Ben Rhodes, Liar

Column: The man who creates the White House's own reality

Ben Rhodes with President Obama
Ben Rhodes with President Obama / AP
May 6, 2016

What is Ben Rhodes? With a 10,000 word profile, published Thursday, the New York Times Magazine certainly seems to indicate that his presence at the top of the Obama administration’s foreign policy operation bears some kind of special significance. He is, indeed, an unusual case. Only 38 years old and the holder of an MFA in creative writing from New York University, Rhodes went to work as a speechwriter for Lee Hamilton, worked on the Iraq Study Group, and joined the Obama campaign in 2007. Now, as the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, he sits at the intersection of "policy, politics, and messaging," as a colleague puts it in the piece. How did Rhodes, whose older brother is president of CBS News, and whose mother’s "closest friend growing up" (we learn) ran the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace when her son was trying to break into D.C.’s foreign policy community, pull it off?

To be fair, it wasn’t just his connections, but willpower, talent, and an unusual ability to "mind-meld" with his boss, the president of the United States. "I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends," Rhodes muses to the author of this illuminating profile, which is chock-full (as was a recent, similar profile of the president in the Atlantic) of boasts, indiscretions, and moments of an unflattering lack of self-awareness.

The author observes Rhodes complaining bitterly on the day of Obama’s final State of the Union address, during which 10 U.S. sailors were inconveniently seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, that the news can’t be kept secret from the American public so that the president can deliver his speech without distractions. Of the "average reporter" with whom the White House works to get out its message Rhodes provides the verdict, "they literally know nothing." (You’re not wrong, Ben…) In the words of the author, Rhodes concluded during the Iraq war—not the one his White House is currently overseeing, but the previous one—that Washington foreign policy decision-makers from both parties, whom, along with their helpers in the press he calls "the Blob," are "morons" for whom he maintains "a healthy contempt."

This contempt is evidently shared by his boss: hence the mind-meld, or at least an important element of it. Senior ex-administration officials express frustration and perhaps some confusion about how they got railroaded repeatedly by Rhodes and his allies in Obama’s inner circle. Leon Panetta complains to the Times, clearly speaking of Rhodes: "There were staff people who put themselves in a position where they kind of assumed where the president’s head was on a particular issue, and they thought their job was not to go through this open process of having people present all these different options, but to try to force the process to where they thought the president wanted to be … And I’d say ‘[expletive], that’s not the way it works.’"

But that was the way it worked, on pulling out of Iraq, on staying out of Syria, on closing the deal with Iran. What Panetta (and Gates, and Hagel, and many others) failed to understand until much too late was that they, the members of the Blob, were the White House's true adversaries—not the Mullahs or Putin or any of America’s dug-in opponents abroad. Their conventional thinking, their weakness in the face of popular emotions, their investment in alliances with traditional partners, had led to fiascoes like the Iraq war. To avoid "stupid shit" like that, the Blob had to be outmaneuvered: "We don’t have to kind of be in cycles of conflict if we can find other ways to resolve these issues," Rhodes says in the piece. "We can do things that challenge the conventional thinking that, you know, ‘AIPAC doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the Israeli government doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the gulf countries don’t like it.’" You know, America’s friends.

And outmaneuvered the Blob was, most of the time, by a profoundly ideological, profoundly political operation, the apotheosis of which was the pursuit of the Iran deal. In the piece, Rhodes seems gleeful about how he deceived the American people to get the deal through, even as he bristles about being accused of deceit.

What the Times describes—I detect some sarcasm—as Rhodes’ "innovative" campaign to sell the agreement involved "largely manufacturing" a story in which Rouhani’s 2013 election alerted the administration to an opportunity for negotiations—despite the fact that informal negotiations had been opened in 2012, and despite the fact that the moderates-versus-hardliners taxonomy of the Iranian regime pushed by the White House was known to be nonsense. Or, as the Times puts it, the broad story Rhodes was conveying to friendly journalists and the public at large was "often misleading or false":

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 ... [and] 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.

But explaining that this "disengagement" was the White House’s true goal to Congress or the Blob or the American people would have been unfeasible, because, you know, people just don’t get it like the president or Rhodes do. Rather than pitch an honest proposal and work to persuade other branches of the American government and the voters of its wisdom, Rhodes discloses to the Times that the thinking had been, "In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. … 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." Of those opposed to the deal, Rhodes says, "We drove them crazy."

Well, at least there’s that. I am struck by the extent to which Rhodes, a man who clearly believes the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the crystallization of everything that’s wrong with American policymaking—and America itself—seems to be so openly and, in a way, guilelessly driven by the sort of ends-justify-the-means, we-create-our-own-reality mindset that the left attributed to neoconservatives and Bush’s inner-circle during the last decade. I am also struck by the extent to which he appears to believe that things are going well for the administration’s foreign policy, something that does not seem to be borne out by events in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, the South China Sea… anywhere, really.

But then, my read of the situation is based on the conventional assumption that the success or failure of American policy is best judged by the state of our security, the strength of our allies, the health of the global order, and the containment or defeat of our enemies. If, instead, your principal aim is to defeat the Blob that believes this sort of thing and to "disengage" the country from its many roles abroad—to contain America, for its own good and that of the world—then I suppose this White House has had some limited success, likely to be rolled back the moment Obama leaves office.

So give that to Rhodes, along with some minor innovations in spinning during the age of social media. Beyond that, though, it seems hard to locate any special significance in the man’s career. He is, in many respects, a dime-a-dozen sort of guy for the nation’s capital, save for his lucky sympathy with the president. Ben Rhodes is a functionary. Ben Rhodes is a talented, willful man. Ben Rhodes is a braggart. Ben Rhodes is a true believer. Most of all—I’ll say here what the profile’s author so clearly wants to say plainly, but for whatever reason, can’t bring himself to do so—Ben Rhodes is a liar.