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The Colossus and Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes (L) Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I was fascinated to read the now-infamous New York Times Magazinepiece by David Samuels about Ben Rhodes and the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, with special emphasis on the selling of the Iran deal. If you haven’t read it already, you really ought to. It’s as elegantly brutal, nasty and underhanded as you’ve heard – and, precisely for that reason, a superb piece of writing.

Because the Times is getting bludgeoned for not disclosing Samuels’s public opposition to the nuclear deal, nor his longstanding feud with Jeffrey Goldberg, either or both of which might have been relevant to understanding where the piece was coming from, I should begin with a disclosure of my own: David Samuels is a friend, someone I know socially apart from the journalistic world. So I may have brought a somewhat different perspective to the piece than did those who didn’t know Samuels at all, or who knew him solely from his published work.

The first thing that struck me about the piece is that Rhodes and Samuels have an awful lot in common. They are both New Yorkers, both Jewish (half-Jewish in Rhodes’s case), and – crucially – both people who think of themselves as serious writers. Rhodes abandoned plans to become a novelist after 9-11, shifting his focus to international affairs, and gets praised repeatedly by previous bosses for being able to observe and express the narrative of a policy argument; Samuels, meanwhile, is a journalist who is widely praised for his novelistic approach to detail and the acuity and depth of his profiles, and who writes at least as much about cultural phenomena as about international affairs. It is not hard to imagine an alternate universe in which David Samuels got a job working for the CIA after 9-11, or where Ben Rhodes became a notable member of the anti-Iraq-War press (though he’d probably be more like Spencer Ackerman than like Samuels).

Most important, although Samuels plainly wrote the piece in part to eviscerate the narrative of the Iran nuclear deal’s success, Samuels and Rhodes have more compatible worldviews than might first appear. Specifically, they share a contempt for the foreign policy establishment, a group Rhodes refers to as “The Blob.” Samuels opposed the Iraq War in part because he had no faith in the neoconservative plan to remake the Middle East, and in part because he was capable of thinking a couple of moves ahead on the chess board – for example, to wonder what would happen when we removed Iran’s strongest regional competitor. It cannot have failed to make an impression on Samuels that virtually the entire foreign policy establishment was relatively easily swayed to go along with that foolish project. So when he artfully skewers Rhodes with his own words about manipulating the press to push a narrative, it’s Samuels, even more than Rhodes, who shows deep contempt for his journalistic colleagues, and Iraq is in the background of why.

Samuels prizes giving reality a cold, hard look, and then accepting what you see. He prizes that in himself, and in others. This isn’t a partisan thing; he was as scathing about what he saw as Condoleezza Rice’s illusions as he is about what he sees as Obama’s. When Rhodes – or his boss – seem like they are doing serious realpolitik, he has respect for that. When, at the end of the piece, he baits Rhodes about Henry Kissinger, it’s not because he wants Rhodes to recoil from what he is doing, or what he has become. It’s because he wants him to face the responsibilities of power.

That’s what Samuels is not convinced the Obama team were doing when they made a deal with Iran. On the surface, the piece is about how they sold the deal with deceptive happy talk about reform and change in Iran and so forth – a claim that, frankly, isn’t especially damning and whose most damning particulars have been widely debunked. (Fred Kaplan links to many of the best debunking and makes his own contributions to boot.) But underneath the surface, it’s about whether the Obama Administration ever truly reckoned with the potential consequences of an American withdrawal from the Middle East, or whether they allowed themselves to escape that reckoning by saying, in effect, that whatever happens isn’t their fault because the place was irretrievably wrecked by their predecessors.

I want to bracket the question of whether Samuels is right about those consequences, as well as about whether the Obama Administration is really facilitating such a withdrawal (Yemen, anyone?), because that would require a lot more space and would take us off on a considerable tangent. But I think his perspective is something like this. American hegemony, the belief that America is willing to spend considerable blood and treasure to prevent any meaningful changes in the balance of power in the Middle East (and Iran going nuclear would certainly be a meaningful change), is all that has prevented an all-out struggle for supremacy between Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As soon as that commitment comes into question, all bets are off. Iran might go nuclear – or Saudi Arabia might out of fear of Iran. Turkey might make a bid to replace Saudi Arabia as the dominant Sunni power – or Egypt might. Then there’s the risk of an Islamist takeover of any number of regimes in the region, as an American withdrawal prompts a shift in focus to the near enemy, or a turn toward Islamism by one or more regimes in an effort to forestall that outcome. Syria’s Civil War is the Spanish Civil War of the Middle East, the proxy war between the region’s powers that prefigures a much more devastating conflict to come. And we don’t seem to have any idea what we even want to do about it.

One ready response to make to that picture is: yes, but what can we do about it. That’s pretty much exactly what Ben Rhodes says to him. And Samuels’s main retort to this response is: dude, I don’t work for the National Security Council. You do. Own the job. There’s nobody out there to pass the buck to.

That’s what the piece is about.

One last point. There’s been a lot of chatter about how foolish Ben Rhodes was to walk into Samuels’s trap, and how bad he made his boss look. But his boss is on his way out. The person who has something on the line isn’t Obama – it’s Hillary Clinton. It comes as no surprise that her people – like Leon Panetta – proved more than eager to talk to Samuels, more than eager to backpedal on previous support for Obama’s Iran strategy, and barely willing to defend the President by blaming his aides for keeping information from him. By the same token, it’s not terribly surprising to hear Rhodes classify Hillary Clinton as part of “the Blob” that he blames for the catastrophic state of the Middle East.

But we should be surprised. It’s kind of amazing that the President is prepared to let his own former Secretary of State hang out to dry, letting her take the fall for the Libyan debacle and generally impugning her performance in her most significant previous office. Yes, he’s right in a sense, inasmuch as Clinton was the prime proponent of going to war in Libya, not to mention the fiercest advocate of using force to topple President Assad in Syria. But on a purely political level, Obama is clearly trying to protect his own legacy at the expense of his potential successor. And it’s even more amazing that Clinton is this willing to disparage a sitting President of her own party who is far more popular than she is, and in the service of a foreign policy agenda that is not only deeply unpopular but which has no demonstrated record of success, and is implicated with her own worst failures in office.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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