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The Angst of a Post-9/11 Liberal

Ben Rhodes’s chastened account of American power would be wiser if it were less partisan.

After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, by Ben Rhodes, (Random House: 2021), 384 pages.

Ben Rhodes’s extraordinarily readable new book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, tries to do many—perhaps too many—things. It combines travelogue, memoir, historical reflection, political analysis, and lamentation. Never less than interesting, it is filled with thoughtful and provocative judgments. It is also beset with crippling partisanship.

Rhodes writes in a fluid style that he perfected during the eight years when he served as President Barack Obama’s amanuensis and alter ego on all things related to America’s role in the world. As the book makes clear, Rhodes has maintained a close relationship with his former boss since, so much so that After the Fall almost reads like a postscript to Obama’s own, yet to be completed account of his presidency. 

An urgent question provides the connecting thread to this wide-ranging narrative: How did things go so wrong so quickly? The passing of the Cold War left the United States in a position of global preeminence, with no apparent alternative to American-style liberal democratic capitalism. This was “freedom’s high-water mark,” Rhodes writes. In elite quarters, a “sense that there was an inevitability to world events” prevailed. History had reached its predetermined outcome. 

Yet a mere three decades later, a nationalist-infused authoritarianism is on the march in many parts of the world, Rhodes attending in particular to troubling developments in Hungary, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, democracies flounder, not least in the United States with the American people bitterly divided and uncertain. Global primacy is seemingly up for grabs.

To appreciate the source of the problem, Rhodes would have readers look no further than the central themes of post–Cold War U.S. policy. Prior to 9/11, globalization married to neoliberalism resulted in the manipulation of markets to serve the interests of the rich. After 9/11, surveillance to protect the prerogatives of the powerful was added to the mix, the two together paving the way for an “emerging model of capitalism blended with techno-totalitarianism.” At home, “our own collective embrace of a blend of capitalism, militarism, and technology” combined to breed the “identity-based polarization” that vaulted Donald Trump to power and persists as his legacy. 

All of this Rhodes, an unabashed progressive, rather too conveniently lays at the feet of a “rabid” GOP and the “fascistic lunatic” whom Americans elected as their 45th president in 2016. If, as Rhodes contends, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an action “so stupid and self-defeating that it called into question why Americans were the stewards of world order in the first place”—a judgment that I heartily endorse—it’s worth noting that the Democratic presidential candidates of 2004 and 2016, not to mention the current occupant of the Oval Office, all voted in favor of that war. The myriad follies to which the so-called Global War on Terrorism gave rise were thoroughly bipartisan. Some of those follies—the Libyan intervention of 2011, for example—have Barack Obama’s own fingerprints all over them.

Partisan explanations for the serial disappointments and catastrophes that have afflicted the United States in recent decades won’t get us very far. At some level, Rhodes gets this. “There is no predetermined reason,” he writes, for an approach to capitalism that fuels “rampant inequality and climate change,” for maintaining a national security apparatus “that wages an endless and self-corrupting war against the unconquerable fact of terrorism,” or for technological platforms governed by “algorithms that reinforce our darker and more destructive aspects.” In other words, choices exist. Of late, we have made some lousy ones.

I find myself agreeing with that summary of our present-day predicament. I just don’t agree that Republicans are any more to blame than Democrats or conservatives any more than progressives for the abundance of bad choices Americans have made in the recent past. There is more than enough blame to go around. 

Rhodes identifies himself as part of a “9/11 generation” that rallied to the nation in direct response to the events of September 11, 2001. Some members of his cohort went down to their local army recruiter to enlist. Others, Rhodes among them, sought a place within the inner circles of power in Washington. Both camps got more than they expected—and also less. 

Rhodes came away with some lessons that genuine conservatives are likely to endorse. “Power corrupts, and when America reached its post-Cold War heights, we were unmoored from our innate resistance to unchecked power,” he writes. “It was too easy to acquire as much wealth as possible, concentrated in the hands of a few winners, without regard to the anger that that could engender… It was too easy to launch invasions of other countries.”

After the Cold War, according to Rhodes, “we never did settle on a new national purpose.” His entire book stands as a refutation of that statement. For a brief period, the exercise of hegemony—shortsighted, reckless, and doomed—defined our national purpose. Forgoing any effort to reconstruct some semblance of hegemony is a precondition to repairing our nation. 

“America is no longer a hegemon,” Rhodes concludes. “There is opportunity in that.” Opportunity, but also risks. The moment requires a quality rarely found in Washington in our own day: wisdom. 

Rhodes knows just where to look for guidance. Following 9/11, he writes, “we made the mistake of going abroad to look for new demons to confront.” John Quincy Adams himself couldn’t have said it better.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.