Last week’s New York Times Magazine feature on Ben Rhodes has garnered a somewhat odd reception. For those who have not been paying particular attention, David Samuels’s revelations about Rhodes’s influence, and the broader context that enables it, ought to be attention-arresting. Samuels himself hints as much:
[Rhodes’s] lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations—like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing—is still startling…. [S]ome large part of the recent history of America and its role in the world turns on the fact that the entirely familiar person sitting at the desk in front of me, who seems not unlike other weed-smokers I know who write Frederick Barthelme-type short stories, has achieved a “mind meld” with President Obama and used his skills to help execute a radical shift in American foreign policy.
Startling is one way to put it; one can think of others. For example, frightening. Samuels writes that, “He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself…. On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.” Given that the President’s interest in foreign policy has stood behind concerns about domestic issues and the partisan politics beneath them, perhaps the words “aside from” constitute an exaggeration.
Which raises the question: How much could someone who was in his early thirties when the Obama Administration began, and who is without any relevant education or life experience in foreign and national security policy, actually know about the subject? Anyone who doesn’t find just the question frightening, let alone all the likeliest answers, must be about as young and presumptuous as Rhodes.
Beyond the startling and the frightening there is also the outrageous, particularly in regard to the Iran deal. “Rhodes strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal messaging campaign,” Samuels writes. And the most appropriate way to think about what Rhodes was thinking as he did this is supplied via Samuels by former White House strategist David Axelrod: “I think they’ve approached these major foreign-policy challenges as campaign challenges, and they’ve run campaigns, and those campaigns have been very sophisticated.”
That’s exactly right: It’s the permanent campaign, as it has been called by many others. It’s a phenomenon that did not start with the Obama Administration—remember Karl Rove, for example. But it went into overdrive with the Obama Administration, where practically everyone in the White House, and in many Schedule C enclaves beyond, has behaved like a Karl Rove. And certainly this younger crowd’s facility with using social media for spin purposes wildly outpaced that of any of its predecessors.
What did this mean with regard specifically to the selling of the Iran deal? Here is how Samuels puts it:
The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented—that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country—was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false.
Samuels furnishes several specifics, and they ought to be read directly and carefully. But here is the essence:
The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration. By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making. By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.
One can like this basic policy thrust or not, and its predicted benefits may turn out to be justified by the future—or not. But the point is that it was never revealed, never debated, never acknowledged as such. The American public, such as it is, was had. It was spun into dizzy disorientation. But was it therefore lied to?
That’s an interesting question. A normal person, which is to say someone not rendered overly “sophisticated” by the ethical derangement that comes from staying too long in Washington, DC, would say “yes.” But that has not been the audible response to Samuels’s revelations. Note the contrast here with summary but persisting conclusions about George W. Bush and his Administration. Certainly in chic circles in Europe, but also here in the United States, it has become part of the common book of leftoid devotionals that the Bush Administration knowingly, cynically, and very willfully lied about WMD in Iraq. This isn’t remotely true, but such is the derangement caused by rabid partisanship that the afflicted are not willing, most of the time, even to acknowledge any moral distinction between being inadvertently mistaken and knowingly lying.
Of course, neither Bush (had he lied) nor Obama would be the first American President to play a little loose with the truth in service to their understanding of national security. Jefferson had to dissemble a fair bit to acquire Louisiana, and go review Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s role in the USS Reuben James sinking for an even more breathtaking example, and you then won’t even need to recall the Gulf of Tonkin to get the point.
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is indisputable: As I have written several times over the past few years, the truth was always the reverse of what President Obama often declared: “Better no deal than a bad deal.” The President’s real view was better a bad deal than no deal, because no deal meant a likely need to use force in the context of two other Middle Eastern wars that were neither concluded nor going particularly well. Indeed, some at the NSC engaged on the issue were actually candid enough, or foolish enough, to tell some interlocutors that from the start. The rest of us had to infer it.
Maybe earlier presidential deceptions—Jefferson’s, Roosevelt’s, even LBJ’s, and there are plenty of others that could be cited—could retrospectively be justified by the circumstances. Maybe executive leadership subsumes the admissibility of manipulation, to a point. But a deception is still a deception, and why Obama (and Rhodes) should get a free pass here is a little hard to square with any definition of fairness or objectivity. But as Tom Stoppard put it years ago, the mainly liberal mainstream media in the United States is “a stalking horse masquerading as a sacred cow.” Further explanation isn’t really required.
As for selling the deal once it had been negotiated, here is how Samuels depicts Rhodes’s boasting:
“We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.
When Samuels tries to dig down at what Rhodes’s campaign of manipulation really meant,
Rhodes bridled at the suggestion that there has been anything deceptive about the way that the agreement itself was sold…. When I asked whether the prospect of this same kind of far-reaching spin campaign being run by a different administration is something that scares him, he admitted that it does. “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”
In other words, in Rhodes’s view there is no possibility anymore of establishing truth or using reason foremostly to discuss and debate foreign and national security policy in the United States. It’s all about narratives and using media technology to spread them. Beliefs about the subject are personal, and the personal and the political need not be kept apart because there is no higher or superior truth to the personal available. As Samuels puts it at the end of his essay, possibly without appreciating the larger implication of the remark, Rhodes “…is torn. As the President himself once asked, how are we supposed to weigh the tens of thousands who have died in Syria against the tens of thousands who have died in Congo? What power means is that the choice is yours, no matter who is telling the story.”
This smells a good deal like a postmodernist foreign policy disposition: Since truth either doesn’t exist or cannot be established through reasoned discourse, all that matters is who’s skillful enough to establish a hegemonic narrative and get away with it. Again, this did not start in the Obama Administration. In an earlier New York Times Magazine essay, from 2004, Ron Suskind quoted an anonymous Bush Administration official (who turned out to be Karl Rove) as follows:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. . . . That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
None of this means that either Rove or Rhodes is expert on the thought of Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, or any other 20th-century postmodern or proto-postmodern philosopher. That, at least, would mean that people who speak this way have at one time or another thought seriously about these issues. It’s actually much worse than that: These kinds of ideas have by now oozed their way down into semi-educated but accidentally empowered minds and have become the “tweeted” default assumption of political epistemology in our time. Are you frightened yet?
When I began above I referred in passing to “those who have not been paying particular attention.” I gladly grant a wide swath of rational apathy here, and so assume that most normal people have had better things to do than to pay attention to the Svengali-like—or Rasputinesque—role that Ben Rhodes has been playing over the past nearly eight years. I apparently haven’t had better things to do; I wrote the following almost exactly two years ago:
When [Barack Obama] was first a candidate for President and then an early first-term President, a lot of people characterized his approach to policy issues as that of policy-wonk law professor. But to me, Obama seemed much more like a judge, someone who prefers to sit above it all choosing among options, giving orders and delegating authority, and someone whose exquisite political skills allow him to forge the circumstances and persons to whom he will delegate. I reached this conclusion because when I first investigated candidate Obama’s views on policy issues, I found that he had no ideas of his own. He rather researched, revised and reworded the ideas of others. He is not an independent or creative thinker; he is a quick study, political webmaster and master manager who also really knows how to wow an audience with his powers of speech.
So early on…I suspect he ended up informally delegating authority for strategic [foreign policy] thinking to Ben Rhodes, the clever but essentially mistaken young man who early on wrote all of his key foreign policy speeches. (Rhodes was also the author of the “linkage”-ridden Baker-Hamilton Report of December 2006, one of the most embarrassing such documents ever written, but one that helped make his reputation in Democratic circles nonetheless.) Rhodes is the main one, I believe, who either convinced or strongly reinforced the President’s intuition that the United States is vastly overinvested in the Middle East, that we need to pivot to Asia at the expense of our investments in the Middle East and Europe, that in the absence of traditional American “Cold War-era” leadership benign regional balances will form to keep the peace, and that the world is deep in normative liberalism and well beyond the grubby power politics of earlier eras.
All of this is very trendy and sounds “progressive” and smart, but, of course, it is mostly wrong.
Let me note too, the title I gave this two-year-old essay: “Our Storyteller-in-Chief.” Now listen to what Samuels had to say on Sunday:
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives….
Many observers noted early on in the Administration that the President had a strange inclination to believe that words alone created reality. His famous 2009 Cairo speech first elicited these observations, and they were not in error. I have referred to this penchant as that of a “votive act” and otherwise made references to the apparent presence of a form of ancient, mythic “word magic” going on in the White House. We can now see, thanks to Samuels, how true this is.
The President and Mr. Rhodes see their jobs, in large part, as storytellers for purposes of switching out the narratives that, they think, drive American politics. Samuels:
When I asked Jon Favreau, Obama’s lead speechwriter in the 2008 campaign, and a close friend of Rhodes’s, whether he or Rhodes or the president had ever thought of their individual speeches and bits of policy making as part of some larger restructuring of the American narrative, he replied, “We saw that as our entire job.”
And that “entire job” was politics. It was about power via the permanent campaign. As I wrote two years ago, the President delegated strategic thinking to Ben Rhodes largely because he shared Rhodes’s disdain for the foreign policy establishment, and anyway, like Bill Clinton in his early years as President, he wanted to “focus like a laser” on domestic policy and asked of foreign policy only that it not be allowed to hurt him politically. A “kid” could handle foreign policy while a more adult Bob Gates could manage the shooting wars that had to be wound down. But the health care portfolio? Not a chance. That delegation, I wrote,
leaves President Obama to be Politician-in-Chief, which is what he knows best, likes best, and succeeds at best. It leaves him to be the judge, sitting on high, delegating and managing and sifting the ideas of others. But it’s ultimately all about politics, all about power. This is a man who, when asked some years ago what he wanted his presidential legacy to be, said that he wanted to win the midterm elections for the Democrats, sealing control over House, Senate and White House all together.
This is small-mindedness on a giant scale. And it is a form of small-mindedness that leaves the President stranded between high-sounding language that really does not create its own reality after it and effective action when act he should. My sense is that, not entirely unlike his predecessor much of the time, in very hard cases—like Syria—he really doesn’t know what to do, and so he temporizes, just waiting, like Dickens’s Wilkins Micawber, either for something to turn up or for the problem to somehow go away…. [H]e dresses his indecision in Mr. Rhodes’s strategic ventriloquism, suggesting to the great audience of the world at large an aura of deeply thoughtful and prudential leadership.
Unfortunately for these unselfaware postmodernist spinners, their word-magic methodology stops at the water’s edge. The foreigners still know the difference between a story and reality. And so I concluded two years ago thusly: “Meanwhile, the Middle East spins and swirls and skitters onward to who-knows-what destination.”
It’s hard to conclude that things are better in the region today than they were two years ago. As Thomas Friedman put it yesterday, referring back to the Goldberg coup in The Atlantic:
President Obama has been patting himself on the back a lot lately for not intervening in Syria. I truly sympathized with how hard that call was—until I heard the President and his aides boasting about how smart their decision was and how stupid all their critics are. The human and geopolitical spillover from Syria is not over. It’s destabilizing the E.U., Lebanon, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Jordan. The choices are hellish. . . . But nobody has a monopoly on genius here, and neither Obama’s victory lap around this smoldering ruin nor Trump’s bombastic and simplistic solutions are pretty to watch.
How do Obama and Rhodes deal with the smoldering ruin problem, which is as real as reality gets? Easy: They edit it out of the story they tell themselves and each other, and so for them it doesn’t really exist.
Finally (for now), a re-meditation on the power of a speechwriter, if you will. Samuels puts it like this:
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the President, but he knows what the President is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
Setting aside for the moment the credulous hubris of that last remark, I wrote (again, two years ago), as follows:
Rhodes’s highly articulate intelligence matches the President’s tastes in repartee–and … sitting together pouring over language in speech texts can have a deeply influential impact on a principal who has little prior experience in the subject. They both believe deeply in the independent power of words. And it probably helps the relationship that Rhodes, because of his youth, is not a threat to the President’s ego.
I ended that May 2014 post as follows: “Anyway, that’s my working hypothesis, and I’m sticking to it, until something better comes along.” Now something more definitive, if not also better, has come along with David Samuels, and it confirms my hypothesis to every dotted “i” and crossed “t.” Does that make me happy? Yes, but only until it makes me almost endlessly sad, which requires about a two-second mental transition.
Why sad? Well, to start, because, as Lee Hamilton told Samuels, “I immediately understood that it’s a very important quality for a staffer that he could come into a meeting and decide what was decided.” Samuels suggested that the phrase “decide what was decided” is suggestive of the enormous power that might accrue to someone with Rhodes’s gifts. “Hamilton nodded. ‘Absolutely,’ he said.” Samuels uses Samantha Power to hammer home the point:
Early on, what struck [Power] about Rhodes was how strategic he was. “He was leading quietly, initially, and mainly just through track changes, like what to accept and reject,” she says. When I ask her where Rhodes’s control over drafts of the candidate’s speeches came from, she immediately answers, “Obama,” but then qualifies her answer. “But it was Hobbesian,” she adds. “He had the pen. And he understood intuitively that having the pen gave him that control.” His judgment was superior to that of his rivals, and he refused to ever back down. “He was just defiant,” she recalls. “He was like: ‘No, I’m not. That’s bad. Obama wouldn’t want that.’ ”
I never wrote speeches for a President, merely for two Secretaries of State. But when I was doing that, and earlier, when I turned the deliberations of the Hart-Rudman Commission into writing, I was indeed mindful of the power of the pen. There were plenty of times when ambiguous instructions and policy discussion outcomes were malleable in my hands. But it never once occurred to me to abuse my position, to allow my personal views to override what I took to be my professional responsibilities. Based on what Samuels tells us, I get the impression that Ben Rhodes has taken a different attitude, and that President Obama has enabled him to do so.
How has this country come to a point that someone as young and ignorant as Ben Rhodes, however smart and articulate he may be, can deploy such enormous power? Part of the reason, as Samuels notes, is that Rhodes understands the interface between the new media technologies and the arts of blowing smoke up a certain human orifice. The press is credulous about foreign policy, and he tells us why using Rhodes’s own words:
You have to have skin in the game—to be in the news business, or depend in a life-or-death way on its products—to understand the radical and qualitative ways in which words that appear in familiar typefaces have changed. Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
There’s no doubt that this is true. But there is a remark lying within here that points to something else that is also true and, arguably, much more important: “the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances.”
Ben Rhodes seems to be more certain about most things concerning foreign policy, Washington establishments, and human nature than honestly humble people are about anything. Maybe he really is smarter than everyone else, maybe his lack of education and experience doesn’t matter, and so maybe he is justified in holding everyone who disagrees with him in contempt. But what kind of person thinks that way? The short answer has to be: Someone who doesn’t know any better.
Something has happened in this country to higher education—and possibly to middle and lower education, too—over the past generation or two that makes me uneasy. Every discipline used to have its heroes: men and women whose work set a very high bar with which to define one’s own internal standards of excellence as one grew into intellectual maturity. Whether one was in a doctoral program, or in a masters or just an undergraduate one, there was a general sense in the air that true mastery of a subject took a lot of work, a lot of discipline, and a lot of time. One learned to respect the difficulty of attaining true competence. There was a sense, too, that creativity need wait until basics were firmly in hand before its possessor could confidently let it loose. Truth was evasive, subtle, and perhaps even both relative and shifting as life lumbered onward—but it existed and it was precious. And it was your job to search for it, not to claim ownership of it. Many teachers I remember fondly illustrated this attitude not by telling me about it, but by exemplifying it in their own professional lives.
Does this sort of thing still exist in the United States? I don’t spend much time at universities these days, but I have to assume that it does—somewhere, somehow. Unfortunately, for some reason, the experience seems to have evaded Ben Rhodes.