Ben Rhodes Should Probably Shut Up About Foreign Policy

Whatever happened to his dream of becoming a novelist?

• September 16, 2019 4:30 pm


Former Obama speechwriter and national security adviser Ben Rhodes doesn't always discuss foreign policy on Twitter, the popular social networking website. Sometimes he tweets about baseball:

One might say of Ben Rhodes: His ability to deliver hot takes on U.S. foreign policy again and again for years while maintaining his status as an "expert" in the eyes of the national media, despite no discernible track record of successful foreign policy accomplishments, is also quite extraordinary.

These days, Rhodes is criticizing the Trump administration's response to the coordinated drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has directly implicated Iran in the attack—Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen officially claimed responsibility—Rhodes wants to see some evidence that his former negotiating partners are, in fact, bad actors on the world stage.

The Saudi war in Yemen began in March 2015, several months before the Iran nuclear deal was reached. Hours after the military conflict started, the Obama White House announced the creation of a "Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support."

Rhodes's memoir barely mentions the episode. Following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Rhodes finally acknowledged the Obama administration was "wrong to think that cautious and at times conditional support for the war in Yemen would influence Saudi and Emirati policy."

Writing in the Atlantic, Rhodes recounted President Obama's resolve in standing up to the Saudis, including using "blunt language" to "protest" the kingdom's execution of political prisoners. At one point, Obama even went so far as to "raise" the issue of human rights. None of this, it turns out, did anything to dissuade the Saudis at the close of the Obama years—not even the "diplomatic pressure" Obama applied on the Saudis to "show restraint, as the war escalated and civilian casualties continued to mount."

The Obama administration continued to defend its support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, which included a $1.15 billion arms deal approved in September 2016. State Department spokesman John Kirby outlined the Obama administration's hardline approach, which included having an "honest" discussion with Saudi leaders "about our concerns over the lack of precision in some strikes," after a number of schools and hospitals were hit by Saudi-backed airstrikes.

In their desperation to secure the now-defunct nuclear agreement with Iran, the Obama administration shied away from taking military action in Syria to prevent Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of civilians, even after Obama's "red line" on chemical weapons had been crossed. Doing so would have upset Iran and Russia and made a nuclear agreement harder to achieve, something Rhodes himself has acknowledged.

After mocking Mitt Romney for naming Russia as America's biggest geopolitical threat in 2012, President Obama stood tough as Russia invaded eastern Ukraine, annexed Crimea, sold air defense systems to Iran, ramped up military support for Assad in Syria, and carried out a relentless campaign of cyberattacks on American institutions. But at least Vladimir Putin signed on to the Iran nuclear agreement, which Rhodes likened to Obamacare during a talk to progressive activists in 2014.

"We would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia's willingness to stick with us," Obama told the New York Times, the same paper to which Rhodes had previously bragged about creating an "echo chamber" of Iran deal cheerleaders in the national media by spinning sympathetic reporters who "literally know nothing."

The Iran nuclear deal was implemented in 2016 and lasted two years before President Trump withdrew from the agreement. Having dealt with the mullahs, Rhodes and the Obama administration set their sights on the similarly defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. "America will be less able to stand up for our workers and businesses if we do not approve TPP," Rhodes wrote in May 2016.

The TPP was never approved, largely due to the fact that both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees opposed it. Hillary Clinton announced her opposition two days after the TPP agreement was announced in October 2015, despite having bragged years earlier to a group of New York business leaders about having "led the way" on the Obama administration's trade efforts, and praising the TPP as the "gold standard" of trade agreements.

Like many aspects of Obama's presidency, the TPP continues to be a source of contention within the Democratic Party. It has been derided by most of the 2020 primary candidates, even former vice president Joe Biden, who pledged to "renegotiate" the deal.

Rhodes, who managed to rise to the top of the U.S. political establishment despite a hardscrabble upbringing on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and attending the elite all-boys Collegiate School on the Upper West Side, might want to consider sitting out future foreign policy debates. Perhaps the author of "The Goldfish Smiles, You Smile Back" (The Beloit Fiction Journal, 2002) could rekindle his dream of becoming a novelist, and spare the rest of us his thoughts on the reality he helped create.