A Decade at Obama’s Side: An Interview With Ben Rhodes

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Ben Rhodes. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Ben Rhodes went to work for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007, when he was 29 years old. A decade later, he emerged from eight years at the White House in a different world — and as a changed man. His new book, The World As It Is, chronicles most of what happened in between.

As Obama’s foreign-policy speechwriter, Rhodes helped shape some of the president’s most indelible moments, from his pathbreaking Cairo speech to his eulogy for Nelson Mandela. Rhodes was also a deputy national security adviser, who saw his liberal interventionist leanings tested amid the crucible of the Arab Spring. During Obama’s second term, he took on new responsibility, playing a key role in Iran nuclear-deal negotiations and personally spearheading the administration’s diplomatic opening to Cuba. He also became one of the prime targets for right-wing media over his supposed role in a Benghazi cover-up — a years-long misinformation campaign that took a major personal toll.

Daily Intelligencer spoke with Rhodes about the soaring highs and grinding lows of West Wing life, the enduring coolheadedness of his boss — even in the face of President Trump’s victory — and what happens when Breitbart trains its sights on you.

There’s a sense of exhilaration that runs through the book, but also one of exhaustion and tension: You were there for so long, and you write a lot about the isolation from your friends and family. Is there any part of you that misses being in the mix of making policy?

The honest truth is that eight years is more than enough, so I don’t miss going to work there. And I had come to profoundly dislike aspects of the environment of American politics. What I do miss is foreign travel, because there really is no substitute for showing up somewhere and representing the United States. It sounds corny, but there’s not another job that you will ever have in your life that will allow you to walk into a room and just shape events because of what you’re doing. That feeling of just being able to really plug into any geographic region or issue around the world by virtue of your position is something that you know is going to be totally unique in your life.

Especially when your boss was attracting the kind of attention he did abroad.

Yeah, well what was really strange about it, and I think I get at this in the book, is that there was a strange paradox, where at home we were swimming in this cesspool of American politics. But abroad he was still Barack Obama. And with the exception of Israel and the Gulf States and Russia, that never really diminished over the course of eight years. So anywhere you went with him or anywhere you went to represent him, it was still the dynamic of the highest moments of the 2008 campaign.

Did you run the book by him?

He read it in galleys. I deliberately didn’t give it to him early in the process, in part because he didn’t want to be a co-author of this thing.

I guess the most newsworthy things were his reaction to Trump winning. But he’s never gonna say anything too controversial.

There were also some areas where I clearly have him saying things he wouldn’t publicly, like about race. “Is some of the opposition to me about race? Yes, of course.”

Did he never say that publicly?

No. He would always be much more measured. What I describe in the book is that he was so disappointed in the reaction to the 2009 beer summit thing. Because all he did is express kind of an honest opinion that really any African-American had, which is that it’s a stupid thing to arrest a prominent black intellectual in his home. And this enveloped the White House for days at a time where we were dealing with the financial crisis, and we had to do this stupid photo op — in retrospect, in my view — just to make it go away.

I think the lesson he took from that is that he couldn’t engage in a particularly candid conversation about race without it overtaking anything else that he was trying to do. And so it became almost impossible for him to find a voice to talk about those things, except in certain set pieces, like the speech in Charleston. I think he did veil his true feelings about the issue when asked about it in press conferences and interviews. If he’s giving an interview about health care or the Iran deal and someone works in a question about race, which happened quite frequently, he knew that if he uttered anything about that subject, nobody would pay any attention to anything else.

A lot of the book is about the Arab Spring. You were more on the side of intervention, at least in the early days, than some of your older colleagues. Then you saw what played out in Libya. Did the whole experience give you an overarching sense of how America should project its power? Or did it just leave you thinking that it really just depends on the situation and there’s no so-called doctrine — I know everyone’s obsessed with that concept.

Well, I do think that, first, the doctrine issue got vastly overplayed, in the sense that there is no doctrine that can be universally applied.

Yes, the word is actually a pet peeve of mine, so you don’t have to address that particular point…

It used to drive me crazy because we never went out and tried to articulate a doctrine, for that very reason. We believe that there’s such complexity that we couldn’t hold ourselves to a uniform standard. Bush is the last one who did: he was going to intervene to prevent weapons of mass destruction. He invaded a country without them, and presided over North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and Iran expanding its nuclear program. So, he didn’t apply his doctrine at all, but he did have one.

Well, people don’t like uncertainty. They like to think you have a plan for everything.

The closest thing I think we actually had to a governing theory for our foreign policy is that we’re going to try to extricate ourselves from the wars in the Middle East that are enormously costly and don’t produce positive results, so as to focus on the parts of the world where we can shape events, like Asia, and issues that demand our attention, like climate change. If you look at what we did, that was essentially our doctrine. Because everything from drawing down in Afghanistan and Iraq, to not going into Syria, to the Iran deal, which prevented a war, to the reopening to Cuba and the Paris Climate Agreement and our approach to Asia — it was all an expression of that belief. We were trying to preserve American leadership. Our basic assessment was that if America keeps going down these rabbit holes in the Middle East, we’re just going to put ourselves out of business as the world leader, because we’re just draining resources and diplomatic bandwidth, and we’re not producing outcomes. We were trying to essentially pull back from the overreach of Iraq, lick our wounds from the financial crisis, and get America on a more solid foundation to stay the world’s leader for another 50 years.

And the process I went through was coming to the realization that our ability to shape events inside of other countries, particularly with our military, was profoundly limited. But our ability to shape events around the world through diplomacy and the application of American influence was actually quite high. We could put together a climate agreement. We could organize a nuclear agreement. But if you look at the track record, I don’t see any evidence of a place in the last several decades where we could change the politics of a country with our military. In the Arab Spring, that obviously came to a head in Syria. I found myself arguing for intervention, mainly just because I wanted things to get better and I had this germ of liberal humanitarian interventionism. But I also couldn’t look at the situation in the Middle East and plausibly argue that our military intervention would make anything better. When you can’t make that argument, it’s hard to ask a president to essentially take on a war.

Another part of the Arab Spring was the Benghazi attack, after which you became the target of a conspiracy theory, as you write about extensively. What advice would you have for anyone who might go through something similar?

The Benghazi attack was one of the more confusing, chaotic days that we had at work, because you had these multiple violent protests taking place in the Middle East. The germ of the conspiracy theory had to do with one of the most anodyne parts of my job. Essentially, on occasion, I’d have to cut and paste and compile a bunch of talking points that were provided by different people in the government and give them to some principal, in this case Susan Rice, to use publicly. What was cast as this kind of diabolical, dishonest action was actually something that probably took me less than ten minutes. We prepared press guidance every day for the press secretary, and all I did was basically take that and drop it into a memo for Susan Rice, get some talking points — the latest talking points on Benghazi from the CIA — and hit send on an email. If you had told me at that moment that this would spawn four years of character assassination and me being a supporting actor in the biggest right-wing story of the Obama administration, which led all the way to Hillary Clinton’s email server, and that may have cost her the election and elected Donald Trump … the notion that that all had its origin in sitting at my desk for five minutes and cutting and pasting press guidance Susan Rice used, I never could have envisioned that.

Though they probably would’ve picked something else.

That’s what you realize. You realize that at the end of the day, it’s kind of arbitrary. I guess the advice is … what I saw is, a lot of people go into government and they don’t want to touch Iran or Cuba because they know that the survivors, the people who work in multiple administrations and have their eye on Senate-confirmed jobs, they don’t volunteer to lead those kinds of fights. They don’t volunteer to do Cuba. So, in some ways, I kind of knew I was taking on things that, over time, would enlarge the target that was already on me. But that presents a Hobbesian choice for somebody coming into government. Do you trim your sails and go through those jobs in a defensive crouch, just to survive and come out clean on the other end, or do you risk getting machine-gunned?

And you went for the riskier approach in the last couple years.

I think what happened psychologically that I didn’t even appreciate at the time — what was happening to me with Benghazi was so infuriating that I was like, “Fine. I’m gonna do this Iran deal. I’m gonna do the Cuba opening.” And I actually think there was some self-destructive element to it obviously, that culminated in that New York Times article. But I think the unsatisfying advice I would give, because it sounds kind of cynical — is that, like President Obama, I did not do enough to create antibodies for myself in Washington. I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to Republican members of Congress or talking to foreign-policy experts or building relationships with people in the media, beyond the people I had to interact with for my job. In other words, when I did become a target, the pile-on was much bigger because people didn’t know me. Whereas I’ve seen when it happens to somebody who has done more to inoculate themselves.

That was a criticism leveled at Obama frequently. People said he didn’t have the relationships in Congress, but then there would be the fierce counterargument that it wouldn’t have mattered, no matter what he did. It sounds like you think it did matter, at least a little.

Not with Congress. I’m talking more about just the Washington organism. With the Republicans, it was a brick wall, and there was nothing he could’ve done. I describe the anecdote where the movie Lincoln come out, and Obama invited Republicans to come watch it — Abraham Lincoln was a Republican president and this is a movie about working with Congress — and not one of them showed up. One that’s not in the book is that we floated the idea of taking a bunch of members of Congress up to Camp David. Not interested. Mitch McConnell’s approach to this was absolute, and governed the whole way that the party interacted.

I do think that Obama was a true outsider, in the sense that not since Jimmy Carter had there been a president who came into that job with fewer relationships in Washington. Clinton had been courting the presidency for a long time. Bush, obviously, was the son of a president. But Obama basically had two years as a senator and then two years as a senator while running for president. That was the only time he’d really been in Washington. Put aside Republicans: the people who shape opinion in Washington didn’t know him, and they resented that he didn’t seek their advice. Bill Clinton would call people all night to ask their views. Obama was going to go have dinner with his kids and read.  

It really hurt him in Washington, because there was a sense that “he thinks he’s better than us.” And that really wasn’t it. It was just that that’s how he’s wired. He’s not somebody that wants to be burning the phone lines all night; he’s someone who wants to be thinking and reading and grounded with his family. I think that led to a situation where he was much more beloved by progressives outside of Washington than he was by even the more liberal elements there.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Black Cube, the Israeli spy operation that probably targeted you and Colin Kahl, at the behest of the Trump administration, over your support for the Iran deal.

I don’t know who did this. What I do know is that the most underappreciated constellation of forces in Trump’s Washington is this nexus of Saudis, Emiratis, Israelis, and Trump people. And it’s actually beginning to get more attention, but somewhere in that mess, I think, is the answer to how this Black Cube thing happened. The brazen manner in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were throwing around their influence when we were there always struck me. Just the money they spent on people, the money they spent on Washington, the heavy-handed nature of them pushing their anti-Iran fixation in the media. That has gone into complete hyperdrive under Trump, and it’s the most underappreciated story. These are people that have a lot of money to spread around, and they’re very accustomed to dealing with real-estate interests and have a very concerted agenda, and they’re getting their entire wish list. People like me were speed bumps in their effort to have open running room in Washington.

You wrote that the night Trump won — or maybe it was the morning after — Obama sent you a consoling message: “There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the Earth.” He has this famous equanimity about him. Do you have any sense of how he maintains that now?

Barack Obama is probably the most intellectually disciplined person I’ve ever met, in the sense that he basically takes the worldview of, “I can control what I can control and I can’t allow myself to be consumed by the things that are beyond my control.” And so, I think he left thinking that he had done what he thought was a good job as president. He can control how he gives advice to Democrats and the post-presidency foundation he builds and the issues he chooses to focus on, but he can’t control Trump.  And so he doesn’t let it into his head.

In a way, I think he’s also smart enough to realize that the moment he lets it in his head, Trump wins. Like, if he was sitting around feeling sorry for himself because Trump pulled out of the Iran deal or did whatever, that’s actually what Trump wants. And I do think that Obama’s optimism — or, optimistic message — always overlooks the fact that he was pretty clear-eyed about — you know, he’s an African-American. He knows that not every story has a happy ending. That there’s inherent unfairness in American society.

And how are you handling the Trump administration?

Not well. Not as well as him, certainly. I mean, there’s the election itself and then there’s the last year. The election itself — it’s funny, I describe it the next day, I was like, “Oh, it makes sense, Trump’s message.” And I could even see it at the time. I remember watching some of his rallies and thinking, “Wow, if he was a somewhat better politician, this would be really scary.”

That’s what I thought, too.

I actually said that to Obama. I remember watching one of the Mar-a-Lago Super Tuesday things and thinking, he’s so close to having an incredibly dangerous message. But I thought he was just enough of a joke that he wouldn’t get there. That was probably too high-minded of me. My experience with American politics was getting on this rocket ship of the Obama ‘08 campaign, where it seemed like it’d be impossible that America could go backward after that. And that was completely wrong, which was shocking. Over the last year, the strangest thing for me, personally, was how the Benghazi effect that I describe in the book, of becoming this villain, didn’t end. I had this unmasking scandal, when I actually never unmasked a single Trump campaign person or associate. But that didn’t matter, let’s just make it a scandal. Then the deep-state stuff, which assigned far too much agency to me. Then the Black Cube stuff.

More universally, the Iran deal was particularly painful because, once lost, it can’t be reclaimed. The Paris Climate Accord doesn’t really worry me that much because the next president will come back into it. Cuba was frustrating, but we broke the barrier. We have diplomatic relations. Inevitably, I don’t think we’re gonna have an embargo on Cuba in a few years, right? Iran is kind of binary. We worked on that for seven years and now it’s gone.

To me, the more troubling thing, the more painful thing, is an entire approach to governing is just being eviscerated. We spent eight years trying to be good stewards in terms of whether we were right or wrong, trying to do this set of jobs a certain way. You watch the G7 summit — that, to me, is the most difficult thing to watch, because those countries have no idea what the hell is going on. And they don’t care about the reality show. Here, there’s almost a humor to it, but my basic view is that there was going to be a natural reallocation of global influence over the next 50 years with countries like China, India …

Now, we’re speeding it up to five years.

It’s gonna happen in four years. That’s what I see happening. To me, that’s what’s most troubling, is that the cost of what Trump is doing is profound, but it’s not apparent day-to-day. So with the news cycle, it’s like, “Oh, he just shook Kim Jong-un’s hand.” No, in fact, what he just did is send a message that by trashing our allies, he’s further accelerating people turning to China and away from us. The consequences won’t become apparent right away.

How much of the foreign-policy damage do you think can be undone fairly quickly? Because it seems like there’s some corollary to the Bush years. We have these poll numbers about how Canadians think America is no longer trustworthy, but I think that’s mostly just tied to who’s president.

From a policy perspective, nothing as destructive as the Iraq war has happened. And from a global perspective, nothing as destructive as the financial crisis has happened. However …

It’s early.

What I’ve heard from a number of foreign governments since Trump came to office, including pretty senior people is that, you don’t understand. It’s not just that Trump’s president, it’s that your country elected Trump. And essentially that’s why Trump’s presidency, I think, is more destructive than any one event that will take place under Trump. I think for a lot of Americans, we like to separate ourselves from Trump and say, “This is an aberration.” I think the rest of the world is thinking, “How did this person get elected?” Just him losing the election in 2020 won’t fully correct that something that is broken. America was a country where that wasn’t supposed to happen. To have basically an authoritarian demagogue get elected president.

So I don’t think it’s fully recoverable. The policies are recoverable, right? We can care about climate change again. We can work with our allies again. We can advocate for human rights again, and you can go down the list. But the second troubling thing I’ve heard is that, like, Trump is totally recognizable because yeah, we’ve all had a corrupt leader — and I’ve heard this in Southeast Asia and Latin America — the rich liar with the son-in-law is usually who runs the country.

The archetype.

But that makes America just like everybody else. And that’s what China’s argument is, right? I think the biggest shift is going to be be toward America just being another big, powerful country. Maybe even the most powerful country — but something will have been lost. I also think that four years is survivable, and eight years is not, in that the change that you can make take root in eight years is exponentially greater than four. So I think it’s hard to overstate the importance of the next midterm and presidential-election cycles to how the story ends.

To play devil’s advocate a bit, it’s not like we’ve been saintly before this. We’ve backed regimes in so many of these countries that damaged them terribly. This stuff is often glossed over in our vision of American exceptionalism.

Countries price in American foreign-policy failures. What’s different is that this is about something that happened here. So, let’s say you’re a treaty ally of the United States. Let’s say you’re South Korea or Japan. Your bet is not on America to get everything right in its foreign policy, it’s that America is a safe bet. We’ve got our shit together. We can be counted on. I had a very strange experience — I was in Japan meeting with some people last year and it was at the height of the “fire and fury” nuclear-threat stuff. And these were kind of business-leader types and I thought that all they’d want to talk about was North Korea. All they wanted to talk about was Charlottesville.

That’s fascinating.

And what I realized is that that was more important to their calculation because that was like — they’re thinking, we’ve counted on these people for decades to be our protector. These guys may not get everything right, but we don’t have to worry about them. But suddenly they see Charlottesville and it’s, “Wait a second.” Is there something going on here that we need to factor into our assessment of whether we need nuclear weapons, whether it’s worth having all these American military bases here? Like, is this country not what we thought it was? I don’t think they’re at a tipping point yet; Charlottesville is still pretty extreme. And again, America has never been perfect — Jim Crow is worse than anything Trump has done.

But the people in charge have always been — even if they were sometimes racist — they were serious people. To have someone who is so fundamentally unserious running the most powerful institution in the world, the U.S. government — that I think is what’s new about Trump.

A Decade at Obama’s Side: An Interview With Ben Rhodes