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What Rhodes Revealed

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine story by David Samuels on President Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes has created quite a stir. It’s not every day that a senior White House official brags about how the administration has successfully manipulated what he portrays as an ignorant and compliant media, particularly on as critical and contested an issue as last summer’s nuclear deal with Iran. The media has not taken kindly to Rhodes’ remarks, especially after so many of them carried the White House’s water.

The media’s hurt feelings aside, the 9,700-word article was more important for further revealing the Obama’s Administration’s approach to the world: undo much of the approach, strategy and achievements of seventy years of American foreign policy – the alliances and partnerships, the strength and the credibility that has kept us, and much of the world, safe.

Last month, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and I authored an editorial, “The Costanza Approach,” that analyzed Jeffery Goldberg’s 30,000-word article in The Atlantic on a series of interviews with President Obama. We argued: “Obama’s foreign policy is less about what he stands for than what he rejects-namely, much of what America has stood for and done over many decades. Obama’s doctrine, such as it is, consists of a few simplistic ideas that emerge from a shallow and ideological disdain for the American past.” Obama, we contended, sought to reverse U.S. foreign policy, by reassuring enemies we unnecessarily alienated in his view, such as Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, and distancing ourselves from traditional allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic article reinforced a comparison we had made a few years earlier between Obama and Clement Attlee, the post-WWII British Prime Minister who sought precipitously to undo what he called the “mess of centuries” of prior British policies. The article on Rhodes further reinforces this interpretation.

In Samuels’ telling, “The buck stops with the establishment, not with Obama, who was left to clean up their mess.” Rhodes blames the “establishment,” or, as he calls it, “the Blob,” for all the world’s ills. Rhodes asserts: “The complete lack of governance in huge swaths of the Middle East, that is the project of the American establishment.” Similarly, Rhodes, according to Samuels, “goes off the record, to suggest, in effect, that the world of the Sunni Arabs that the American establishment built has collapsed.” To lay complete blame on the so-called American establishment for Middle Eastern chaos is absurd. The modern Middle East structure that is now collapsing was broadly “built” by the victorious powers following the First World War. The United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson, certainly shares blame in believing pursuing self-determination and creating artificial states across irrational borders would better the inhabitants and lead to greater stability. The same approach failed in Europe as well. But that’s not what Rhodes has mind, as he appears oblivious to any such history.

And what is America’s big sin that merits such visceral, reflexive disdain? Iraq, of course. It is the lens through which Rhodes sees all American foreign policy. Samuels writes that “Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism.” Indeed, Rhodes explains Obama’s passivity before the slaughter of over 400,000 in Syria thusly: “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there – nearly a decade in Iraq.” End of discussion. Serious ideas such as possible benefits to carving out a humanitarian enclave in Syria protected by a no-fly zone, for instance, merit no consideration. As Samuels writes about Rhodes’ thinking, “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.”

For Rhodes, history, or at least his historical knowledge, begins with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he was 25. The article does dwell on how Rhodes, living in New York, reacted to 9/11, but it doesn’t seem to have left a big imprint on his thinking. If it did, he might have to pay greater attention to the threat posed by Islamic radicalism, which would interfere with the “narrative” he’s always spinning that the American establishment’s policies are the root of most problems and must be almost mindlessly undone.

The new narrative Rhodes seeks to create is bereft of much if any consideration of strategic interests at all, such as whether empowering Iran serves our strategic interests, or its impact on traditional Middle Eastern allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Presumably, he considers such details pesky carryovers from an antiquated establishment mode of thinking, which has drawn us in conflicts for decades. As he argued about Iran, “We don’t have to kind of be in cycles of conflict if we can find other ways to resolve these issues….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.’ It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation.” Of course, the Iran deal encourages proliferation. It is the possibility of improved relations with our adversaries, which we have created unnecessarily, no matter the impact on our strategic position or that of our allies, that does seem to drive Rhodes and Obama.

It should not be surprising that President Obama’s closest aides share his outlook, including a simplistic, reactionary contempt for traditional U.S. foreign policy. But the article raises this troubling question: what does it say about a president with a top advisor on foreign policy who seems very clever but ignorant and shallow?

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on May 10, 2016.