Ben Rhodes joined Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign at 29 and advised the president for eight years as both a speechwriter and deputy national-security adviser. He was a critical player in US foreign policy and played especially influential roles in shaping the Iran nuclear deal, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the debates over intervention in Libya and Syria, and was often at the center of media controversies in Washington.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Rhodes by phone. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, which focuses on his frustrations with the group-think of “the Blob,” his term for the Beltway national-security establishment, and his concerns about the direction of US foreign policy under Donald Trump. He also discusses the need for a more left school of foreign policy in Washington to push for its agenda and how this absence affected policy-making in the White House.
David Klion: How would you have classified yourself in terms of foreign-policy orientation back in 2008 versus now? I’m referring to schools of thought like liberal, realist, or neoconservative.
Ben Rhodes: Ten years ago, I would have classified myself as a liberal with some roots in liberal interventionism; however, already with a strong dose of skepticism about the use of the military informed by Iraq. Even before 2008, I had become skeptical of using military force to promote democracy. I did hold open the door to humanitarian intervention in some circumstances, but I had absorbed some amount of humility over what could be accomplished. I believe that our example is the most important aspect of democracy promotion, and I remember having debates with people on the neoconservative side and arguing that we had sacrificed our example with torture and Guantánamo in the Bush years.
In the ensuing eight years, I became more and more skeptical of the American military’s capacity to shape events in other countries. We can stop certain things from happening for a finite amount of time; we can remove people from power; we can kill terrorists; but I fail to see any evidence in the post–Cold War period for the capacity to build something using military force, unless there are certain circumstances like in the Balkans in the 1990s, where Europe is playing a role in absorbing the post-conflict areas. Those interventions probably played a role in making interventionists believe they could work in the Middle East.
DK: So is there a label you prefer since the end of your time in the White House?
BR: I think all of these labels are pretty scrambled now. They’re based on a 1990s view of power that doesn’t exist anymore. There was a transitory point between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, before Russia had reasserted itself and China had emerged, when the US had a certain freedom of action. What frustrated me in government was that Washington hadn’t recognized that change. We were debating a context that had disappeared. People who had labels like “liberal interventionist” or “realist” or “neoconservative” seemed to proceed from the assumption that the US could do whatever it wanted. Like that it could evict Russia from Crimea, for example.
And it ignored the very fact of the Iraq War. I catch a lot of grief for mentioning Iraq a lot, but it was the largest strategic mistake that the US has gotten into, and it’s like it has to be banished from memory. We were accused of over-learning the lessons of Iraq, which was similar to the idea of Vietnam syndrome, but how on earth would we not draw that conclusion in both cases?
DK: Did you have any concept of being on the left or of there being meaningful political forces to the left of you?
BR: Over the course of the eight years, I felt more and more on the left. I emerged out of the type of people, generationally, who were well versed in leftist critiques of American foreign policy, from Pinochet to the Vietnam War. I was a Nation reader but I was also a New Republic reader. I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself as a leftist but as someone who was familiar with and sympathetic to aspects of left-wing critique. I didn’t feel defined by it. But over the course of the eight years, I found myself on the left end of a lot of debates, whether it was Afghanistan or detainees or Cuba. If I looked over my left shoulder, there wasn’t a lot I saw, and that wasn’t where the pressure came from.
DK: Were there any specific policy debates where there was some pressure coming from the left?
BR: On drones, surveillance, and Afghanistan, there was pressure from some Democrats from Congress, MoveOn, the ACLU. If the issue dealt with the set of post-9/11 authorities, like surveillance or drones, I think there was some pressure from the left, probably rooted in leftover coalitions from the Bush years. But that never rooted itself in a broader worldview. That wasn’t portable to debates about, for instance, the Arab Spring, or how we deal with trade, or other traditional foreign-policy concerns.
And I guess on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, what was difficult was that there was definitely a criticism of a large trade agreement like that, but I had difficulty knowing what the proposed alternative was. The problem with the left on a lot of things is that a lot of positions were formed in opposition. I was quite interested in some of the provisions in TPP and the impact they could have on somewhere like Malaysia or Vietnam. TPP did require them to enact certain labor protections. There was a role for civil society [in TPP]. If you talk to civil society [groups] in Vietnam, that was the only case in which government was acknowledging a role for it.
To me, it’s evidence that if the United States is not more present in shaping how the Asia-Pacific region operates, China is going to exert its influence for illiberal ends. People will suffer; things progressives care about will suffer. Part of a left-of-center worldview is that there should be international legal frameworks. But I’m fully cognizant that that is not going to be an issue that’s front and center in a domestic political context. How are you able to have a coherent critique of American actions in the world and the actions of our allies and the economic infrastructure we’ve built and balance it against a similarly clear-eyed recognition that, absent us, China or Russia is going to pursue an even worse world order? When you’re actually in power, you grapple with this.
DK: Did you or do you have any concept of America as an empire, and concerns about whether America has the right to wield the global power it has? Especially considering the people who are now in power
BR: Yeah, I think America as an empire is a fair concept. When you are in government, you become acutely aware that no other country has anything comparable in terms of a global set of military installations, alliances, and an ability to dramatically alter the fates of foreign countries. We may not be an empire in the traditional sense of the word, but the US plays the role that empires have previously played, whether it’s British or Hapsburg or anything else.
Trump hasn’t taken an individual action that is as damaging as the Iraq War, nor has there been anything as damaging as the financial crisis. However, I think that the mere fact of Trump being elected is more damaging than anything Bush did. And it’s not just Trump but that America elected Trump. A lot of countries could at any given time find fault with America, including close allies in Asia and Europe. But they assumed that the United States was fundamentally stable in its orientation. With Trump, I think it’s causing every other country to fundamentally question that assumption and the extent to which they rely on the United States. The world has shown a lot of deference to us to make mistakes, Vietnam and Iraq chief among them. The Trump years are going to test that proposition.
DK: But do you see any continuity between the Bush and Obama years and the Trump years? A lot of the bad things going on now didn’t start with Trump.
BR: The one critique from the left that I don’t see made a lot is that Trump is impossible without 9/11. I think we’ve gotten a series of things wrong since then. I don’t think you can assess Iraq and Afghanistan, the militarization of our foreign policy, some of the executive powers, and not feel that something has gone terribly wrong. I would include some Obama-era policies in that; others I would defend. The jingoism and xenophobia unleashed by Fox News used to bubble under the surface, but the backlash against these endless wars and immigration and refugees led us in part to Trump.
Do I agree more with the Blob than with Trump? Yeah, but I don’t think the answer is to go back to the Blob, because it’s partly how we got to Trump.
DK: Were there left advocacy groups, think tanks, or media entities that you felt meaningfully exerted pressure on your decision-making on major issues like the Iran deal, Syria, Libya, drones, Cuba, etc.? If so, which groups and how? If not, how would it have made your experience different if there had been?
BR: I don’t think I ever felt left pressure on most traditional foreign-policy issues. Maybe on Afghanistan, I’d feel some pressure from a bloc in Congress echoed by left-of-center organizations like CAP [Center for American Progress]. But on the nature of our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, or the absence of an AUMF [Authorization of Military Force] beyond 2002, I didn’t feel that pressure. On Israel-Palestine, there was constant pressure from the right, and I never felt any from the left. And that was one where I would have liked to feel more balance. You had J Street and you had public-opinion polls, but that wasn’t reflected by who was in government or by mass mobilization. I don’t think there was a significant set of people representing a left point of view in Congress.
In the media, it’s striking how much the drivers of opinion on foreign policy come almost entirely from the right. If you look at who’s on television and the opinion pages, it’s dominated by the right, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Israelis. And frankly, when we got into fights like Iran, we were able to assemble enough of an eclectic group to win that fight, whether it was antinuclear groups or scientists. Cuba: Same thing, where we found this coalition of younger Cuban Americans and business interests that wanted to expand in Cuba. But with the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in late 2016 after the election, I was taking all these hits alone on TV, and Netanyahu was shaping all the questions I was getting. Just how intense the opposition there was to even this incremental step, over the tiniest detail on the number of settlement units. I remember getting fact-checked with a correction because I’d referenced the number of settlement units as settlements on the PBS NewsHour. The other side would get these things wrong all the time, and they would never get fact-checked.
When I took on Iran and Cuba, I was acutely aware that people [in DC foreign-policy circles] don’t always want to be the tip of the spear, because it can jeopardize things like Senate confirmation hearings down the line. The backlash I took kind of confirmed their caution. Just like if I want to be on a corporate board that interacts with lucrative Gulf interests, I would never say some of the things I would. There are all kinds of systemic, structural ways restricting what people on the left can do in government. And there’s nothing on the other side. We couldn’t even get Democrats together to reject the Gina Haspel nomination.
DK: What would it mean to have a left foreign-policy bench in DC? How might it distinguish itself from existing institutions?
BR: I think it’s badly needed. I think you would have to fund it. It was telling to me that, even in the Iran debate, if we asked senators what would be helpful to them, they went to groups like MoveOn, but there was still a shortcoming of infrastructure dedicated to these positions. Our efforts on Iran and Cuba had to be ad hoc. The right financed organizations, think tanks, and media outlets over a series of decades to disseminate a particular worldview and became so powerful over time that people found their way onto TV and into the government. On the left, the big ideas are in academia, but the think tanks have crowded out academia. If you look at who’s at the Aspen Ideas Festival or other events like that, it’s always former administration officials and think-tank figures.
Even the academics I listen to, like Andrew Bacevich, were ones who had found a way to be heard in DC foreign-policy debates. I knew his view would be different than the Blob. Obama read his book and had him in to the White House, because as president he didn’t think he’d ever talked to someone with this view, which was closer to Obama’s than, say, Bob Kagan’s. On Cuba, basically everyone who knew anything about Cuba thought US policy was a disaster. But otherwise, it’s hard to go out and see who’s writing in journals.
I was around DC after the 2004 election, and there were all these worthwhile efforts like the Truman Project or CNAS [Center for a New American Security, founded in 2007] that were mostly focused on responding to the war in Iraq rather than creating an infrastructure that produced an alternative set of pressures and positions. Even if you take J Street or the Ploughshares Fund or my new group [National Security Action], it’s all people trying to fight off the worst things, and it’s not a coordinated long-term effort to reevaluate failures going back to the ’90s. That creates the bench of people that come into government.
If you look at the right, it’s all the same people revolving through the foreign-policy establishment over decades, and it’s not the power of their ideas, it’s the power of financing and coordination. Every one of these little groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel [had] a bigger budget than anyone pushing back against them. People like Noah Pollak and Seth Mandel are constantly given platforms where they reach a lot of people. They would criticize me for not being experienced enough, but these guys have no experience beyond being right-wing pundits.
DK: Are you interested in serving in a future administration? Are you talking to potential Democratic candidates for president?
BR: I’ve talked to a number of people who I assume are running for president, not in any formal role. I feel somewhat liberated by the sense that I would serve in another administration, but I don’t feel that I have to. I don’t want to act like I have to, because it would shape what I would say. I don’t want to hold my finger over the button before I send a tweet or reread some op-ed I wrote and worry about how it would affect my confirmation process.
Republicans positioned themselves as the party of democracy and human rights for years, even as the policies of people like John McCain often flew in the face of that. So there’s room for Democrats to take up that role. There’s also room for new ideas. What is the role for the defense budget, for instance, and what can you do as a progressive if you scrap unnecessary programs like nuclear modernization? What would a Paris-type agreement for refugee policy look like? What would it mean to incorporate climate into national-security policy? How could we rein in the unlimited War on Terror? There’s a lot of new ground for Democrats to fight over.
DK: Are there any elected Democrats in particular who you think are taking positive steps on foreign policy now?
BR: My sense from talking to candidates and members of Congress is that, with some exceptions, foreign policy is always a kind of secondary issue to Democrats. In the Senate, I like how Chris Murphy approaches foreign policy. He does guns and health care but he does other things too. Here’s a Democrat who thinks it’s worth his time to address the war in Yemen. Elizabeth Warren has taken some steps to be more vocal. Bernie Sanders has, too, since the election. I’ve talked to all three of them, not in the context of their running for president. In the House, I like Adam Schiff; I talk to him a fair amount. I talk to Ro Khanna, who’s consciously trying to fill this role.
In general, Democrats don’t tend to these kinds of issues, and then, in the last few weeks of an election, there will be a barrage of unfair ads about Iran or MS-13. We can lament that they’re unfair, but in part because Democrats haven’t spent a lot of time talking about [national security], they’re caught off guard. If someone starts attacking your health-care plan in the last week of the campaign, you have an answer to that. But if you haven’t been talking about Iran, it’s much easier to be defined.
But the point I try to make to people is: Look at the price I’m paying for what people like you on the left probably think are incrementalist reforms. It just shows you that there’s not that support structure in place that would give someone like me confidence in the future that, when they charge up the hill, there might be people with them. The left is good at holding people like me and my feet to the fire in ways that can impact our social circles, but less impactful on policy debates. But it was very important to us that people on the left chose to support the Iran deal. It gave us a team. The deal probably wasn’t everything the left wanted, but they saw it was better than a war.