Being the man who explains Barack Obama’s foreign policy wasn’t easy. Even in the good times, like after Obama clinched his hard-fought July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, Ben Rhodes was castigated by the deal’s critics for allegedly turning a grave matter of national security into another spinnable public relations issue. But it was also the 39-year-old deputy national security adviser’s job to defend Obama’s response to unwelcome events like the Syrian quagmire and Russian aggression. “What I take issue with is that we were spinning. We believed in these things,” Rhodes told Politico Magazine in a lengthy interview in his White House office in December.
Few members of Obama’s administration have been as long-serving, loyal—and criticized—as Rhodes, who first joined Obama’s 2008 campaign and has since become one of his most trusted aides. Rhodes’ colleagues have said he achieves a “mind meld” with Obama when writing speeches. Over the past decade, the onetime aspiring fiction writer has evolved, to the dismay of critics who cite his lack of prior experience, into a bona fide policy adviser and even a diplomat: Rhodes participated in secret talks with Cuba that led to restored diplomatic relations with the U.S. and was instrumental in Obama’s historic visits to closed-off Myanmar.
In his interview with Politico senior foreign affairs correspondent Michael Crowley, Rhodes said Obama restored American “engagement” around the world after the George W. Bush era, shrugging off critics who say Obama left a leadership vacuum abroad. He explained why he is able to look angry Syrian activists in the eye, why the White House once feared that Obama could be impeached, and what worries him most about Donald Trump’s presidency. (It’s not nuclear war.) Excerpts follow.
Michael Crowley: Is there any way to sum up on a bumper sticker—or at least a postcard—what the foreign policy legacy of the last eight years is?
Ben Rhodes: A single word I would apply is engagement. We’ve engaged diplomatically around the world. We’ve engaged former adversaries. We’ve engaged publics. We’ve sought to work through multilateral coalitions and institutions with the purpose of repositioning the United States to lead.
When we came into office, the confidence in U.S. global leadership had severely eroded because of two events: the Iraq War and the financial crisis. This is underappreciated, that the global financial crisis almost did more than the Iraq War to erode confidence in the United States. But the one thing people could always count on us for, even if they disagreed with our foreign policies, was our centrality to the global economic order.
A lot of what we did was to restore the United States at the center of the international order. People have criticized us for presiding over a decline. I think we make the opposite argument: that we were in decline and that we—by both husbanding our resources, investing in our economy, and being opportunistic diplomatically—tried to set the United States up for being in a stronger position in a changing world than where we were when we came in.
Crowley: What surprised you most along the way?
Rhodes: I would say a couple of things. One, the Arab Spring obviously overwhelmed the circuits. There’s an intensity [to the period from] 2011 to 2014, when a 100-year storm took place in three years.1 Two, there is a discordance between the nature of power in the current moment and how Washington thinks about foreign policy that you can only appreciate if you’re in these jobs. A lot of thinking in both political parties was understandably shaped by the 1990 to 2002 window, when the United States had a great deal of freedom of action. We could get anything through the U.N. Security Council that we wanted, with some small exceptions. We could, frankly, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries in a host of different ways. We could count on Russia being on its back foot as we enlarged NATO. We had some time before the Chinese started to try to shape events in their neighborhoods. And we could even have the hubris to think that it made sense to invade and occupy Iraq. What hasn’t changed is the United States is still, by far, the most powerful country. But what has changed is there are other power centers that are going to ensure that there are limits on certain things that the United States wants to do.
Crowley: How do you think history is going to judge the administration’s record on Syria?2 People say it in the same breath as Rwanda. That may or not be fair, but what’s it like to hear that on a personal level?
Rhodes: I went through an evolution on Syria. I came into this job shaped by the post-Rwanda view of liberal interventionism3—suspicious of some amount of U.S. military intervention, but also seized with the necessity of acting in certain situations. I was a vocal advocate of [going into] Libya,4 and in the early days of the Syrian conflict, I was an advocate for military action in Syria. And I believe that I was wrong about that. Everything that I have learned about watching that conflict unfold suggests to me that the president’s refusal to get into a military conflict with the Assad regime was actually one of his best decisions. And I don’t expect that view to be the popular view for a long time, if ever. But he tested every possible option, and at no time was there a viable military option to make things better in Syria.
Crowley: Does that imply that his mistake in the “red line” episode5 was drawing the line in the first place?
Rhodes: Well, drawing the line actually did provide the basis for a diplomatic effort to remove the chemical weapons program peacefully.6 I don’t know how we could have started a military conflict with Assad that we didn’t feel compelled to try to finish by taking out Assad. Even if you do that, there’s no reason to believe that people would have simply reconciled with one another because the United States was a party to the conflict. And never mind the fact that we had no international support. The only country in the world that was prepared to join us was France. And we had no domestic legal basis. We actually had Congress warning us against taking action without congressional authorization, which we interpreted as the president could face impeachment.
Crowley: Really? Was the prospect of impeachment actually a factor in your conversations?
Rhodes: That was a factor. Go back and read the letters from Boehner7, letters from the Republican members of Congress. They laid down markers that this would not be constitutional. If we got drawn into a conflict in Syria without congressional authorization, without international authorization, without international support, you can see very clearly how that could have completely derailed this entire presidency.
Crowley: In the ’90s, Clinton White House officials were basically hugged on the street and kissed by Kosovar Muslims.8 You were confronted by some Syrian activists after a dinner and, reportedly, said that you’re not proud of our policy in Syria.9 On a personal level, what is it like to have people say to you, “Your country has so much power and you have let us down.”
Rhodes: It’s difficult. And again, I’ve thought a lot about the Balkans10 because that is the one example of military intervention that, while complicated, succeeded. But that was in the middle of Europe. You had NATO and the investment of Europeans in seeing it through. We notified Russia as we were bombing. Syria could not be more different. And what I found in general in the Middle East is you aren’t going to make people happy. We cannot resolve the issues internal to these countries. What I feel bad about is the fact that they’re just ordinary people who are caught in the middle of this.
What’s strange is, I met with the Syrian opposition, and often they would argue that we should work with al-Nusra, who we know is Al Qaeda.11 And I’m sympathetic if you’re in a neighborhood where al-Nusra is defending you against Assad. You want us to work with them. But let’s say a U.S. president does that, and then al-Nusra is using weapons that we gave them against us. That’s something you never recover from, right?
Crowley: So with Donald Trump, you worked really hard on the Iran deal, the relationship with China, climate, all kinds of things—and here comes a wrecking ball. That must be an incredibly frustrating feeling.
Rhodes: There are concerns. The world order and American actions in the world have deep wiring. We found that when we came into office. It took us a long time to turn the ocean liner around. If you look at something like climate change, the Paris agreement12 is the framework through which the world is going to deal with climate change, and we built that over seven years. And countries have redesigned their entire energy plans around it. China is not going to, I think, stop its conversion to a clean energy economy because Donald Trump lifts some restrictions on coal plants. The Cuba opening,13 we broke a psychological hurdle that is never going to be fully restored. Our hope is that they continue the Iran deal. If they don’t, the tragedy will not be that we lose a legacy in two minutes.
Crowley: Hillary Clinton’s campaign made a big deal about Trump and the nuclear button. Is that something you’ll leave here worrying about at night?
Rhodes: What concerns me is the things that happen every week. I don’t think people realize how many decisions the president of the United States makes about military action. The Iranians harass some vessel of ours in the Persian Gulf: What do we do in response? There’s shelling around our diplomatic facility in X Middle Eastern country. The Chinese pass too close for comfort by a U.S. Navy ship in the South China Sea. These decisions come all the time, and they’re going to come from Day One. I would be more focused on that. Because a dust-up with the Iranians or the Chinese could get out of hand very fast.
Crowley: You’d never been in government before 2009 and have had this incredible eight-year journey. What was your most amazing or surreal moment?
Rhodes: On Cuba, when I went to the Vatican,14 the cardinal [Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state] and his staff did not know what we were coming there to do. We told them that we were going to restore diplomatic relations and begin normalizing relations. One of the guys who worked for the cardinal, I’ll never forget, started literally crying. And I remember we had this long ceremony in this ornate room, and then I remember walking out into the streets of Rome and being anonymous and thinking, “I know something nobody else knows except for like 15 people. But it’s going to blow everybody’s mind.”
Crowley: You started as a speechwriter but also became a diplomat and a policymaker. But you’ve also become a lightning rod for people who don’t like Obama’s foreign policy.15 You symbolize everything he does wrong in their view. Why do you think that is? And is there something you think people misunderstand about you?
Rhodes: No. 1, part of my job is to be the lightning rod and to take the hits so he doesn’t take them or [national security adviser] Susan [Rice] doesn’t take them, although she took her share. I always volunteered to go out on the worst days.
Crowley: Like when?
Rhodes: Our first declaration that Syria used chemical weapons and after the [November 2015] Paris attacks. I saw that as my job.
Two, I would have the fights that I knew were going to be the most difficult fights. So we challenged convention and we touched the rails in making a deal with Iran or opening to Cuba, and those were the portfolios I took on precisely because I knew they were important to the president. And it was going to be harder for a conventional person to take them on. I had a certain freedom of movement because I’m not thinking about whether I’m going to be confirmable as the deputy secretary of state in four years. I’m thinking about implementing Barack Obama’s agenda.
Third, I guess I’m just young and a different profile and I know that that upsets people, but I always felt that I represented the people who elected President Obama, who were young people and they should have a voice and their worldview is our worldview. They think it’s stupid not to engage people. They don’t know why we wouldn’t make a deal with Iran.
I didn’t come here from fiction-writing grad school. I came here from six years working on the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group with Lee Hamilton.16 But the president wanted a mix of people. And Bob Gates gave him one view and Hillary Clinton gave him one view and John Kerry gave him one view, and I was just one of many different views. It’s not like he stocked his whole administration with people like me. But I think he wanted somebody who hadn’t been shaped by the same amount of immersion in the conventional ways of doing things.
What I take issue with is that we were spinning. We believed in these things. There are very few things I’ve ever been a part of that I believe in more than the Iran deal, and everything I said I believe to be true, and I was trying to make a case about the facts. So this notion of trying to spin things … I’m accused of being political. The issues I worked on were not the politically popular things. If I was political, I would go out there and talk about killing the terrorists. Anybody who knows me knows I spent more time on Burma and Laos. Where’s the political benefit in that?
This is an important thing for people to understand. I became very close to a lot of the under-40 people who are the professionals in the government—foreign service officers, civil servants, intelligence analysts. I think one of the critiques of me is that I thought I knew it all. But I was learning from the enormous resources available within the U.S. government who have a very different view of the world than many of the people commenting on foreign policy from outside of the government. And I’m struck by the disconnect between the people who’ve staffed this enterprise, U.S. foreign policy since 9/11—and some of the people who comment on it.17
Crowley: What are you going to do now?
Rhodes: I’ll write some form of a memoir, one that will also be an argument on behalf of what we were doing. And I’m going to be a senior adviser to the president on his international work, including at his foundation.