NEW YORK – Poor Ben Rhodes. U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy message guru inhabits a world filled with group-thinkers and militarists. If only he could reason with them. But the establishment doesn’t care for reason. So Rhodes must create an echo chamber, spinning stories to the press and shading the truth to prevent our nation’s next disaster.
This is the upshot of a revealing profile in The New York Times Magazine of Rhodes by David Samuels. The Washington foreign policy establishment is broken, so virtuous men like Rhodes must short-circuit the discourse to overcome it.
Rhodes came to this conclusion early in his career. When he was a staff writer on the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group in 2007, Samuels reports, Rhodes concluded most foreign policy decision-makers were “morons.” Jon Favreau, another speechwriter who worked closely with him in Obama’s 2008 campaign and first term, explained to Samuels that Rhodes doesn’t really care what the establishment thinks of him. Rhodes “won’t care if he’s never again invited to a cocktail party, or asked to appear on ‘Morning Joe,’ or inducted into the Council on Foreign Relations hall of fame or whatever the hell they do there,” Favreau said.
This is instructive for understanding Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the nuclear deal with Iran. Rhodes was the architect of selling that deal to Congress and the public. He tells Samuels that the White House “created an echo chamber.” He had arms control wonks, presented in the press as independent experts, “saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
On the one hand, Rhodes takes some pride in his work. “We drove them crazy,” he says of the deal’s critics. On the other hand, he says, “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate,” after which members of Congress would reflect and take a vote. “But that’s impossible,” he concludes.
Rhodes calls the foreign policy establishment “the Blob.” He doesn’t like this Blob. The Blob supported the Iraq War in 2003, supported sanctions on Iran and opposes accommodation with our adversaries. It’s a familiar pose to anyone who read progressive blogs in the 2000s. Bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias (now an editor at Vox) delighted in mocking how “serious” foreign policy always seemed to mean supporting war.
In that free-wheeling era, this pose went unchallenged. But when applied to the Obama White House in 2016, it is piffle. The idea that Rhodes is somehow independent of, or in opposition to, the foreign policy establishment is delusion. He embodies that establishment, particularly when it comes to the Iran deal.
Let’s start with our Holden Caufield character. When Rhodes decided to give up fiction writing and take up foreign policy, he landed his first job at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He got a job with Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Hamilton brought Rhodes onto the Iraq Study Group, whose co-chairman was George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state and campaign manager, James Baker.
In future dictionaries, the entry for “foreign policy establishment” should include an illustration of Baker and Hamilton enjoying martinis at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The Iraq Study Group was not an independent challenge to the foreign policy establishment. That gets it backward. Rather, it was the establishment’s reaction to the Iraq War.
After 9/11, George W. Bush and several of his advisers realized that the establishment’s vision of stability — of a Middle East managed by dictatorships — had led to massive instability and the rise of al-Qaida. Yet the study group recommended a U.S. withdrawal and cooperation with Iraq’s neighbors — who were supporting various terrorists and ethnic cleansers in Iraq at the time — to try to reach the peace.
If that approach sounds familiar, it should. This is pretty much what Obama is trying today in Syria. It is also the impulse that led to Obama’s bargain with Iran. Rhodes has portrayed the Iran deal as a great accomplishment over the Blob, which was incapable of evaluating it on its merits.
But again, he has this backward. Every president since Ronald Reagan has reached out to Iran in search of moderates. Even George W. Bush reluctantly authorized emissaries to explore negotiations with the Tehran regime, before and during the Iraq War.
Specifically, the idea of a reset in relations with Iran after Sept. 11 was the brainchild of something known as the Iran Project. As Peter Waldman of Bloomberg News reported in July, the Iran Project was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers foundation. Its participants included: Jessica Mathews, the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace; Tom Pickering, a vice president of Boeing and former undersecretary of state for political affairs; and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books. Does Rhodes think these people are not part of his establishment Blob?
And this gets to a very basic error that has become a feature of the Rhodes-Obama mind-meld on foreign policy. What they oppose is not the foreign policy establishment, but often the Americans who lobby Congress for policies that displease that establishment. First and foremost on this list is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
“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,’ ” Rhodes told Samuels. “It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation. So all these threads that the president’s been spinning — and I mean that not in the press sense — for almost a decade, they kind of all converged around Iran.”
Whatever one wants to say about AIPAC, or the anti-Cuba lobby or dozens of similar groups, they all advance their policies through the democratic process, by petitioning Congress. The same cannot be said about the foreign policy establishment, which is an expert class that derives most of its power from the presidents who seek its members’ advice.
If Rhodes and Obama really want to challenge the foreign policy establishment, I suggest they dig up the second inaugural address from George W. Bush. In 2005, he boldly proclaimed that it would no longer be U.S. policy to support dictatorships for the sake of stability, that his administration would support democratic movements all over the world. Bush never implemented that bold vision — in part because the foreign policy establishment had turned on him over his Iraq War. Mandarins such as Baker and Hamilton, with the help of a young Ben Rhodes, did their best to leave Iraq to the mercies of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Bush declined their advice at the time and surged troops. It would take the election of Barack Obama to put in place the establishment’s vision for the Middle East. We are now living with those consequences.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.
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