a joint exercise with the South Koreans to deter North Korea. Our intelligence community shares information about a terrorist plot with Europeans. A Special Operator leaves a Baghdad trailer at dawn to capture or kill a terrorist. A taxpayer-funded F-16 fighter aircraft is delivered to the Egyptian military.

What Rhodes is really saying with this panorama can be stated more succinctly: “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” No one president, much less an adviser, can single-handedly right the course of this ocean liner, and this president and this adviser certainly didn’t. It’s both an accurate statement and something of a dodge: While it’s true that Obama and Rhodes faced resistance at every stage, it’s not necessarily true that they did everything they could have done under the circumstances.

Rhodes implies something similar in a more mournful passage in the book’s final pages, as he confronts the infuriating reality that Obama is being replaced by Trump.

I closed my eyes. Somewhere out there, in the vast expanse of darkness, was the story of the last eight years, the world as it is. Markets once crippled by crisis teemed with optimistic forecasts on computer screens. Iranian centrifuges sat idle in a storage warehouse with electronic seals. Yazidi women and children who had escaped from Mount Sinjar awaited a new life in Turkish refugee camps. A team of women in Laos scoured the rough grass for unexploded bombs. Syrian prisons were filled with human beings suffering untold horror. A refugee went looking for a job in Berlin. An aging survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima went about her day in a tidy apartment. Vladimir Putin presided over a revanchist and rotting Russian regime. Angela Merkel prepared her run for another term as German chancellor. NATO patrolled the skies over Estonia. Mohamed Morsi sat in an Egyptian prison cell….

Rhodes goes on like that for another handful of sentences, concluding with “My own daughters lay sleeping in my small apartment, unaware of the convulsions in the world around them.” I cite these lengthy passages, which resemble cinematic montages, because they capture something essential about Rhodes’s, and Obama’s, worldview after eight years in the White House.

Obama and Rhodes were always conscious of the fact that they were making history, but they also often seemed to view themselves as passive observers, detaching their own agency from the world they were observing. They wielded unmatched global might, but they understood that they had only a finite ability to shape how it was employed. “The world is what it is,” as the late V.S. Naipaul wrote; there is, in Rhodes’s view, little that he or Obama could have done to fundamentally change it.

Part of the problem here is that, for all their perspicuity and self-awareness, their view of American power was missing a critical component. Although it’s not a term that either Rhodes or Obama would typically use, their vision of a more peaceful world order was constantly stymied by the contradictions of American empire. They had been granted all this power that, they believed, they could use to do good, yet it rarely occurred to them to ask whether they or any other American had any right to that power, and whether it could be exercised in a way that was not an expression of American domination.

While Rhodes and Obama were fully cognizant of the many atrocities and strategic mistakes committed by the United States, especially in Iraq, they still saw America as a necessary counterweight to rival powers like China and Russia, and they believed that far greater evils would result from an American retreat. By maintaining American supremacy, they also, in the end, were compelled to turn the empire over to people who clearly should not hold any power at all.

Like many other Obama staffers, Rhodes probably imagined that he would write a very different memoir, one that confronted the administration’s failures and disappointments but ultimately had a triumphant narrative. Instead, the book’s prologue conveys his profound disillusionment. Rhodes begins by describing his final world tour with Obama, in the weeks after Trump’s victory but before the inauguration, during which the outgoing president reflects on his own suddenly endangered legacy. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Obama muses to Rhodes in Lima. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” When Rhodes tries to reassure him, Obama pushes back: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early.”

The memoir’s title, The World as It Is, captures Rhodes’s growing pessimism. When he entered the White House, the Blob essentially comprised three schools of thought: the liberal internationalists, who championed humanitarian intervention as long as it was backed by multilateral institutions; the neoconservatives, who preferred the go-it-alone approach to American empire exemplified by the Iraq War; and the realists, who urged restraint in the use of force but also valued stable relationships with often illiberal regimes. Like his colleague Samantha Power, Rhodes was initially more concerned with the world as it ought to be and sympathetic to the liberal interventionism that had prevailed among many Democratic foreign-policy elites. But over the course of his time in office, Rhodes moved closer and closer to the realist camp and came to take a much more instrumentalist view of American power abroad.

One reason was that, as Rhodes grew closer to Obama, he began to embrace the president’s more skeptical view of American power. Contemplating a missile strike against Syria that he ultimately rejected, Obama told Rhodes: “It is too easy for a president to go to war.” Not long after, Obama challenged the conventional wisdom that the United States should have intervened to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide. “You can’t stop people from killing each other like that,” the president explained.

Yet while Obama and Rhodes both grasped the failure of neoconservatism from their first days in the White House and came to recognize the dangers of the kind of interventionism espoused by figures like Power, the Obama administration repeatedly intervened anyway, deploying military force in ad hoc ways that in themselves were troubling. Obama toppled Gadhafi in Libya and called for Assad to step down in Syria, in both cases without any real plans for how to establish stable regimes after the ouster of these dictators. He surged US troops in Afghanistan even as he and Rhodes openly questioned the wisdom of doing so, withdrew them from Iraq, and then resumed military operations there after the rise of ISIS. Obama and Rhodes insisted on the legitimacy of international law and institutions, and yet, under their tenure, the United States carried out an extrajudicial, legally dubious campaign of assassinations against terror suspects in multiple countries. Both had sincere doubts about exercising American power, but they proved to be no match for the relentless pressure from the Blob to exercise it anyway.

With the rise of a more left-wing and egalitarian domestic politics, it is becoming clear that we need an alternative approach to the liberal-internationalist, realist, and neoconservative thinking that has long dominated the Blob. This alternative approach, while it may exist in embryonic form in the ideals of some in Washington, has never found a name, much less the institutions that would support and nurture it. Where do those of us whose instincts are progressive and humanitarian, anti-war and anti-empire, find a home? Could such viewpoints ever flourish in a capital where seemingly everyone pledges fealty to the American “national interest”? What, in short, would it mean to be a leftist in foreign policy?

In Rhodes’s memoir, we see occasional glimmers of what a left approach to foreign policy might look like. He describes in great detail the personal relationship that he developed with Alejandro Castro Espín (the son of Raúl and nephew of Fidel) while negotiating to restore relations with Cuba, offering a heartening glimpse of what US foreign policy might look like if it were entirely predicated on good-faith efforts to create a more peaceful, just, and open world. And everywhere Rhodes goes, he makes sure the president meets with people from all walks of life. He also tries to make amends for past US crimes; for instance, inspired by an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, he convinces Obama to pledge $100 million to cleaning up unexploded ordnance in Laos.

But it’s impossible to read The World as It Is without thinking about how everything that Obama and Rhodes worked to achieve is now in mortal jeopardy. The mere fact of Trump’s presidency undermines whatever claim the American empire might have made to moral authority, and while Rhodes understands this, he has yet to absorb the full implications. Rhodes’s own post–White House efforts feel like a stopgap. In February, he and his friend Jake Sullivan, who served as Hillary Clinton’s chief policy adviser, launched National Security Action, a group intended to revitalize liberal foreign policy in the age of Trump. Putting aside its unfortunate initials, the new group’s advisory board is a who’s who of liberal internationalists. According to its website, it is primarily “dedicated to advancing American global leadership and opposing the reckless policies of the Trump administration that endanger our national security and undermine U.S. strength in the world.”

While National Security Action has some new and potentially laudable ideas for addressing issues ranging from the global refugee crisis to government corruption, there is little reason to think that it will stray far from the Beltway’s conventional wisdom. In our phone interview, Rhodes acknowledged that much of what NSA is doing can offer only a short-term remedy. The group, he admitted, “has an emergency function and is not trying to be a long-term solution.” Its main purpose is to brief and prep Democratic candidates to respond to the immediate crisis posed by Trump.

Looking ahead, however, the left will need to think beyond both the old and new NSAs. The American public will need to develop a better understanding of the costs of American empire. We need more politicians, backed by an army of pundits and experts whose voices echo through the mainstream news outlets, who can unambiguously denounce the US alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, the atrocities in Yemen and Palestine, the damaging environmental and labor effects of our trade deals, and the virulent spread of corruption and kleptocracy around the world, much of which has been facilitated by America’s promotion of neoliberal economic policies abroad.

Rhodes himself seems to recognize this. “The left is good at holding people like me and my feet to the fire,” he noted in our interview. But to do that effectively, the left needs a more detailed and durable agenda for changing Washington’s approach to the world and challenging the basic premise of US hegemony. The next Democratic administration will have an easier time resisting the Blob if more legislators, bureaucrats, pundits, policy wonks, and voters demand that it do so. It is urgently necessary to institutionalize the left’s demands and to make all of these disparate voices an acknowledged part of our foreign-policy debates, before the next Ben Rhodes is given a chance to advise the next president.

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